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I have often heard Christians speak of John Newton's powerful story: how he was once a slave trader who was gripped by God's love in the midst of a tumultuous storm on the high seas. We hear the story and assume that Newton turned immediately from his sin after that awful storm in 1748, and then sat down to write, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."

His blind eyes may have been opened on that dismal night, but not wide enough. Upon his return to Liverpool, Newton promptly signed on as mate of another ship and sailed to Africa, where the Christian traveled from village to village buying human beings and returning them as cargo. He then sailed across the Atlantic, studying a Latin Bible in his quarters as 200 slaves lay in the hull, shackled two by two, squeezed into shelves like secondhand books. As many as a third died during the long voyage across the ocean, and many more suffered serious illnesses. When the ship arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, Newton delivered these men, women, and children into a life of toil and oppression while he sat in church services and took leisurely strolls through fields and woods outside Charleston.

It is not as difficult to see the mess in others' lives as it is to see the mess in our own. For years, Newton had no notion that slavery was evil—few Christians of his day did. That makes me wonder how blind I am to the cultural deceptions of our times. What hidden sins skulk in my soul? And if I am without the awareness or language to name them, how can I change?

An Absurd Mess

Part of our mess is not knowing we are a mess. Most of us in contemporary life have never participated in the evil of slavery, never been convicted of a felony, never abused a child. Sometimes ...

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In the Magazine

May 2004

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