Cheap Grace & False Neutrality
The challenge of moral & spiritual courage as given by the late German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Pope Francis
Reprinted from January 9, 2016
(Note: I’m working on new material, but wanted to also include some past columns that I feel still have relevance and to also create an archive my works on this website.)
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The phrase caught my attention when I began reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All I knew of the man, prior to finding this text in my son’s bookcase, was that he had been a Lutheran minister from Germany, had stood up to the Nazis, and was executed. In the ensuing years, the church has honored him with an annual remembrance.
The book is entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and was researched and written by Eric Metaxas. It is a weighty tome, nearly 600 pages in length, and examines in great detail Bonhoeffer’s early life (the formative years), including his family background and interactions, the unfolding events in Germany and elsewhere in the world, his evolution as a minister (being influenced by these events), and the various ways he responded to and opposed Hitler and the National Socialist Party. It concludes with his imprisonment and then his death in the final days of the war.
The title perhaps ought to have included Author, since his writings gave him fame and influence during his life far greater than most of his fellow pastors, and have served as an eloquent legacy in the ensuing decades. Had he not been a writer, and penned his books, the most well known being The Cost of Discipleship, it’s likely he would have been unknown to posterity, the memory of his life and works pretty much obliterated as were those of the millions of other victims who perished in the Nazi-run prisons and concentration camps.
In the Foreword of the biography, Timothy J. Keller (author of The Reason for God) writes: “It is impossible to understand Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge (discipleship) without becoming acquainted with the shocking capitulation of the German Church to Hitler in the 1930s. How could the “Church of Luther,” the great teacher of the gospel, have ever come to such a place? The answer is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace, had been lost.”
In its place, Bonhoeffer contended, was a watered down, feel-good version of Christianity, or cheap grace.
Those phrases were used in The Cost of Discipleship. To give them proper context, it’s important to realize that the book came out in 1937, four years after the Nazis had taken power and after they had pretty much shed their sheep’s clothing and had instituted a reign of terror against the Jews, other so-called undesirables, and any and all who opposed them.
Threats, intimidation, imprisonment, murder--and the fear these created--were their political stock-in-trade. Yet, despite all of that, they also inspired pride in nation and the Aryan race. They evoked an image of superiority that many Germans embraced, despite how twisted and distorted we now judge this national self-image to be. In that year, Hitler and his henchmen were already enjoying the high-water mark of their pre-war eminence in Germany.
Bonhoeffer, who had opposed the Nazis from the very beginning, who had witnessed the gradual capitulation, who despite his best efforts and the efforts of other like-minded clergy had been unable to stem the tide with their moral persuasion and creation of the alternative Confessing Church, wrote the following:
“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
“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.
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Elsewhere in the book he states: “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
While this message was in response to the unfolding events within Nazi Germany, to confine them to that specific time and place seems a disservice. They speak to other times and places, their reach spreading like a large canopy of branches far above and beyond the roots and soil from which they sprung.
In his New Year’s message, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church called for an end to the “arrogance of the powerful” that relegates the weak to the outskirts of society and to the “false neutrality” towards conflicts, hunger and persecution that triggers exoduses of refugees.
“Let ourselves be reborn, to overcome the indifference which blocks solidarity, and to leave behind the false neutrality which prevents sharing,” the Pope said.
“At the start of the year, it’s lovely to exchange wishes. Let’s renew, to one another, the desire that that which awaits us is a little better than what last year brought. It is, after all, a sign of hope that animates us and invites us all to believe in life,” he continued, adding, “We know, however, that with the new year everything won’t change and that many of yesterday’s problems will also remain tomorrow.
“The enemy of peace is not merely war,” he pointed out, “but also indifference that makes one think only of oneself and creates barriers, suspicions, fears and closure.”
The pope also mentioned the countless forms of injustice and violence which daily wound our human family” and went on to say “Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is possible that human injustice persists unabated, and that the arrogance of the powerful continues to demean the weak, relegating them to the most squalid outskirts of our world,” he said. “We ask how long human evil will continue to sow violence and hatred in our world, reaping innocent victims.”
He also spoke of "witnessing hordes of men, women and children fleeing war, hunger and persecution, ready to risk their lives simply to encounter respect for their fundamental rights."
Those latter remarks were, of course, in reference to the multitude of refuges and migrants who have sought refuge in Europe over the past year, many of them fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria, with others coming from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Middle East.
