There’s a place for guilt

John Newton. A man with much to be guilty about.

Christianity is often accused of making people feel guilty. That may not be a bad thing.

It is sometimes said that ‘Christianity is like a swimming pool, all the noise comes from the shallow end.’ I recognise that assertion is snide and relies on caricatures but it is tough to disagree with. That’s partly the fault of those swimming in the deeper waters. They are often afraid to make a splash.

Liberal Christianity is too often written about solely by authors with a scholarly disposition who are so attuned to nuances that they speak of little else. So I found it refreshing to read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. Spufford is direct and colourful in his enunciation of why his faith still holds. Here he is talking about the unfashionable topic of guilt:

‘Guilt’… gets a terrible press now: much worse than frothy, frivolous ‘sin.’ Our culture does take it seriously but as a cause of unhappiness in itself, a wanton anxiety-generator. It’s as if if the word ‘groundless’ always slid invisibly into place in our sentences next to it. As if it were always, a false signal, a fuss being made about nothing by somebody who shouldn’t be beating themselves up over playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath. Once again, our usage assumes a world where we never do anything it would be appropriate to feel bad about. So the old expressions of guilt stop sounding like functional responses to real situations and become evidence of crazy self-hatred. Strike up the New Orleans big band, please:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me….

There! Did you hear that? He just called himself a wretch. He’s beating himself up in public. Sorry, mate: lovely tune, lousy sentiment. Except that ‘wretch’ is actually a very polite word for what John Newton, the eighteenth-century author of ‘Amazing Grace’, was. John Newton was a slave trader. He made his living transporting cargoes of kidnapped human beings, in conditions of great squalor and suffering, to places where they and their children’s children would be treated all their lives as objects to be bought and sold and brutalised. Some of John Newton’s own contemporaries (the ones who weren’t chained below decks in their own shit” may have thought the profession that his profession was only a bit unrespectable ; we, on the other hand, recognise that he was participating in one of the world’s greatest crimes, comparable to the Holocaust. Wretch? John Newton was horrible.

But at least he came to know it. At least he made the journey from comfortable acquiescence in horror to an accurate, and therefore horrified, sense of himself. At least he learned that something was wrong. And ‘Amazing Grace’ is a description of the process by which he began to awaken. The wrinkle is that he wrote it before he gave up slaving. He wrote it under the impression that he had already seen the stuff he should be worrying about – booze and licentiousness, presumably, and playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath, and not running his slave ship with a swear-box screwed to the mast. In the Holocaust analogy, it’s rather as if a death-camp guard had had a moral crisis, but over cheating his colleagues at poker, and then continued to come to work stoking the ovens, while vowing shakily to be a better person. Yet Newton’s guilt, once found, wouldn’t leave him alone. It went on gradually showing him dark, accurate visions of himself, it went on changing him, until eventually he could not bear the darkness of what he did daily, and gave up the trade, and ended his life as a penitent campaigner against it. At every stage, it had been the same patient guilt that led him on, and so ‘Amazing Grace’, which records his earliest gnawing at him, is unwittingly faithful to the rest of what was coming to him. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear”, he says in the second verse, and what he’s reporting there is his feeling, his amazed feeling, which we probably wouldn’t want to disagree with under the circumstances, that he’d been done a massive undeserved favour by being allowed to become frightened of himself. The night sweats, the uncontrollable memories, the waking to misery, were all in his case a gift, a bounty he couldn’t have earned….There are some human states to which guilty fear is the absolutely appropriate response; on which guilty fear; from which guilty fear is the first step of only available rescue, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been popular for two and a half centuries – has been claimed by millions of hearers and singers as true to their own perspective – because it has been so to speak, tested (unwittingly) at the extremes of what human beings ought to feel guilty about. If there’s room for John Newton to make peace with his terrifying variety of the [human propensity to fuck things up], there’s room for everyone.

This, of course, needs caveating:

However, the fact that some Christians have encouraged people to feel guilty about the wrong things should not discredit guilt itself. As Spufford writes it’s like “whenever  we say guilt the word ‘inappropriate’ is silently inserted before it.”

However, this isn’t really something Christians can blame the secular world for. We have so often talked about guilt as if it’s synonymous with breaking sexual taboos that it’s hardly surprising that the rest of the world assumed that’s what we meant.

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