Amazing grace and other things

Posted: Nov 22, 2006 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, they might add to the list of things for which they are grateful: Christian evangelicals.

No, I'm not kidding.

It has become fashionable and amusing these days to ridicule conservative Christians who believe in the Bible, even if they fail to live by the Word every waking moment. One fallen preacher comes along and the secular world rejoices in the triumph of hypocrisy.

Yet, anyone familiar with the history of social justice knows that evangelicals, as well as others of different faiths, have led many of the causes that progressives today claim as their turf.

It was, in fact, an evangelical Christian who led the movement to end slavery in the civilized world. His name was William Wilberforce, a British statesman who got himself elected to Parliament in 1780 at age 21, and soon began his crusade.

Wilberforce's name and spirit are back in circulation with the opening in February of the movie ``Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story,'' timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery.

The film is another project from billionaire Phil Anschutz's Bristol Bay Productions, sister company to Walden Media (``The Chronicles of Narnia''). While Walden produces family-friendly movies suitable for all ages, Bristol Bay produces historical dramas such as ``Ray'' -- about Ray Charles.

Anschutz, invariably described as a ``conservative Christian,'' implying some questionable agenda, personally financed ``Ray'' when Hollywood told him he was crazy. Some say the unassuming media mogul is misguided again in hoping to draw audiences to a biopic bereft of sex or violence.

I attended a screening recently and was alternately horrified by what we know about slavery and moved by what was truly amazing grace.

Action-movie fans may not find themselves chewing their nails, but the story is riveting. Watching educated men try to justify slavery is unavoidably mesmerizing. Considering the fragile thread by which civilization hangs -- a fray away from barbarity -- is implicitly cliff-hanging.

The movie tracks Wilberforce's almost single-handed battle to change the hearts and minds of his colleagues in Parliament, many of whom were invested in America's plantations and the slave trade necessary to their prosperity.

A reluctant politician, Wilberforce had been considering entering the clergy when his friend, William Pitt, (Britain's youngest prime minister at age 24) urged him to run for office. Wilberforce sought advice from his childhood pastor, John Newton, the former slave ship captain who wrote the lyrics to the hymn ``Amazing Grace.''

Suffering his own demons from having participated in the slave trade, Newton convinced Wilberforce that he could best serve his God by ending slavery. Twenty years after he began, Wilberforce prevailed.

Although Wilberforce won the battle against slavery in his time, the war continues in ours. Today, there are an estimated 27 million slaves throughout the world, according to various sources, including Amnesty International and the United Nations.

They don't wear ankle and wrist shackles, as we envision the African slaves. But they are, nonetheless, bartered, smuggled, beaten, threatened and forced to work. Many are women and children forced into serving the bustling sex trades.

An independent documentary highlighting the sex trades -- ``Let My People Go'' -- is scheduled for release next spring. In that film, Jody Hassett Sanchez follows modern-day Wilberforces working around the world to end human trafficking.

As with many Anschutz projects, ``Wilberforce'' isn't just a movie; it's an educational opportunity and is being called a movement. Walden has produced educational materials for classroom discussions. During the year following the film's release, dozens of companion projects will be launched, including ``The Amazing Change'' campaign -- a grass-roots effort to continue Wilberforce's vision (

The campaign's immediate goal is to gather 390,000 signatures -- the same number obtained by Wilberforce -- on a ``Petition to End Modern Day Slavery,'' which then will be presented to the U.S. House and Senate, as well as other global leaders, asking them to commit to abolition.

At last, an issue on which all can agree: Slavery is bad.

Whatever one believes -- or doesn't -- it's impossible to ignore that the world would be a lesser place without those who have been divinely inspired. What Wilberforce did with his own considerable resources and a talent for oratory, Anschutz -- and others who are motivated by their faith -- are attempting to do through the medium of their day.

Those crazy Christians. What will they think of next?