“We cannot forget that many days have been marked by violence, death, unspeakable suffering by so many innocent people, refugees forced to leave their homelands, of men, women and children without homes, food or support,” he said.
In keeping with the church’s Holy Year of Mercy that started in November, Pope Francis added that “Christians must interpret the signs given by God to truly see his merciful love” and pointed out that mercy, in our attitude and dealings with others is “the path toward reconciliation.”
That condemnation of indifference toward human suffering was reminiscent of a similar statement made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Cheap Grace & False Neutrality.
The phrases are vivid and arresting in their implications and indictments. They are daunting in the road that would lie ahead to anyone who embraces costly grace or sheds the neutrality and chooses to take a stand.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis are hard taskmasters for anyone who takes to heart their respective messages.
When I read the phrases cheap grace and costly grace and then false neutrality, I found the imagery and implications both eloquent and haunting. They beckon to something higher and more profound; a different way of looking at and participating in the world. While they spring from a religious context, the terms also serve as a clarion call for better and more engaged citizenship; a challenge that we not take those duties and responsibilities too lightly or for granted. It also calls for us to engage in the issues of our time and place and take a stand on behalf of those who suffer from hunger, poverty, disease, lack of economic opportunities, limited medical care, intimidation, false imprisonment, discrimination, oppression, brutality, and war.
Journalism, as practiced at newspapers, does not lend itself too easily to that purpose, although that is certainly not always the case. In using the five W’s—who, what, where, when, and why, along with how--we are expected, and expect ourselves, to report the news in a matter-of-fact, detached manner and, in doing so, use an even-handed, impartial voice.
“Just the facts, sir” as Joe Friday used to say in the TV show Dragnet.
That passive approach is even more the rule with a small-town newspaper.
In my own mental tug-of-war, I realize on one hand that people choose to move to or remain in a small town because they view them as safe havens (as much as that is possible); enclaves of security from the real or perceived threats from the larger world and all those “other ones.”
In a small town, many of the residents do not look for or welcome a re-hash of the trials and tribulations of that larger world in the pages of the hometown newspaper. That’s not to say we don’t occasionally have our controversies of the local variety which cause much sound and fury and can create animosities between the opposing sides; a battle royal that, when it occurs, causes the newspaperman to tread carefully between the combatants and weigh his words carefully in the weekly report.
Still, over the long course, these episodes are not the regular fare. The news tends to be more benign… the kind you cut out and put on the bulletin board or in the family scrapbook.
As for editorials, particularly those on hot-button issues, the readers are generally tolerant of an occasional rant, but seem less receptive to an editor who constantly rocks the boat, or worse yet, continuously advocates positions contrary to their own view.
Yet, on the other hand, I also tell myself, the facts (i.e. news) do have consequences and, as such, the journalistic tools of analysis, commentary and profile can and ought to be used to better explain and inform even if some folks don’t agree with my interpretation. And small towns are not islands “complete unto themselves,” but are “part of the main, part of the whole.” As such, we should add our voice to the discussion and debate—as journalists and as readers, but more so as citizens.
I offer this internal debate because, having thought about cheap grace versus costly grace and false neutrality versus taking a stand, I wonder if the laid-back, matter-of-fact, benign approach I often employ is a cop out. Have I found an easy way to stand around and watch while others do the heavy lifting? Have I convinced myself that this approach is the best one? Or is it rather the most convenient or expedient?
Have I been silent when I should have spoken up? When I did speak, have I been loud enough to be heard? Have I failed to act when I should have? When I did act, should I have been bolder? Have I been indifferent too often when events demanded engagement? Been too timid? Hedged my bets? Stayed too close to the safe haven?
Hard questions. I do not necessarily plead guilty to them, but I won’t claim sainthood either.
To write the news and publish a newspaper (even the small-town variety) is a responsibility; one I take seriously. A newspaper, I believe, needs to be seen as an honest broker for all sides. The common ground where opposing views meet and are examined. But there is a responsibility, I realize, to also be resolute and accountable.
I remember the words spoken long ago by Bobby Kennedy, back when I was young and looking for a guiding star. “Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope…” That image inspired me then; it still does.
There is no cheap grace or false neutrality it seems to me, if you follow that star.
Steve Horton is a mid-Michigan journalist and editor-publisher of the ‘Fowlerville News & Views’.
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