“Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!”

by James M. Wall

“Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!”

In the 2006 movie, Amazing Grace, John Newton shouts these words at William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who was the leader of  a 19th century fight to  force the British government to bar British ships and ports from participating in the slave trade.

The “dirty, filthy ships” to which Newton refers are slave ships which sailed from England to Africa and then to the New World.

Newton (Albert Finney) delivers his demand to his younger friend Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) at a time when the younger man was faltering in his struggle against pro-slavery members of  Parliament

This conflict is captured in precise and dramatic detail in the film, as Wilberforce and his allies in the Parliament, and from anti-slavery groups, visit slave ships and meet with former slaves.

John Newton had been the owner and captain of one of those ships. Following a major storm in the Atlantic that almost sank his ship, Newton repented of what he knew was a great sin, the mistreatment of fellow human beings.

Newton returned to England to become what he later termed, “an old preacher”.  He also wrote hymns, the most famous of which was Amazing Grace, which contains the line, “I once was lost but now I am found, was blind, but now I see”.

Newton had known Wilberforce for many years, constantly encouraging him to continue his long struggle to bar all slave ships from English ports.

Pro-slavery members of Parliament resisted Wilberforce’s demand to end the slave shipping trade. Their reasons? The practice provided economic benefit to England, while other   members maintained that slaves were content with their lot. The more extreme opponents with whom Wilberforce had to contend, made the argument that slaves were sub-human.

Britain had never permitted slavery within its borders.  Any slave who landed in Britain was immediately set free.

Slavery was permitted  in overseas British territories until Parliament passed the Act of Abolition in 1833, abolishing slavery in all British territories.

There was little demand for slaves in England. There was, however, considerable demand for slaves to work on Britain’s large farming plantations in the territories.

Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, traces the friendship of Wilberforce and Newton.  It also examines Wilberforce’s growth as a political leader, and not so incidentally, as a friend of William Pitt, his friend who became Prime Minister at the age of 24.

Pitt was a cautious politician. He was also a supporter of Wilberforce’s idealism. Another important historical figure who is not portrayed in the film, is John Wesley

When I revisited the film this week, less than a week before the United Methodist Conference opens, I was struck by a historical parallel, and most especially, I was moved by Newton’s violent outburst to Wilberforce. (Click on the video at top to see a trailer for the film, Amazing Grace. The full length film is available on DVD.)

I found myself thinking, we are well past time to “throw this dirty, filthy Occupation out of United Methodist waters”.

Of course, historical parallels are never exact. But it is not unusual for us to see moments from the past resonating with moments of the present.

The current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is never reluctant to link the Holocaust as a moment in time which constantly threatens to reappear whenever a political action fails to go to his liking.

The matter of Iran’s alleged development of nuclear arms, is a case in point.

I find sufficient evil in Israel’s Occupation to justify a connection between Britain’s 19th century approval of slavery, on economic grounds, and the American support of an Israeli Occupation which continues to imprison the Palestinian population.

On Tuesday of this upcoming week, April 24, the United Methodist Church (UMC) begins its ten-day Quadrennial General Conference (GC) in Tampa, Florida.

High on the legislative agenda of GC is a resolution, Aligning United Methodist Investments with Resolutions on Israel/Palestine.

Contrary to the many deliberately misleading descriptions of this resolution, it is designed to do exactly what it says in its title, “align its church investments with previous resolutions on Israel/Palestine”.

The divestment resolution does not call for a boycott of the state of Israel. It is narrowly focused,  an internal church document which mandates that the church’s financial managers (the General Board of Pensions) divest all church fund investments in three American companies that directly support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.

The three companies are Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola, a specificity that emerges from more than eight years of study, dialogue with these companies and considerable debate in local “annual conferences”, many of which sent their own versions of the divestment resolution to the GC.

The process is quite methodical, appropriately enough, for a denomination that mirrors the practices of the 18th century Methodist societies which were derisively labeled “methodists” by the Anglican hierarchy, which branded “methodists” as outliers to the established Church of England.

It was this Church that, among other things, banned John Wesley from pulpits of the Church of England, the body in which John and his brother Charles Wesley (author of many hymns) were ordained.

This led the Wesleys to take to fields and tree stumps to proclaim a fresh, new message of salvation and methodical practices that emphasized discipline,  personal spiritual growth and social action against sin.

The Wesley brothers instructed their followers to see the Christian faith as an instruction manual for social justice, including Wesley’s strong opposition to the immoral practice of slavery.

Wesley despised slavery. He also knew the work of Wilbur Wilberforce and had followed his career as a politician fighting an uphill battle against the evils of slavery.

The last letter that John Wesley wrote before his death in 1791, was to William Wilberforce, who earlier had been converted under Wesley’s ministry.

Wesley wrote to Wilberforce on February 24, 1791, eight days before Wesley’s death on March 2, 1791. The letter encourages Wilberforce to continue his fight against slavery.

The letter begins with a Latin phrase, Athanasius contra mundum, which translates as “Athanasius against the world”.

Wesley was a theologian to the end. Even in his final letter, he could not resist recalling one of his favorite themes.

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373 AD) was a early church father who was a vigorous opponent of Arianism (an early Church heresy that taught that Jesus was a subservient and created being).

Here, in its entirety, is Wesley’s final written words, addressed to William Wilberforce:

Dear Sir:

Unless the divine power has raised you us [sic] to be as Athanasius contra mundum, [emphasis added] I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.

Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Reading this morning a tract wrote [sic] by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?

