How actively tuning-in and listening to other’s lived experiences can change our world.
The song ‘amazing grace’ is perhaps one of the best-known songs in the world. It was written by John Newton, captain of a slave transporting ship who later became a prominent abolitionist. While the words of the song are attributed to Mr Newton, the melody is attributed to persons called ‘unknown’. It is thought that the tune for this melody was hummed by the slaves in the hold of the transporting ships where they had long been stripped of their names and humanity. It is unlikely that Newton asked the people chained in the hold of the ship as cargo the origins of the song they sang. Their lived experience was one of being hunted down, chained, and imprisoned. Their strength and vibrancy commodified, and lives exploited as expendables. The tune for ‘amazing grace’ was perhaps an expression of the deep hurt and sorrow of their lived experience. Many slavers must have heard the dirge hummed over the 400+ years over oceans and in the work fields. And it probably meant nothing, evoked nothing, and did not change their outlook or responses to their fellow men.
Almost two centuries after the worst of that dehumanising trade was put to an end, a man; Eric Garner was choked to death in a botched arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. As he lay there, restrained by chokehold, he uttered the words ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times. These words were supposed to be listened to and mean something to the policemen restraining him. They did not. His words meant nothing to those who were there ‘doing their job’. Nevertheless, the world heard and would not forget. A few weeks ago, George Floyd channelled the very words uttered by Eric Garner as he was slowly choked to death by a policeman, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin’s police partners stood guard, deaf to Mr Floyd’s pleas. They were keener to ensure there would be no interference with the ‘police doing their job’ than to extend grace. Similar to Eric’s case, the world heard and responded in outrage. The slaves on the ship, Eric and George were looking for grace. They may not have used those words, but what they could utter, or hum was an appeal for a response to their lived experiences. Why is it that some can understand, interpret, and action these cries while others cannot? What is it about ‘doing a job’ that makes some of us insular to obvious injustices and inequalities? How can we rise above such deafness, and like John Newton pen a treatise to ourselves that leads to changed lives in our workplaces and communities? How do we restore ourselves from this brokenness?
Part of the journey to restoration requires acceptance that those we hurt must speak into our lives, and we must listen to them.
Part of the journey to restoration requires acceptance that those we hurt must speak into our lives, and we must listen to them. John Newton wrote that song for himself. His later activism as an abolitionist was an appropriate response to the pain-filled hums below deck. From the verses of the song, he acknowledges that just ‘doing his job’ was never going to save his life- he needed grace. He may have been powerless to stop slavery immediately, but he started on the journey with others. Under the leadership of William Wilberforce, the English government outlawed slavery in Great Britain in 1807. John Newton lived to see the day, dying in December of that year. The association of the song ‘amazing grace’ with his past life will forever remind people that an absence of grace will ensnare both the weak and the strong in an endless dehumanising cycle.
Even as the weak and oppressed cry out for justice and are continually rebuffed, the struggle to ensure that grace abounds must continue. It is a painful choice, often asking the weak to give, even after so much has been taken from them. There is no better example from recent times than in the rebirth of Rwanda after the genocide against the Tutsi. In 100 short days in 1994, over 800,000 Tutsi were murdered for being ‘less than human’ while the world twiddled their thumbs. Yet, it is to the Tutsi that their president, Paul Kagame, turned to for leadership in reconciling the country. ‘Why do you ask this of us?’ they asked. Cognizant of their pain, President Kagame appealed to the Tutsi to extend grace. The architects, perpetrators and cheerleaders of the genocide could not be asked to give what they did not have. Worse still, the tension and defensiveness based on history made them unable to come to terms that their actions and beliefs were bankrupt of grace. For as long as the offenders accepted the ‘pouring in’ of grace by those they had hurt, the nation would heal on both sides. In actively encouraging and facilitating this, President Kagame provided space and opportunity for a deep healing work that would midwife a new Rwanda for current and future generations of Rwandese.
In 2015, nine African-Americans were murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church, by Mr Dylann Roof during a church service. Dylann, a 21-year-old white supremacist liked to pose for photographs on the sites of former slave plantations. His actions stunned the nation and were a stark proof that toxic racism can be transmitted from one generation to the next. Perhaps he hoped to trigger a ‘race war’ which he thought would be won by strength of arms and bloodshed. Instead, President Obama, during the funeral service, spoke to a hurting people and appealed to them to give for the sake of a love-bankrupt assailant. President Obama spoke of the role of the church as a place of strength and defiance, but he also said it was a place of grace. Poignantly, he led them in singing ‘amazing grace’.
The lived experience of those hurt by our actions or inaction should not be allowed to go to waste. We all have a role to listen to these cries and respond actively. We must provide platforms from which the lost can find a new and better way, and the blind can receive sight. There is no perfect method. Newton, Kagame and Obama are far from perfect, just like us, but we must start, and grace must abound. Amazing grace.
We all have a role to listen to these cries and respond actively. We must provide platforms from which the lost can find a new and better way, and the blind can receive sight.