Instant and Individual Grace
Perhaps our response is particularly American and modern. Perhaps it is partly the result of living in the information age where everything we want is instant. We are not accustomed to waiting for things. We are also not accustomed to thinking of the effects of decisions on community. American society is very individualistic, and American Christian society easily focuses on “Jesus and me” in relation to religion. That is why it is difficult for us to understand how intertwined we are in community. That is why we tend to give a pass to one another when it comes to systemic sins. We think, “Well, I personally didn’t bear any malice in my heart. So I’m not guilty.”
One traditional prayer handed down through the years says this, “In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone.”
Did you catch that? We are to confess even the sins we didn’t know we had committed! If we grant that we are guilty of sins that we are unaware of, how can we then become angry when someone points them out? How can we become defensive?
And not only that, but this prayer tells us that sin is not just the things we actively do–the big no-nos–but it is also things we fail to do.
American Christianity does not often talk about the good we fail to do. But if we consider our participation, even unwittingly, in systemic sin, we are brought face to face with things we didn’t always know we should have done … the good we failed to do. Rather than be defensive about this, we should assume such is the case, and when God or our neighbor reveal to us our participation in sin, we should turn in humility and repentance to God.
In the book of Leviticus (4-5), the Israelites are told to offer sacrifices to make amends even for unintentional sins.
In American Christian culture, no one expects anyone to make amends for sins you didn’t mean to commit. We just say, “Their heart was in the right place!”
But you see, when we sin, even unintentionally, it can still have a negative effect on those around us. The right response when we sin unintentionally is, “I’m so sorry. How can I make it right?” Our heart matters, but the effect of our actions matters too.
God’s Grace Leads to Humility
This prayer also tells us God is compassionate! He will forgive us. He will also help us to mend the errors of our ways, lest we fall into cheap grace.
A Christian ought to be humble and open to being shown where she is wrong–whether by the Bible, a fellow believer, or an unbeliever.
A Christian does not need to be fragile in owning up to personal and systemic sin. Oh, the terror that we white people have of having something we said or did be called racist! Oh, the terror a man feels in having something he said or did be called sexist! Oh, the terror we all feel at being shown we’ve done wrong. But because we know God is a forgiving God, we don’t need to be terrified. We don’t need to be fragile. We can face up to the truth.
At the same time, we also must not express our fragility about our sin–or the confrontation of other people’s sin–by rushing through the process of repentance and restoration. Sin should have this-world consequences. Boundaries should be set. There should be no declaration that is all is well by the guilty parties before restitution has been made. There should be no shaming of victims for being wounded and hurt.
Christian community must get over our assumption that we must have instant practical peace without doing the hard work of repentance and restoration.
The implications for this are massive.
Away from Fragility and Cheap Grace
We must be willing to have hard conversations with one another. We should never engage in name calling or demean the humanity of one another, but we often may need to take one another to task about our ideas or practices. It is not “hate” to disagree, even strenuously.Elders must be willing to have hard, challenging conversations with younger Christians. This is a great need of the moment. While young people do have a responsibility to state their challenges respectfully and lovingly, they do not have a responsibility to sugarcoat their concerns. This is one of the biggest issues in the American church today, and one that is causing many young people to become disillusioned with the church. If young people do not feel they can come to their elders with their concerns or with the sin they have experienced or seen in their elders, and if the elders are so fragile that they cannot hear loving critique without becoming defensive or accusing the younger people of disrespect, young people will eventually become frustrated and give up. Maybe they will give up on faith altogether. Maybe they will just become isolated, without the benefit of Christian community. Furthermore, without being willing to hear convicting words simply the messenger is a young person, elders may at times be left in their sin.
We must be willing to hold people accountable and set boundaries with them when they abuse others. We must allow victims of abuse to decide whether the relationship can be salvaged and, if so, what is needed to rebuild trust. We must refrain from pressuring victims to make us all comfortable by moving on. We should stop equating forgiveness with reconciliation. The former can involve one party; the latter involves both.
We must be willing to own up to the reality of systemic sin in our country. We must stop being defensive. We must stop telling people of color and other victims of injustice that they must bear the burden of reconciliation. We must be willing to have hard conversations that challenge our assumptions. We must be humble and nimble enough to be shown where we are wrong. We must be willing to make restitution for systemic sin.
If we can turn away from fragility and cheap grace and trust in the robust grace of God, grace that enables to honestly engage with the depth of sin in our world, we can then grow into true people of reconciliation.
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P.S. Please also note that I am not a scientist, but a person with expertise in theology and the arts. While I am very interested in the relationship between science and faith, I do not believe I personally will be able to adequately address the many questions that inevitably come up related to science and religion. I encourage you to seek out the writings of theistic or Christian scientists to help with those discussions.