That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,

Your affectionate servant,
John Wesley

I propose no firm historical linkage between slavery and Occupation, but I do propose a linkage between the demand for action called for by John Newton against slavery, and the passage of a divestment resolution by United Methodist General Conference delegates as a 21st century demand for the UMC to halt its financial support of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people.

It is well past time to “throw this dirty, filthy Occupation out of United Methodist waters”.

The clip from the film Amazing Grace, may be found at http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/ .

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Middle East, Middle East Politics, Movies, Religious Faith, United Methodist Church. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to “Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!”

  1. David Bebb Jones says:

    Presbyterians will be following the United Methodist deliberations with interest and hope. You have articulated the firm foundations for an affirmative solution, which we hope will be followed by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in June/July.

    David Bebb Jones

  2. Andrea Whitmore says:

    Jim, have you seen this?

  3. Fred says:

    I think there is a connection between slavery and Israeli apartheid. Slavery dehumanized black people, and apartheid dehumanizes those who are not Jewish in israel/Palestine. The non Jews are not deserving of equal treatment under the law, while Jews in the occupied territories have settlements, roads and buses for Jews Only. Non Jewish property is also confiscated and/or demolished at will by the Israeli governmnent, and given to Jews for their exclusive use. How any person of conscience can be silent in the face of such an abomination, is an abomination as well.

    It is a moral nightmare to see that so many Jewish and Christian groups are silent about the terrible crime of apartheid going on in Israel’Palestine. Will there never be an end to it?


  4. Roy Hayes says:

    Jim, you’re a very persuasive fellow. Sometimes you remind me of George Whitfield. Whitfield was a persuasive fellow, too. Cheers, Roy

  5. Pingback: JAMES WALL : “Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!” | My Catbird Seat

  6. Livia Rokach was the daughter of Israel Rokach, minister of interior under Moshe Sharrett, second prime minister of Israel. She wrote “Israel’s Sacred Terrorism”, a study of the diaries of Moshe Sharrett. In her book, she reveals that Sharrett’s diaries declare that Israel “invented dangers” to maintain the “tension” of the IDF, and adopted a policy of “provocation” to cause Arab reaction whereupon Israel would seize the Arab reaction as a pretext for use of massive military force. The diaries further declare that Israel hoped for another war in order to conquer more land. In fact American Jewish leaders were briefed in the 1950s about Israel’s plans. Well, Israel got its wish when Nasser blustered in 1967.

    We cannot be surprised about this, for Israel bombed US Information Libraries in Egypt in a false flag attack in 1953 that was to be blamed on Egyptian militants. Israel Minister of Defense Pincus Lavon was sacked when the Israeli agents in Egypt were caught.

    Israel claimed that their jet plane and torpedo attacks on the USS Liberty which killed 34 US sailors and injuted 174 more were a case of mistaken identity. The web site of the USS Lliberty suruvivors, http://www.USSLiberty.com lists the declarations of Secretary of Dean Rusk and other US officials in the know from NSA communiation intercepts, that Israeli claims were unbelievable.

    Israel denied that Johnathan Pollard was in the pay of Israel until after his conviction and admission.

    The LA Times reported declaration of US intelligence officials that Israel has delivered billions in sensitive weapons and advanced warplane technology to China for many years.

    We wait for the resolution of the current AIPAC spying case with interest.

    Is this the behavior of a friend?

  7. I learn so much from Jim’s always-terrific postings and comments such as yours, Mr. Phemister. I am humbled and blessed. (I read once that Moshe Sharrett was the only “decent” PM in Israel’s history. As I recall, he was vilified, his career ended and his reputation destroyed for his impertinence in deviating from the Zionist line of complete domination and control.)

  8. wallwritings says:

    An important update:

    On Sunday night, April 21, the CBS-TV “60 Minutes” program included a segment on “Christians in the Holy Land”. Bob Simon was the lead reporter for the program. He asked Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, the sort of direct questions rarely asked of Israeli officials by the mainstream media. The segment was superb, utilizing interviews with Palestinian church leaders and laity. It deserves wide distribution and study. See it by clicking here: http://cbsn.ws/K34IBH.

    The usual Israeli-sponsored response has begun, claiming anti-semitism against CBS. Advance intimidation by Ambassador Oren, aimed at CBS executives, back fired on Oren. Simon told him it was rare that someone objected to a program before it aired. He knew better, of course. That is an Israeli technique long practiced in dealing with potential criticism.

    Jim Wall

  9. William Gepford says:

    The Presbyterian Church USA is also addressing this issue this summer, June/July. It is high time that the churches picked up the challenge to divest from those companies whose work in Israel results in criminal behavior against Palestinians (or any other non-Jews). I am a retired member of the PCUSA and have worked on this issue for many years, resulting some times in being charged as an anti-semite. Thank you, Jim, for your continuing forthrightness.

  10. Fred says:

    It’s Israel that carries out anti gentile policies against those who are not Jewish. Israel needs to be given that label, when they throw the anti semitic label on people to silence them. We need a new word, anti-gentilism to chararactarize Israeli policies, and call them anti gentilists, because that’s what their policies clearly are.

    We need a word to express this Israeli phenomenon, and charge them with this behavior.


  11. Pingback: “Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!” |  SHOAH

  12. Pingback: American Methodists must be fearless about divestment | My Catbird Seat

  13. Pingback: American Methodists must be fearless about divestment

  14. Pingback: “Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!” « www.RabbisLetter.org

  15. Pingback: American Methodists Must Be Fearless About Divestment |  SHOAH

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