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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The mystery of sin (3) - A way out of hell

Amazing Grace and Penny Lane

Like many of you, I program the song "Amazing Grace" a few times a year, notably on Ash Wednesday and the 4th Sunday of Lent when we have catechumens and use the Year A readings. We've all probably heard the homogenized tale of its origins, too, in homilies during Lent. As you might suspect, there's more to the story, and reflecting on that story has brought me to a place of reflection on that lingering pain in my life and in that of the whole church caused by the abuse crisis. But this all started for me with a very different song. A few years ago, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times about a proposal to rename Penny Lane in Liverpool, the little street which is the subject of the famous Beatles song, because of who the "Penny" in "Penny Lane" was. Read for yourself...

From the Los Angeles Times story by Swati Pandey, July 16, 2006 Op-Ed:

"James Penny was a Liverpool-based slave-ship captain, slave trader and an outspoken anti-abolitionist. In the second half of the 18th century, when Liverpool was a port of call for slave ships traveling from Africa to the Americas and the city's economy was heavily reliant on the slave trade, Penny was one of seven powerful slave traders who had streets in the city named after them.

Earlier this month, the Liverpool City Council considered a proposal under which streets named after slave traders would be renamed after figures such as British abolitionists William 
Roscoe and William Wilberforce.

But when the council realized that Penny Lane was among the streets that would have to be renamed, it hesitated. Penny Lane is one of the most significant tourist sites in Liverpool; thousands of people come each year to visit the street made famous in the 1967 Beatles song. In the end, the council decided to leave the name unchanged...
Not surprisingly, there are a couple of streets in Liverpool named "Newton" as well. Now, hold all that inside, as you read some of the story of "Amazing Grace," the famous American spiritual song, penned by former slave trader John Newton. The main lines of what we think we know are there; but according to, there's more to the story, and I doubt you'll hear it in a Sunday sermon.

"John Newton (1725-1807) first worked as a slave buyer in Africa and later moved on to a position of captain on slave ships. He continued to make his living in the slave trade after becoming a Christian at the age of 23 in 1748. A violent storm at sea brought about his commitment to Christianity, but it was escaping with his own life that inspired him to get religion, not guilt over enslaving others. (Though this event is often pointed to as "the" conversion, it really was only the first of many such pacts with the Almighty struck by Newton, each one brought about by his close shaves with death.)

Newton quit the sea (and the slave trade) in 1754 or 1755. He did not free any of his merchandise on that 1748 trip, or on any others. Though he might have become a Christian, he did not yet allow it to interfere with his making a living.
In 1754 or 1755, he became a Tides Surveyor in Liverpool (a form of Customs Officer charged with searching for contraband and paid with half the swag taken from others). It was at this point Newton first began to express an interest in the ministry, but at the time was unable to decide between the Methodist and Anglican faiths. He was ultimately ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1764.

Newton most likely composed 'Amazing Grace' in 1772, although there is no clear agreement on the date. According to one biographer, the hymn was penned along with a great many others during an informal hymn-writing competition he was having with William Cowper, another noted hymn writer. If so, that casts doubt upon this particular composition's being solely a cathartic outpouring of wonder over the Lord's mercy...
Newton began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade only in 1780, thirty-two years after his conversion, and eight years after he wrote 'Amazing Grace.' In 1785 he began to fight against slavery by speaking out against it, and he continued to do so until his death in 1807.

Thus, the bare bones of the story are true: A former slave trader did compose one of the most moving hymns of our times. But the meat of the claim — that a horrific event spurred a sinner to immediately repent his evil ways, penning 'Amazing Grace' as an expression of his repentance — fails on the facts. Newton's storm-driven adoption to Christianity didn't change him all that much; he continued to make his living from the slave trade for many years afterwards and only left the trade when his wife insisted upon their living a settled life in England. (Indeed, less than a year after his storm-driven conversion, Newton was back in Africa, brokering the purchase of newly-captured blacks and taking yet another "African wife" while there. He was hardly the poster boy for the truly penitent, at least at that point in his life.)"
It's not like I have any conclusive thing to say about this stuff, but I do think it raises some questions. What do you think about it?

1) When is it OK to "forget" as a society, as well as forgive? Be careful how you answer. Does the answer have to do with the length of time since the offense? Is it possible to forgive the slave traders Penny and Newton because nearly three centuries have elapsed? Does their ignorance, and the evil that they did, no longer matter? Does the answer have to do with the change of perception about their work or their milieu, that, for instance, Penny Lane is no longer known to be named after a James Penny, but is the name of a Beatles song? Or that "Amazing Grace" has given solace and articulated the spiritual journeys of so many that its composition by someone who oversaw the kidnapping, enslavement, and death of hundreds of innocent Africans doesn't matter? Does the greater good of the community's economy today outweigh the evil of the past?

