The Bargain Bin: Cheap Grace and the True Cost of Discipleship

“The war’s long done. We’re all just folk now.” –Mal Reynalds, defeated war veteran turned outlaw

“It feels so good to forgive.  It is so Christian to forgive.”  –Rev. Victoria Weinstein

24 Years Ago:

The phone rings. I answer it.

“Hello?”

An unrecognizable voice on the other end of the line.  No words.  Lots of crying.

“Um…hello?”

It’s an adult male.  That’s all I know.  And he is crying, almost hysterically.  Sobbing.

I get scared and it’s reflected in my childish voice as I yell, “Who is this?  What do you want?”

The crying subsides for a moment and I hear him say, “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

I hang up the phone.  I never learned who was on the other line of that call.  But I’m pretty sure I know.  And I wonder constantly: Have I forgiven him?  And, every time, I automatically answer my own question:  Of course not.  If I had…things would be different.

****

I’ve found myself in a few conversations recently in which the concept of “Cheap Grace” has entered in.  From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1937 book The Cost of Discipleship, cheap grace is a term that most progressive theologians and faith leaders have mined in search for a way of understanding appropriate acts of contrition and forgiveness within the framework of a loving (rather than vindictive) God.  If God forgives unconditionally, does that mean that we are allowed to do as we please?  The tradition of my life and work is the UCC, and for about a decade now we’ve had a motto, “No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are welcome here.”  I’ve seen any number of churches and ministers add their own flavor to this motto with additions like, “No matter where you’ve been or where you’re going, no matter what you’ve done or failed to do, you’re welcome here, this place of wounded healers (borrowed from Henri Nouwen), where we meet Christ at the table, and if Christ himself would eat with those who would betray and deny and abandon him, then surely he would eat with us.”  This is kind of the benchmark of our tradition, we proclaim a God who is not as concerned with right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, in vs. out, as much as a God who is concerned with Love, Justice and Redemption which are things we only find in an ever-expanding openness to Covenant Relationship with God and–through God–to the rest of the world.

But the question arises:  Believing this is one thing…what does it look like in practice?

Recently, a friend of mine had some very legitimate questions about this concept.  After the dreadful deaths of journalists at the hands of ISIS, my friend asked if this idea of acceptance and forgiveness applied to the “@$$#*!s” who decapitate other human beings (please excuse the comical editing).  My great friend expressed a completely legitimate idea:  if we’re allowed to do anything we want, and God just welcomes us in the end of all things, then truly there can be no justice.  As my mentor Rev. Paul Shupe has said on more than one occasion, a god who just allows anything at all to happen and in the end says, “It’s all good,” is hardly a god worthy of worship, and to believe that there could be a deity at the center of the universe who could be so arbitrary, capricious, and negligent truly means that nothing means anything and life is nothing but an absurd comi-tragedy.  This is the definition of “cheap grace,” relying on forgiveness that is so easily offered and accepted that nothing changes, because nothing means anything, and then sin and forgiveness end up looking like the same thing.

Which, not so coincidentally, is exactly the kind of culture in which we currently live.

Bonhoeffer wrote this, “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.  Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain is it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ The world goes  on in the same old way, and we are all still sinners ‘even in the best of life’ as Luther said.  Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin…Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin.  Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The longer I live, the more I come to believe that living into forgiveness may be the most difficult of human projects.  It is a gift that comes only from God, but it is ours to share in, yes, by grace alone…but it’s the sharing in it that is truly and incredibly difficult.  Both accepting it in humility and extending it to others in honesty.  I believe it ranks up there with the most difficult work we have in front of us because, in order to get there at all, we are required to do a lot of other things that we don’t do particularly well:  live in covenant relationship with our God and one another, which means living openly and honestly, holding one another accountable, taking the time to sit and think and work through intricate situations, working truly to heal them,  rather than slapping on a Band Aid to stem the bleeding and moving on.  Because these are things that we don’t do particularly well–especially in places of privilege–I think we need to be careful about how we understand this concept of “cheap grace.”  It’s only cheap if it’s expected for nothing.  If we automatically turn up our nose at people and institutions who are publicly declaring their intention to give and work and live in costly ways–in embarrassing ways, in shameful ways, in totally inconvenient and undesirable ways–then I think it’s possible we’re not interested in the project of forgiveness at all.  In that case, I think we’ve already moved on to judgment and retribution, which leaves no room for grace of any kind.  In which case, as Bonhoeffer said, “The world goes on in the same old way, and we are all still sinners.”

And let’s not mistake our situation: we are all still sinners.  “Sin,” as Paul Tillich taught us meaning “separation.”  We separate ourselves from our God and God’s Beloved Creation in myriad ways every day.

There’s not a single person reading this that doesn’t contribute to–and to some degree benefit from–the degradation of the planet.  We shop and live and commute and eat and etc. fully knowing that we are abusing our covenant call to care for God’s creation.  But how many of us are willing/able to live counter-cultural lives to the extent that we are contributing to creation more so than degradation?

We believe that it’s not OK to kill people; and yet Americans live in the most violent and war-centric country in the world.  Just a little over a month ago, we were all focused on the violent injustice happening in Ferguson, MO.  People are still protesting, still being arrested for their protests…but the media cycle has moved on.  A dozen years ago college students around the nation picketed against violent actions in the Middle East, and now we’re back to bombing Middle Eastern countries.  We were all shocked and horrified by the Newtown shootings a couple years ago, and there has been next to no action to reform our country’s obsession with guns and gun violence.

We allow a War on Drugs to surge while drug use goes up and America continues to be the #1 consumer of drugs of all kinds, inciting violence and oppression in many countries to the south.  At least 1/5 of African American men born today have a better chance of winding up in prison than in college.  The gap between the “haves” and “yet to haves” (as some politicians would appreciate us framing it) is growing wider by the day.  Suicide is quickly becoming the leading cause of death in America.

And yet most of us are able to feel pretty good about ourselves every day, right?  Most of us Wounded Healers are able to know that God loves us, even in our imperfections, even in our failings.  And “the world goes on in the same old way.”

Cheap grace abounds.  True forgiveness remains elusive.

Last Week:

A man I don’t know confessed something to me about his personal life that I found shameful and sad.  It was information that increased my doubt about him as a leader, and quickly discredited the little I knew about his gifts and strengths.  It revealed a life in chaos, a marriage in turmoil, a beloved figure as fallible and possibly dangerous.  A fellow clergy person, ordained by God to uphold God’s project of love and justice, found failing.  And more than anything, my first and most sustained response to this news has been:  Am I any better?  Do I get to pride myself on not having committed this particular sin, or do I need to consider all my many failings together and see if they outweigh my good deeds?  When I think of the shames and shortcomings of my life…have I publicly dedicated myself to redeeming them…or does my world continue to go on in the same old way?  Does it matter one way or the other?

It does not “feel so good to forgive.”  Forgiveness itself feels good.  Reconciliation and redemption feels good.  The process to get there, in my experience, feels like shit.  But that’s the price we pay to transform old sins and confessing sinners into vessels capable of carrying God’s Good Word.  I pray that I am willing and able to pay costly for such a blessing.

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One thought on “The Bargain Bin: Cheap Grace and the True Cost of Discipleship

  1. Brian, forgiving ourselves when we sin is the hardest of all. Having courage to ask forgiveness for sins we have committed is next. When this is accomplished and then seeking God’s forgiveness is truly a blessing and heals our broken spirits and that is where our loving Lord’s love envelopes His children to make life worth living in our world. Have a blessed week and know His love! Love, Granddad and Grandma Praise God with great thanksgiving in all circumstances !

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