Courage in adversity: learning from Alexander Hamilton this Lent
It's been seven years since "Hamilton" first took the theatre world by storm. The Lin-Manuel Miranda musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan and immigrant who rises through the ranks to become one of the founding fathers of the United States.
It's a story that resonates strongly with the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who grew up in Jamaica without a mother from the age of two before coming to Britain.
Over the years, she has served as Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Chaplain to the Queen, and in 2019 became the Church of England's first black woman bishop.
Bishop Rose has just written a new Lent guide, The Room Where it Happens, based on the musical of "Hamilton".
She speaks to Christian Today about why there is so much about Alexander Hamilton that resonates with her and what she hopes Christians will take away from studying this fascinating historical figure over Lent.
CT: When you went to see "Hamilton" in the West End, what was it that made such a strong impression on you as a member of the audience?
Bishop Rose: There was such energy in the theatre and a real buzz of excitement. And for me sitting there, looking at the stage and seeing people who looked like me, it was really powerful. Not only did they look like me but they really delivered and that filled me with an enormous amount of pride and joy.
CT: Hamilton is such a huge figure in history and there are many different facets to him - orphan, immigrant, statesman, soldier. Which aspects of the person of Alexander Hamilton resonated strongly with you?
Bishop Rose: Here was this young man who hailed from the Caribbean, who grew up in poverty and knew what it was to be an outcast and rejected. Yet he rose up to become one of the founding founders of the great United States of America. That is powerful. While many people might have learned something about him as a historical figure, to have his story told in such a powerful way through this musical was deeply moving.
CT: You write in the book about how growing up you felt forgotten because your mother left you when you were very little. How much do you relate to Hamilton's growing up as an oprhan?
Bishop Rose: In terms of what happened to him as a child, his story was my story! Many of my generation in the Caribbean had a mother or father, or sometimes both at the same time, who left to come here to the UK. The plan was that they would later send for their children to come one by one but my goodness, the heartache and brokenness this created in families.
Watching "Hamilton" reminded me of Booker T Washington, the African American educator who bought himself out of slavery and who once said that the circumstances that surround a person are not what is important but how that person responds. This is what makes the difference and I think we see that in Hamilton. We will always experience challenging things in our lives but what is really important is how we respond. That is what will make the difference between successful and failure, and the book explores this idea in the final chapter by looking at Hamilton's courage in the face of adversity.
CT: The book opens by exploring the topic of belonging, which seems very pertinent at a time when the national debate is continuing around immigration and race. What message would you have for people who might not feel like they belong?
Bishop Rose: They are loved by God and because they are loved by God, this world that God created is theirs. The world might say that you don't belong and you are not one of us, but God says 'you belong' and so we need to be able to dig deep and claim that heritage.
Let's not pretend that there aren't those in society who are trying to lock us out; that's a real experience. However, we stay standing because we know the One in whom we get our strength. We know the One in whom we have been restored and given new life. It is from that platform that we go through life in this world.
It's simply not the case that God loves only a particular group of people, because in the Bible Jesus tells us, "For God so loved the world." His generosity filled up the whole world and those of us who profess faith are being called upon to practise generosity and share love, compassion and forgiveness with all.
CT: Hamilton is a very flawed hero - he's not a saint. Do you think we should take encouragement from the fact that someone who was so flawed still did incredible things?
Bishop Rose: That is precisely what it's all about. As humans we are extremely vulnerable to being seduced by all sorts of things. We are tempted in so many different ways. But if we look at the story of the prodigal son, this young man claims his father's possessions only to fall on hard times. It's in that moment that he remembers he has a father and that even being a servant of his father would be better than this! What is most amazing about that particular story is that when he gets home he doesn't have to sheepishly tiptoe in. The father is there welcoming him back with his arms wide open.
That's the God I love and know - the God who is not judgemental or standing there saying 'I told you so, you made your bed, now go and lie in it'. No, the Father is welcoming us to come into the room where it's going to happen and have a feast. You're not here to clean the floor or serve tea and coffee but to sit at the table. And guess who's at the table? Jesus is at the table breaking bread and sharing wine, His body and His blood, and you are being invited to participate in that - at the table. The door is open.
CT: What do you hope that Christians coming together to study this book over Lent will take away in terms of their own faith?
Bishop Rose: I hope that Christians who are studying this will come with a sense of 'Lord, I want you to fill me' and see their spiritual life deepened so that they would grow in confidence in their faith and be a conduit and a catalyst, because it is our changed lives that will enable others to experience changed lives too.
And I want others who engage with the book to recognise their identity in Christ. We can't legislate for what other people will think or do or say, but what we can legislate for is how we respond as God's children. Even if there are people out there who say 'you're not one of us' and 'you don't belong', we can grow in our sense of belonging to Christ and use the gifts he has given us for the benefit of the wider body so that it's not only about me, mine, I, but it's about us, you and we together.
Temptation will always be there. It doesn't skip over us because we say we are people of faith. In fact, we're even more conscious of it because we are aware of the love of God in Christ Jesus, but there is always forgiveness. Yes forgiving can be tough, and in the production we see the rage of Eliza when she burns Hamilton's letters. But then later, we also see the grace when they reconcile and hold hands. There is redemption and forgiveness in the story.
What we also see is the sacrificial nature of love when Aaron Burr tells his daughter that they are prepared to bleed and die to make things right in the country, in contrast to the king who says people should love him. What we see is that real love is life-giving.
The fifth section of the book deals with hope and courage through adversity, a theme that is so evident in the production. Along life's journey we are going to be battered and have all sorts of experiences but we must never give up because the one who is always there inviting us in is Christ. The door is open. He invites us into the room and he is right there at the table with us, inviting us to be, to grow, to be confident Christians who go out and tell the Good News of his love.
The Room Where it Happens is out from Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd priced £6.99.