2) Does the good that someone does later in life, or even mixed in with the evil that they do, their betrayals, seductions, manipulation, or outright harm of others ever atone for that evil? Is there any way out of hell, as we heard the in the movie Gandhi, quoted here from the IMDb website:

Nahari: I'm going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.

Gandhi: Why?

Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!

[indicates boy's height]

Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father and killed and raise him as your own.

[indicates same height]

Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

I'm not talking about St. Augustine here, the roué and libertine of youth who became a great bishop and spiritual leader after a midlife conversion experience. Augustine's experience helps define the experience of millions. Most of us find meaning and grounding in life after a longer or short period of experimentation. We do some damage along the way. I'm talking about a different kind of evil; evil on a grander scale, cooperation with social sin for profit, murder, war, slavery--Really Bad Stuff.

Like child abuse by priests, and protection of those priests by bishops.

A way out of hell?

I hope the general outline of my question is clear. James Penny and Newton, while their respective eponymous street and hymn text endure, are perched on the edge of oblivion. No one who sings "Amazing Grace" thinks of the lives lost aboard the slavers, thinks of families torn asunder, men lashed to death, children dying of typhoid and scurvy, women raped and brutalized by men like its author, when they sing the strains of that song. Great singers and pious worshippers, descendants of those very slaves, have sung the song for ten generations, and I'm not aware of any movement to strike it from hymnal, even in churches with primarily black members. Somehow, a catchy little ditty about a street with a barber, a banker, and pretty nurse selling flowers has managed to save the name of another slave captain from oblivion and infamy.

But I'm not primarily concerned, as you might imagine, about what happened three hundred years ago, as terrible as it is, because today has enough horror and recrimination, the unsalvaged flotsam of life, of its own. The church today is nearly paralyzed by the shame of scandals of abuse of trust and power. Even its structures of good and sense of identity and mission have had the breath knocked out of them. We have been perpetrators of real evil, creating a system that with both willful naiveté and brutal, arrogant administrative sleight-of-hand, wrought real terror, pain, and destruction in the lives of many thousands of victims. Is it up to time, now, to carry this shame into oblivion? Will anyone be able to resurrect the collective centuries of good ministry done by many of these same people, or is that, like the hypothetical conversion mentioned above, for the deity to decide? Are we not authorized to come to that place of forgiveness? Is it not for us, but for the victims to do?

Do I think that God forgave Newton? I'm sure of it. God's forgiveness isn't in question. It's the unevenness of human "justice," the selective memory and selective oblivion, that unsettles me. Yet, it seems to be our task to sort these sort of things out, so that more lives aren't wasted. One thing seems certain: like Gandhi, we need to remember and face our actions and their repercussions. We can't pretend that we're not in hell. Facing the reality of our bad decisions, murderous foreign policy, greedy devastation of the planet, and economic enslavement of the third world, and yes, our ecclesial betrayal of the command to love tenderly and rule by service, we need to craft a path of atonement that is humble, non-violent, without scapegoats, not vindictive, and therapeutic for both the victim and the offender. One has to be encouraged by the work of people like Desmond Tutu and the Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. There may be parallel processes there that ought to be explored. And I just need to say that "private reconciliation" mediated by the clergy is not the solution.

Do I know what the solutions are, or what the process is? Not at all. I suspect that our tradition, which is also the tradition of Bishop Tutu, has some tools that could help us, including public confession of sin that includes everyone, so there's a sense of our common sinfulness before God. Also public penance and restitution, because when the breach with the community is public, the reparation needs to be public, but still in the context of the truth that only God is holy, and all of us are sinful and in need of healing. And note to atheists: you're going to need something like this too, so start thinking about it.

One thing is certain: the need for a new strategy of grace is out there. Someone among us has an idea, or there is no Holy Spirit. The first step in identifying a solution to our problem is naming it, and "calling out" the one(s) who can lead the way to reconciliation. That's what an ekklesia, a church, is supposed to be and do.

(Other posts on Lent 3/4/5 Year A and the scrutinies here.)


  1. Rory - I really appreciate these messages during Lent. Thank you for sharing. You inspire both my thinking and my singing.

    1. Thank you for reading, and for that affirmation.

  2. I love this take on Amazing Grace by the Blind Boys of Alabama: