Cheap Grace


There’s a tension among Christians today between those who would extend God’s mercy everywhere, seemingly without any conditions, and those who are more reticent and discriminating in dispensing it. The tension comes out most clearly in our debates concerning who may receive the sacraments: Who should be allowed to receive the Eucharist? Who should be allowed to marry inside a church? Who should be allowed a Christian burial? When should a priest withhold absolution in confession?

However, this tension is about a lot more than who should be allowed to receive certain sacraments. Ultimately, it’s about how we understand God’s grace and mercy. A clear example of this today is the growing opposition we see in some sectors to the person and approach of Pope Francis. To his critics, Francis is soft and compromising. To them, he is dispensing cheap grace, making God and His mercy as accessible as the nearest water tap. God’s embrace to all. No conditions asked. No prior repentance called for. No demand that there first be a change in the person’s life. Grace for all. No cost.

What’s to be said about this? If we dispense God grace and mercy so indiscriminately doesn’t this strip Christianity of much of its salt and leaven? May we simply embrace and bless everyone without any moral conditions? Isn’t the Gospel meant to confront?

Well, the very phrase cheap grace is an oxymoron. There’s no such a thing as cheap grace.  All grace, by definition, is unmerited just as all grace, by definition, doesn’t ask for certain preconditions to be met in order for it to be offered and received. The very essence of grace is that it is a gift, free, undeserved. And, though by its very nature grace often does evoke a response of love and a change of heart, it does not of itself demand them.

There’s no more powerful example of this than Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and how it illustrates how grace meets waywardness.  We know the story. The prodigal son abandons and rejects his father, takes his unearned inheritance, goes off to a foreign land (a place away from his father) and squanders the money in the pursuit of pleasure. When he has wasted everything, he decides to return to his father, not because he suddenly has a renewed love for him, but, selfish still, because he is hungry. And, we know what happens. When he is still a long way from his father’s house, his father (no doubt longing for his return) runs out to meet him and, before his son even has an opportunity to apologize, embraces him unconditionally, takes him back into his house and prepares a special celebration for him. Talk about cheap grace!

Notice to whom this parable was spoken. It was addressed to a group of sincere religious persons who were upset precisely because they felt that by embracing and eating with sinners (without first demanding some moral preconditions) Jesus was cheapening grace, making God’s love and mercy too accessible, hence less precious. Notice as well the reaction of many of Jesus’ contemporaries when they saw him dining with sinners. For example, when he dined with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the Gospels tell us, “All who saw it began to grumble.”  Interesting how that discontent persists.

Why? Why this anxiety? What undergirds our “grumbling”?  Concern for true religion? Not really. The deeper root of this anxiety is not religious but grounded rather in our nature and in our wounds. Our resistance to naked gift, to raw gratuity, to unconditional love, undeserved grace, stems rather from something inside our instinctual DNA that is hardened by our wounds. A combination of nature and wound imprints in us the belief that any gift, not least love and forgiveness, needs to be merited. In this life, no free meal! In religion, no free grace! A conspiracy between our nature and our wounds keeps forever reminding us that we are unlovable, and that love must be merited; it cannot be free because we are unworthy.

Overcoming that inner voice that is perpetually reminding us that we are unlovable is, I believe, the ultimate struggle (psychological and spiritual) in our lives. Moreover, don’t be fooled by protests to the contrary. People who glibly radiate how lovable they are and make protests to that effect are mostly trying to keep that fear at bay.

Saint Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans as his dying message. He devotes its first seven chapters to simply affirming over and over again that we cannot get our lives right. We are morally incapable. However, his repeated emphasis that we cannot get our lives right is really a set-up for what he really wants to leave with us, namely, we don’t have to get our lives right. We are loved in spite of our sin, and we are given everything freely, gratuitously, irrespective of any merit on our part.

Our uneasiness with unmerited grace is rooted more in a human insecurity than in any genuine religious concern.

Suicide and Our Misunderstandings


Margaret Atwood once wrote that sometimes a thing needs to be said, and said, said again, until it doesn’t need to be said anymore. That’s why I write a column annually on suicide, mostly saying the same things over and over again. The hope is that, like a note put into a bottle and floated out to sea, my little message might find someone needing consolation after losing a loved one to suicide.

What’s needs to be said, and said again, about suicide? Four things.

First, that it’s a disease and perhaps the most misunderstood of all diseases. We tend to think that if a death is self-inflicted, it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not. For most suicides, this isn’t true. A person who dies by suicide dies, as does the victim of a terminal illness or fatal accident, not by his or her own choice. When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents, they die against their will. The same is true for suicide, except that in the case of suicide the breakdown is emotional rather than physical – an emotional stroke, an emotional cancer, a breakdown of the emotional immune system, an emotional fatality.

This is not an analogy. There are different kinds of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, breakdowns of the immune system, and fatal accidents. However, they all have the same effect; they all take someone out of this life against his or her own will. No one who dies through suicide actually wants to die. He or she only wants to end a pain that can no longer be endured, akin to someone jumping to his death out of a burning building because his clothes are on fire.

Second, we should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is the ultimate act of despair and something God will not forgive. God is infinitely more understanding than we are and God’s hands are infinitely safer and gentler than our own. Imagine a loving mother having just given birth, welcoming her child onto her breast for the first time. That, I believe, is the best image we have to picture how a suicide victim (most often an overly sensitive soul) is received into the next life. God is infinitely understanding, loving, and gentle. We need not worry about the fate of anyone, no matter the cause of death, who exits this world honest, oversensitive, gentle, over-wrought, and emotionally crushed. God has a special love for the broken and the crushed.

