At first glance, striding past the painting on the walls of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you could mistake it for just another Turner of the era; it bears all of the familiar trademarks of his maritime scenes, the colours, the lights in the sky, the sea. It’s only when you actually stop and look that you make out the shape of a human limb, and another, and another, and realise that the sea is full of bodies struggling as they’re sucked beneath the waves. This isn’t a prosaic landscape, it’s hell on the seas. The Slave Ship is Turner’s response to the evils of slavery. It was painted to achieve maximum impact in 1840, displayed at the same time as a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Turner’s painting is not just art reflecting society but it is art helping to change society.
Recently my church, Newcastle CLC, has been hearing teaching on heroes of the faith throughout the ages. We’ve heard of so many phenomenal people who lived lives that went all out for God; Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, David Wilkerson. When Pastor Dee spoke to us on Mother Teresa she inspired us with the the fact that Mother Teresa was dedicated to using whatever was in her hand to make a difference. Looking at The Slave Ship we see Turner doing exactly that; he was not a politician so could not change the law, he was not an orator so could not rally a crowd, but in his hand he had a paintbrush and with that he spoke eloquently.
As I have written before, slavery is a massive global issue in the present with more people in slavery today than ever before in human history. No matter who we are, our response can be a powerful statement if we use what we have in our hands. There have been so many instances of this happening in the past year on both a global and a local level; Matt Redman and LZ7 released 27 million and Zoe Boomer designed her Freedom range of garments while, closer to home, Orijin recorded Key to Freedom, and Gareth Man produced t-shirts. I know there are many other people who are using, or keen to use, their talents for the same cause. This kind of action is a great response to issues. We’re not all Barack Obama, we don’t all have executive powers to change laws or authorise action, but we can all do something with what we have. When Peter and John walked past the beggar at the beautiful gate they coined the phrase “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). They used what they had. When Turner painted he was doing just this and yet the impact of his painting was, and still is, huge.
The particular aspect of slavery that inspired The Slave Ship was the fact that ships were insured for slaves lost at sea but not for any who died on board. The painting depicts the moment when, faced with the problem of a ship full of sick slaves and an oncoming typhoon, the slave ship captain chooses to jettison his precious human cargo and claim for them on insurance. On a card next to the painting were the words to an untitled poem, also by Turner:
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
Fallacious hope? Are we content to live in a world where for some people hope is but a fallacy? Or are we part of a generation determined to be salt and light and bring hope into even the grimmest of circumstances? Can we be a generation that does proclaim liberty to the captives? Can we make it that no matter how dark the place where someone is held the light of hope pierces through it? What will be the image of slavery that inspires each of us to stand up and do what we can?
I’ve heard someone point out that this issue gets far more exposure in Christian circles than it does in mainstream media but you know what? Don’t write off the power of a groundswell of Christian opinion against slavery, if we look at the British Abolition act of 1807 it came about from exactly that. The movement was started as a group of twelve Christian men meeting in a printing shop in London; it started, for all intents and purposes, with a connect group. Men like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce refused to turn away from the big moral issue of the day. Wilberforce was one of the most gifted politicians of the age, popular with the electorate and friends with the Prime Minister to boot, yet he sacrificed opportunities for personal advancement to dedicate himself to seeing the end of slavery. In this era organisations like the A21 Campaign work ceaselessly toward the same noble goal.
When Jesus says that He will build His church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18), He isn’t saying that the gates of Hell are going to uproot and attack us, He’s telling us to go make darkness tremble and overcome deep in enemy territory. He isn’t telling us to relax and let the lost come to us, He’s telling us to go grab people out of darkness, bring hope to the hopeless, and freedom to those in chains. The gates of Hell aren’t coming to us, we’re going to them; it’s not a defensive statement but an offensive one. Let’s not grow so familiar with the plight of the 27 million people trapped in slavery that we come to know it as a statistic and not a human story. It’s not about 27 million people on mass, it’s about the daughter in the dark back room being forced to perform sexual acts on dozens of people a day, it’s the sister struggling to breathe in a cargo case being trafficked across borders. Our voices and actions on this issue should only become louder until our goal is achieved; if the gates of hell can’t prevail against us then the chains of slavery will not prevail against us.
What we do as groups of Christians can have a phenomenal, global, world changing, liberty proclaiming, healing, effect on the world around us. I would love the whole world to be as proactive on this issue as the church but you know what? If they aren’t then that shouldn’t stop us; history will remember that once again the church rose up to take a stand against evil and change the whole of society for the better. That isn’t hyperbole, that is fact. Don’t believe it? Read your bible. Read your history. Look at what Jesus did with twelve disciples. Look at the abolition movement in the late 18th and early 19th century and realise that then, as now, those who are with us are more than those who are against us. If Thomas Clarkson’s connect group abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, what can our small groups do? And if our small groups can achieve great things what unlimited power is in the global church acting together? We are not called to a life of prosaic middle class comfort in our nice suburban homes, we’re called to change the world.
Turner had his paintbrushes, what is in your hand?