Reflections on Spirituality

Homily for 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, C Cycle, February 18, 2007

1Samuel 26:7-23; Psalm 103; 1Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38


"Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I've found, was blind, but now I see."

The story of John Newton

Do you know who wrote that song? Do you know the story of why he wrote it?

John Newton was the British captain of a slave ship which captured, transported and sold black men, women and children from West Africa to plantations in the West Indies and America.

During a storm in 1748, when he thought he was going to die, he began reading the "Imitation of Christ" by Thomas á Kempis, and prayed to survive the storm. The message of the Gospel he heard through his reading and his experience of surviving the storm at sea began his conversion. He accepted Christ as his personal savior, but continued in his work as captain of a slave ship. He thought he could be a Christian slave trader. He improved conditions for the people he was selling as slaves, and began to hold services for his crew on Sunday.The hardened sailors laughed at him.

It took him quite a while, but finally it dawned on him that he could not continue to be a part of the legal injustice of treating human beings as possessions to be bought and sold. 

The insight of today's Gospel passage from Luke finally got past his fear of losing his livelihood and got him beyond the unconscious assumptions of his culture (that you could be a follower of Christ while engaging in the slave trade). He heard the message that the whole human race was one family, because God was creator and father of all and had sent Jesus to be savior of the people of England and Africa, of America and Asia.

His personal conversion led to social and political change. He left his career as a ship's captain, began to speak and sing the truth that we are all given the grace of freedom and mercy by a God who loves the whole human race.

He was ordained as an Anglican pastor and served in Olney, a little village near Cambridge in England.  He wrote over 280 hymns; the most famous one was "Amazing Grace", the story of his conversion. 

He was a mentor for William Wilberforce, the British legislator who introduced a motion to end the slave trade in Great Britain in 1788.  It was defeated 10 times, before it passed in 1807, 200 years ago, in the same year that John Newton died.

Our "Amazing Grace"

Their lives, actions and words proclaim the same truth we hear in today's readings:

We are offered the same amazing grace John Newton and William Wilberforce received, and, like them we are challenged to pass it on, both in our personal lives and in our common lives as members of a parish, a village, a city, a state and a nation. And it is just as much of a challenge for us in the 21st century as it was in the 18th and 19th. As my friend Richard Rohr likes to say, we (still) live in a culture that uses people and loves things, and we are called by Christ to love people and use things. 

Slavery in today's world?

But slavery has been abolished and outlawed, hasn't it?  Yes, the work of the abolitionists in England and the US was a good beginning, and slavery as it existed in the time of John Newton and Abraham Lincoln is no longer a "legal injustice."  Yet there are still slaves – some estimate that about 27 million slaves exist in our world today, 80% of them are female, and 50% are children.  There have been 91 slave trade cases in the US in recent years.

I read an article by David Batstone yesterday from Sojourners that woke me up, the way the storm woke John Newton up. In it he wrote, "Many people bristle to hear the word slave used to describe the modern practice of exploitation. Indeed, more slaves are in bondage today than were bartered in four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Nowhere has its impact been felt more brutally than on children in the underdeveloped nations.  Children remain in servitude for long stretches of time because no one identifies their enslavement." (from his new book, "Not For Sale: the Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It") 

The Scriptures today not only tell us that we are called to be instruments of the compassion and mercy of Christ, they show us how we are called to do good and oppose evil. We are not just called to do good and avoid evil, we are called to actively oppose evil.  How can that be reconciled with the command Jesus gives so clearly today, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you?"

It makes sense if you remember that we are called to love our enemies, not to imitate them.  Jesus gives two examples of how to love our enemies by confronting them with their wrongdoing. In today's Gospel passage we read: "To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic."

Understanding the real meaning

Those words have been often misunderstood as a command to be passive and unresisting in the face of injustice.

But, if you understand the culture and laws of Jesus's time you get a much different picture. In his time it was legal for a Roman soldier to hit you with the back of his hand.  But if you turned the other cheek, he would be forced to break the law by hitting you with his open hand (on the left cheek). This would not only reveal the injustice of the law that allowed you to be slapped in the first place —like "the rule of thumb" which once allowed you to beat your wife only with a stick as thick as your thumb— it would shame the person who was hitting you, and perhaps even force him to look at his behavior.

It was the same with giving your tunic as well as your coat. It was legal in that time for a Roman —as a member of the occupying nation— to take your outer garment (cloak). But Jesus is suggesting that you shame the person by giving your tunic, the clothing you wore next to your skin, your underwear, which would leave you naked. That would make it very obvious that even the first action was unjust. The Roman would probably run from the scene and leave even the cloak behind. 

Mother Teresa taught the same truth. When she was asked if she would participate in a demonstration against war, she said, "No, but I would be a part of a demonstration for peace." She was, of course, against war, but would not respond to war with any sort of violence, even in language.

It was this kind of non-violent resistance that won India for Ghandhi, when he simply went to the ocean to make salt. This was forbidden by the British government so that people would be forced to buy something which they needed to survive from the government (at a high price). That was how he turned the other cheek, and it was much more effective than weapons.

Getting real - Making a commitment

Lent begins on Wednesday. It is a good time to get real about how I can live the Gospel more honestly and lovingly. I plan to do three things this Lent, to be a part of the solution to the problem of human trafficking in the world and in New York State.

Father Peter made a committment and it was heard. Then, in May, the New York State legislature made a committment.

For Father Peter's story and information about the human-trafficking law, see "A story of collaboration for the cause of justice"
  1. First, I am going to watch the movie, "Amazing Grace: the Story of William Wilberforce" in a theater, rather than wait for the DVD. It comes out in the Albany area this Friday, Feb. 23. 
  2. Second, I am going to buy and read the book "Not For Sale", by David Batstone, so I can become more aware of the need to pray and work for freedom and justice for all, especially women and children.
  3. Finally, although 27 states have passed a law making human trafficking a crime, New York is not one of them, I am going to pray that New York State soon passes a law to make this modern expression of slavery a felony, and makes it more easily prosecuted.

We have received the amazing grace of love, and mercy, freedom and vision.  We have been blessed with the compassion and the love of God through the Word we have heard, and the very life of Christ we receive in this Eucharist.

Let us not only sing, but let us live the song which described John Newton's new life. I invite you to sing it again, but instead of "a wretch like me" Let us sing "and set me free."


Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved and set me free
I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see.