Knowing all of this however, doesn’t necessarily take away our pain (and anger) at losing someone to suicide; but faith and understanding aren’t meant to take our pain away but rather to give us hope, vision, and support as we walk within our pain.

Third, we should not torture ourselves with second-guessing when we lose a loved one to suicide: “What might I have done? Where did I let this person down? If only I had been there? What if …?” It can be natural to be haunted with the thought, “if only I’d been there at the right time.” Rarely would this have made a difference. Indeed, most of the time, we weren’t there for the exact reason that the person who fell victim to this disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. This is not an excuse for insensitivity, especially towards those suffering from dangerous depression, but it should be a healthy check against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing.

We’re human beings, not God. People die of illness and accidents all the time and sometimes all the love and attentiveness in the world cannot prevent a loved one from dying. Love, for all its power, is sometimes powerless before a terminal illness.

Fourth, when we lose a loved one to suicide, one of our tasks is to work at redeeming that person’s memory, namely, to put that person’s life into a perspective wherein his or her memory is not forever tainted because it is viewed through the prism of suicide.

A proper human and faith response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim’s eternal salvation, guilty second-guessing about how we failed this person, and a hushed, guarded tone forever afterwards when we speak of him or her. Suicide is indeed a horrible way to die, but we must understand it (at least in most cases) as a sickness, a disease, an illness, a tragic breakdown within the emotional immune system. Most of all, we must trust God, God’s goodness, God’s understanding, God’s power to descend into hell, and God’s power to make all things right, even death by suicide.

Women, Inequality, and Feminism


There are still people everywhere who believe there’s no longer any issue regarding the status of women. Widespread is the belief that today, at least in democratic countries, women enjoy full equality with men. As well, for many, feminism is a bad word, politically charged, representing a radical liberal ideology whose agenda is at odds with traditional family values. What’s to be said about this?

First off, feminism, like Christianity, is a wide term that includes both healthy and strident expressions. There are good feminists and there are strident ones, as is true too of Christians.  Be that as it may, my main purpose here is to suggest that nothing can be further from the truth than the naïve belief that gender equality has been achieved – anywhere. It hasn’t, not by a long shot.

Why do I say this? Before offering more substantial evidence, let me highlight just one example. I live in the West, in the United States, in America, in Texas, in San Antonio (a very Christian and compassionate city), in a democratic culture that prides itself and believes itself to be a beacon to the world vis-à-vis human rights and women’s equality. Yet, as I read our daily newspaper, rarely does a single week go by wherein there isn’t the report of a woman dying because of domestic violence. Moreover, these are only reports of women being murdered by a domestic partner; the numbers are no doubt astronomically higher in terms of women suffering physical and sexual abuse in our homes. Note, in 90% of these cases it’s the woman who dies.

However, to substantiate the claim that women still suffer, massively and disproportionately, from inequality, let me cite a series of comments from a recent book Awakening, by Joan Chittister:

  • “The fact is that two-thirds of the poor of the world are women, two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women and two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women. Oppression of half the human race cannot be explained by accident. … Women are most of the poor, most of the refugees, most of the uneducated, most of the beaten and most of the rejected of the world.”
  • “The history of women is one of historical and universal oppression, discrimination and violence. In Buddhism, women who have led lives of total spiritual dedication are trained to take orders from the youngest of the male monks. In Islam, women are required to veil their heads and cover their bodies to express their unworthiness and signal the fact that they belong to some man. In Hinduism, women are abandoned by their husbands for higher pursuits and larger dowries or held responsible for his death by virtue of a woman’s bad karma. In most forms of Judaism, women are denied access to religious ritual and education. In Christianity, until recently and in many sectors yet, the legal rights of women have been equated with those of minor children; wife-beating is protected by domestic right and even the spiritual life of women is dictated, directed, and controlled by the men of the faith.”

Moreover, Chittister highlights an irony that generally goes unrecognized and, worse still, is often used to camouflage our failure to accord women equal status. Here’s the irony. Many of us nurture, consciously or unconsciously, an attitude that might aptly be called a romantic feminism wherein we over-idealize and over-exalt women and, ironically but understandably, by that very token end up denying them full equality. This is how Chittister puts it: “on no other class, surely has so much poetry, so much music, so many flowers, so much adulation, so much tolerance, so much romantic love and so little moral and intellectual, spiritual and human respect been lavished.” In essence, an over-idealization of women, tells them: you’re so special and wonderful that you shouldn’t be treated in same way as men!

I’m old enough to have lived through a couple of generations of feminism. In the 1980s and 1990s, when I taught theology in a couple of universities, feminism, both healthy and strident, was very strong within the faculty and in much of the student body. I confess that I wasn’t always at ease with it, particularly with its often-militant tone. I sensed its legitimacy, even as I feared its stridency. 

Well, times have changed. Today, in the classrooms I teach, more and more, I’m meeting women, younger women, who have little sympathy or use for the feminism of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s almost a patronizing attitude towards those women who pioneered the feminist agenda. Partly, it’s a generational thing that’s understandable. Partly, however, it’s also a naiveté, an unfounded belief that the battle has been won, that women have now achieved full equality, that there’s no need any longer for the old-style battles.

So, when I read Chittister’s grim statistics and read about domestic violence almost daily in our newspapers, I long for those feisty feminists I once met in classrooms and at faculty meetings all those years ago.