Costly Grace in the Age of Trump: Hostile to the Gospel (It’s Hard Out Here for an Apostle)

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a good Lutheran. Before he traveled to Harlem in 1930, he ascribed rather heavily to Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” worldview. There are the earthly and the spiritual realms, errors in the former can lead to banishment from the latter. Bonhoeffer also sided with Luther over Augustine as it pertains to the nature of grace: for Augustine, grace is the opportunity to realign one’s loves in the proper order, placing agapic love upon the zenith, and thereby line up with God. Luther, who was an Augustinian monk, regarded this as impossible. Human nature can never be justified to God through any action of our own. Therefore, grace is free, radical, all-sufficient, and not dependent upon any manner of works.

While at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer encountered two figures who would change his life: the pacifist Jean Lassere and the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Both men, in different ways, were socially active and engaged. They challenged Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran notion of two kingdoms, challenges that became increasingly relevant as Hitler’s Nazis signed a concordat with the Roman Catholic Church and installed a Reichsbischof in the German Evangelical Church. The meddling of the earthly kingdom into that of the spiritual kingdom was troubling, to be sure, but for Bonhoeffer, the concern was more complicated.

There are some basic ingredients to Christian theology that come in myriad flavors. One of the basic questions any theological system must address is this: Who is Jesus Christ? This is known as Christology. From Christology falls just about everything else. For example, theological anthropology and ontology. These can overlap. Essentially, what is the intrinsic nature of the human person (ontology), and what is the current condition of the person (theological anthropology)? That must be connected to how a person is saved (soteriology). For a vast majority of Christians, the answers concern grace and faith. Then we must ask, what are the means of grace or the signs of faith (sacramental theology)? What is the nature of the Church (ecclesiology)? The questions continue, and we’re still dealing with fairly basic stuff, in terms of a systematic theology. This talking about God stuff can get complicated.

To those outside, this may look silly. Heck, sometimes I think it is silly and I am a pastoral theologian. For me, it is silly when it becomes what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. When theology is undertaken for its own sake; when it is used to justify the Nazification of God’s community; when we engage in what Talmudic scholars sometimes refer to as pilpul, hairsplitting, theology is dangerous in its vapidness. While we argue about why we should not act, Bonhoeffer noted, we call upon a grace made available only because Jesus Christ did act. He took the cross upon his shoulders and invited the nails into his body so that the redemptive work of God could be done. Christ’s suffering on the cross not only led to a means of justification, a way that we can be set right with God, but also to a new ontology. A new being. How dare we call upon grace so easily when it was brought about so painfully?

For Bonhoeffer, one’s new being is not realized by simply saying that one believes in Christ, accepts salvation, and awaits the heavenly reward. That is cheap grace. That is grace that is all about us as individuals, a grace that allows us to be sanctimonious about the sins of commission undertaken by others and self-righteous about our own sins of omission. We condemn what others do and blithely ignore what we don’t do that Jesus requires us to do. Cheap grace says that we do not have to follow Christ into a world that is hostile to the Gospel. And I’m not talking the bullshit “war on Christianity” hostility fabricated by those who fear losing privilege White and male and Christian; no, I am talking about a world that is hostile to the Beatitudes as a bill of rights; a world that bleaches Jesus’ skin, puts a rifle in one hand and a drug test in the other, and preaches about how no one ever gave him a damn thing when he was hustling in Nazareth. Cheap grace assures us of our easy salvation and preaches the assured damnation of those who say otherwise.

Costly grace requires that we get woke. And I know that not everyone likes this term or concept, so I hesitate to use it because the conversation might derail, but it is the best one for our topic. Costly grace means that we call upon God to transform us. We submit. We follow the example of Jesus, not in abstract ways but rather in concrete ones: we serve others, we pay attention to the needs of those around us, we understand that in a world hostile to the Gospel suffering is to be expected. Christ suffered, and through service to others we not only realize our own true nature, our ontology, we see the image of Christ in the eyes of our neighbor. Others manifest Christ for us as we do for them, and together, in community, we are the means through which Christ is made evident in the world.

What Trump is doing with his agenda stands against everything Jesus Christ said and did. I am not offering any words about those who support the man in the White House. Not now. When I do my words are used to sideline the discussion. You’re a pastor and you shouldn’t be writing about stuff like this, I hear on the reg. You are dividing people; keep your spiritual realm out of the earthly realm, they say. To do that means to call upon cheap grace, and I can’t do that. To do that means that I don’t think it is important to follow Jesus in the world. It means having a religion that is based upon really nice ideas but holds that any actions that impinge upon capitalism or government are unseemly. It means saying blessed are the poor, but not our poor. The poor of Jesus’ time. Blessed are the peacemakers, but not those antiwar, snowflakes who burn the flag and decry perpetual bombing of the Middle East under the guise of national security and a nebulous war on terrorism. Cheap grace is believing it is Christian to refer to human beings as “illegals” and regard “refuge” as a synonym for terrorist.

Costly grace means being committed to the concept of community, no matter the challenges. Costly grace means Beloved Community.

I hear Howard Thurman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer calling me from the pages of books, and their voices sound an awful lot like Jesus.

I have the feeling this is going to be costly. Thanks be to God.

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