This Sunday in the United States and parts of Canada – and on March 25 in the United Kingdom – thousands of churches will include the popular hymn "Amazing Grace" in their worship services, along with prayers devoted to ending slavery around the world.
John Newton, the author of the hymn, would be pleased that it has become a rallying cry against enslavement. A slave trader himself, Newton was commanding a ship headed home when a violent storm arose. Afraid for his life, Newton cried out to God to save him. He and his crew survived, and Newton experienced a change of heart that eventually led him to forsake the slave trade and become a pastor.
Once he became an opponent of slavery, Newton supported abolitionist William Wilberforce, who, in 1807, after decades of effort, persuaded Parliament to end the British slave trade. The Amazing Grace Sundays this month and next celebrate the 200th anniversary of this accomplishment.
Though slavery is now universally illegal, it continues, often under the euphemism "bonded labor" and often involving children. Recent counts number 27 million enslaved people, more than during the heyday of the transatlantic slave trade.
But Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, says modern-day abolitionists have several factors working in their favor. He notes: "We don't have to win the legal battle; there's a law against it in every country. We don't have to win the economic argument; no economy is dependent on slavery.... And we don't have to win the moral argument; no one is trying to justify it any more.
"The fact that it's still thriving," he explains, "comes down principally to ignorance about the institution and lack of resources directed at eradicating it" (The Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 1, 2004).
What resource can each of us lend to this battle?
The powerful resource of prayer. The hundreds of thousands participating in Amazing Grace Sundays recognize this power. But there's no need to wait until that particular Sunday – and certainly no reason to stop praying for freedom after that Sunday.
Two lines from Newton's hymn offer a starting point: " 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,/ And grace my fears relieved." These lines remind me to pray not only for the enslaved – whose fears need to be relieved – but for the enslavers as well.
God's grace can touch the oppressors' hearts and teach them to fear – to respect – God. Newton felt God's touch, and, as a result, turned away from slave trading toward pursuits in keeping with his newfound, irresistible respect for God.
Grace is a matter of the heart, not the head; it appeals to our spiritual senses. It's the "sweet savour" of knowing Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, "Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place" (II Cor. 2:14).
Like an aroma that invisibly yet powerfully permeates space, God spreads the knowledge of His Christ throughout consciousness – yours, mine, and everyone's. Christ's presence wafts through our lives, penetrating our thoughts and stirring us to think and act in God-like ways.
Grace appeals to the spiritual sense of hearing, as well. Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy described Christ as "the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness." Christ – the voice of God, or Truth – speaks with authority. She wrote, "The inaudible voice of Truth is, to the human mind, 'as when a lion roareth' " ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pp. 332, 559).
Sometimes we need a gentle touch, sometimes a sweet savour, sometimes the roar of Truth. That's the amazing grace of it all: Christ coming to us in whatever way gets our attention.
Just so, Christ comes to enslaved and enslaver alike – persistently if need be – until each feels the love of God, which sets free.