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Why Our Society Needs ‘Amazing Grace’ More Than Ever

I think we could make a case for regarding the iconic hymn “Amazing Grace” as the Psalm 23 of modern hymnody.

Its appeal seems not to be limited to the particular faith tradition of its origin, as it is often played and sung at public events that call for an affirmation of the sacred in a pluralistic context.

The lore of its history, with a text coming from the pen of former slave trader John Newton and its familiar pentatonic tune with possible roots in African culture is complicated and often questioned.

But its power as an affirmation of grace as a redemptive and sustaining force in human experience is as broadly recognized as any artifact of our culture.

The music that we hear and embrace, and the lyrics that we sing, are vehicles for the thoughts and commitments that guide our lives and give direction to our vision for shaping the future.

A grace that finds the lost, brings sight to the blind and leads safely through the storms of life is hard not to affirm as a quality of life to embrace and seek to live.

So, we might expect that a people whose sacred theme song extols such grace would reflect personally and in their systems of life the qualities associated with it.

And we can easily find those expressions among those who serve “graciously” in the many arenas where life is lived.

Even in many of the structures of our society, grace can be found in missions of commitment to meeting needs that require a helping hand.

If we know where to look, and if we are willing to look in some unfamiliar places, where the glitz and glitter of life’s more decorous settings do not distract us from seeing the best of the human spirit, we can find grace that is indeed amazing.

On the other hand, if we tune in to what has emerged as our public conversation on who we are and what we need as a national community, we hear a different “song.”

The voices that clamor for our attention and support seem to have discovered a latent need among us for the “red meat” of aggression.

It appears that we have “chosen up sides” along ideological lines and have dug in our trenches for the fight.

Fanned by the hot air of disrespectful rhetoric, the coals of fear, ignorance and prejudice flame up to produce expressions of contempt both on the public stage and in more private conversations that come close to hate speech.

The grace that we observe in the quiet corners where life is lived seems quite out of place on today’s political main street. It is helpful to remember that the loudest voices on main street are not always representative of who lives in the town.

A Cherokee legend tells of an old man teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

“The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and in every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The power playbook suggests that the winners are the fastest out of the gate and the most blatant in their trash-talk toward the opposition.

Any expression of appreciation or support for anything identified with the opposition is a sign of “impurity” and a vulnerable point for attack.

Grace doesn’t play that game, and it is able to resist the siren call of power to do so. Maybe that’s what makes it amazing.

Which wolf will we let ourselves be led to feed?

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.