Comedian Ricky Gervais may have just shown us a glimpse of a rare sight: COSTLY GRACE.
Comedian. British. Writer. Director. Actor. Producer. Musician. These are words employed to describe funnyman Ricky Gervais. How about one more? What about prophet?
Well maybe that is going too far. Or perhaps a tad bit far? It all depends on how you understood what a prophet is. What are the qualities of a prophet? If you think of a prophet (wrongly) as a glorified secretary taking down sentences, forecasts, and marching orders directly from the sky concerning future events, you probably won’t get this. But if you have a proper biblical sense of what makes a prophet a prophet, then you may be a bit hesitant to balk at the claim that comedian Gervais could have been prophetic recently.
Just like Donald Trump, Gervais is making big news tonight. Look here at the comedian doing his opening monologue from the 77th Golden Globes:
Here, in this stand-up routine, is what costly grace sounds like. I hesitate to go all-in and say, “HERE indeed is costly grace!” Nevertheless I will say, at least, Gervais’ words here sounds like costly grace. It definitely wasn’t cheap grace, surely!
What exactly is “costly grace”? Costly grace is grace that costs you your comforts, your livelihood, your reputation, your full stomach, your voice, your friends, your family, and even your life.
Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived out very costly grace. He coined the expressions “costly grace” and “cheap grace.” Nazis murdered him at the end of World War II. I think that we are living in a good time to talk about costly grace and cheap grace and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a brand new year. Big things are happening. We may very well be on the verge of World War III because we placed a poor comedian and television personality in charge of our nuclear arsenal and Armed Forces. And he is just itching for war! Surrounding him in a deep pool of ignorance are a horde of blind followers who actually believe themselves to be disciples of Jesus, patriotic Americans, and “pro-life.”
Bonhoeffer, a real hero that many Trad chickenhawks are incapable of being on their best day, wrote about costly grace and cheap grace in “The Cost of Discipleship.”
Bonoeffer described cheap grace as grace that costs us nothing. “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.”
“Cheap grace,” says Bonoeffer, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Litmus Test for Costly Grace
Here is a simple test. Do you consider yourself orthodox? Are you solidly Catholic? Are you loyal to the Church’s Tradition? Would you say that you were obedient and faithful? If so, what does it cost you? Does your firmness take any risks? If not, isn’t it devoid of virtue? What value is fidelity without price? If loyalty has no penalty, isn’t it worthless? What good is verbal orthodoxy if there be no sacrifice to it? It’s just cheap grace. All of it.
United States Catholics have excelled for many years at cheap grace. See that bunch of wealthy children, accompanied by their well-off grandparents (way beyond childbearing age) march with a sea of head-nodders in Washington DC? They claim to be marching against abortion. But there is no moral courage there. To stand against infanticide is important and verbal orthodoxy is important, but what’s the cost? Do they want abortion to end or do they desire it criminalized? And are they willing to admit that as great an evil as abortion is, it pales in comparison to a Nuclear Winter or Extinction Level event? If you can’t even see what I am saying without getting offended and enraged, maybe you’ve been brainwashed.
Hey comedian? Tell me… where is the guts in a heterosexual man standing against homosexuality and transpersons and then boasting about doing so? Isn’t that wallowing in cheap grace?
Cloud of Witnesses
Do you think the martyred bishop Oscar Romero was shot to death while celebrating Mass because of his stance on gay marriage and homosexuality? Or was it because of his belief in the Real Presence? Maybe it was because of his position on ordination of women? Don’t be a poor comedian. Romero was murdered because of his solidarity with the poor and standing up to the wealthy elites. Costly grace! Costly grace cost him his life!
We are a Church of invertebrate lifeforms! Gutless! Spineless! Head-nodding, rushing to the priest at the end of Mass to get a hit of approval, acceptance, and praise, sucking up and going through the motions. We are cheap grace incarnated! The Way of Jesus Christ is far different. It’s the Way of the Cross, costly grace! All the prophets in our very foreign Bible knew it, lived it. Maybe Gervais is tasting it tonight, just a bit.
Back in 1980, when four female missionaries were brutally raped in El Salvador, do you think it was for handing out Rosary beads? Do you think it was because they were teaching the Baltimore Catechism? Perhaps it was because of their commitment to the kind of sentimental boilerplate frequented on EWTN? No way. It was because of the costly grace of discipleship. They were crucified because they empowered the poor, served their dignity, and spoke against the evil structures that calls the poor envious. It was because these three religious sisters and one lay woman were subversive like Jesus. They were not a band of Catholic collegians on a “safari trip” to take selfies with exploited brown people to post on social media like trophies. These martyrs shook up the world. They had to be savagely silenced and butchered.
These women, like Romero, spoke on behalf of the powerless and voiceless. They were Christ shouting out for the poor. The wealthy elites, all solid Catholics as far as paying dues in verbal orthodoxy to the conservative salad bar goes, ordered the military to repress the peasants, trade unions, and anyone who dared question the status quo. But Romero challenged that. He called for the military to disobey the elites. The result: blow him away!
Locker Room Prophets
Like a comedian doing stand-up, real prophets can be quite humorous. Jesus has a wicked sense of humor. Some prophets even had routines not unlike our “locker room” humor (see Judges 3:12-25; Ezekiel 23:20). If you understood the high cultural context of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern library called the Bible, you might more readily label any sacred author as a comedian before you’d say he was “inspired.”
Prophets are not really those who predict the future. We have explained that before. They are rather experts on God’s will for the here-and-now. “But Gervais is an avowed atheist!” Okay, fair enough. But God works in unusual ways through unusual means. There is a holy atheism that reminds Christians that our ideas of God, no matter how useful, are always less than the Real. The Real is always more, says a holy atheism. Maturing in faith means dancing with a holy atheism.
And like I say above, that monologue by comedian Gervais tonight sounds like costly grace. Whatever it was, it was a helluva lot closer to costly grace than anything I have ever heard directly from a parish or diocese. I don’t see guts and vertebrates these days, whether in others or in the mirror. And they are sorely needed commodities.
God, send us prophets! Not Nostradamuses, but prophets! A Church with only priests and no prophets is bad comedy. It does not deserve to be called “Church.”