Sunday, January 31, 2010

A few thoughts on Wilberforce

My class this week was probably the most intense for me to prepare so far out of all of my classes. That was because the story was so convicting and so emotional. I cried more in preparation for this class than I have in preparation for any other, and probably prayed more.
A large part of that was because the question that kept going through my mind was "My gosh, what am I doing with my life?"

Laurie and I watched the wonderful bio pic that came out a few years ago about William Wilberforce called Amazing Grace. It plays a little fast and loose with dramatic license (coming up with a lot of scenes of things that are the sort of thing Wilberforce might have done if, for example, passing a man whipping a horse. Which surprised me as there are so may actual recorded historical stories of things Wilberforce did which reveal the abundance of his heart. Not sure why they felt the need to fictionalize a few bits, but I guess that's why I don't make movies) but it is an excellent movie. The scenes with John Newton alone are worth it, but the whole film, I thought, was very well done.

Of course, there's Wilberforce, played by a dashing and handsome actor (which always strikes me about bio pics. I guess no one would want to watch 2 hours of, say, a Martin Luther bio pic with an actor who actually looks like Martin Luther.) Even in history books, even in the most secular of history books, Wilberforce is a heroic figure. But then, there was a character in the film, played by Toby Jones, who was meant to be the encapsulation of the disgusting aristocracy, the selfish, greedy, amoral, pro-slavery scumbag (which he played remarkably well.) I just kept looking in my mirror at myself and seeing that wretched man. I mean, here I am, aside from the elderly lady who attends our church and lives mainly on government assistance, otherwise probably the poorest person I know monetarily. And I have a three bedroom house, two running cars, always a choice and surplus of food, electricity that I take for granted, water that I can drink right out of the tap without dying, the world library of literature, film, and music nearly literally at my fingertips for the asking. There are times when I look at every commodity, every product in sight and think that somewhere there are people scraping by with low pay producing these products and people getting rich off of their labor. There may be people suffering and dying, that I'm not even aware of, for my Lord Fauntleroy lifestyle, who don't even know I exist; and it makes no difference that I marched against the wars and want to alleviate their suffering. I mean, a simple act like making coffee in the morning may have paid for the oppression of hundreds.

People around me don't like it when I talk like this. But this is why I included the bit about the criticism over not caring about British "wage slaves" in my class. I know that must have cut Wilberforce deeply as it did me.

Dialing it back a few steps, I mentioned at the beginning of my notes "things it did not mean" and never really got around to elaborating on that. One of the side notes that struck me in preparing this class was that the Governor of India was in the Clapham Community in the early 1800s. Many of you will remember I've just recently read a book (Recalcitrance by Anurag Kumar. Highly recommended) about a revolt in India against the British in the 1850s, just about 25 years after Wilberforce died. During the revolt, there was horribly racist propaganda in England over the revolutionaries in India to keep the British public from sympathizing with the people of India. And it worked! India did not gain Independence for almost another century. So, I know that Wilberforce's story is not that he brought in an age of enlightened race relations vis a vis the rest of the world. This is not to diminish what he did accomplish, but in retrospect the contrast I find a little startling. Laurie and I recently watched Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and that one line keeps sticking with me also where the director says to Spalding, "I hope that working on this film has taught you that morality is not a movable feast." And Spalding says that he gets dizzy just watching how often people move it.

The lessons of Wilberforce are not left behind in the 19th century. I guess this whole experience has caused me to take a look at who I am, what I'm doing with my life, and maybe questioning if it's what I ought to be doing with my life.

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