Warning: Some of the content of this post may be triggering for survivors.
If there is a phrase uttered by conservative evangelicals that I never want to hear again, it’s this: “radical grace.” Because (let’s be honest) no one really means it. There are a number of other things implied, though:
- Grace, if you’ve said the magic words and promised that you’ll never do it again
- Grace, but only for those we deem “repentant”
- Grace for certain people, but not others
- Grace if you’ve committed one of the sins on the “ok” list, but not one of the Big Bad Evil Sins
- Grace for the powerful at the expense of the weak
I know that it doesn’t seem that way. Well-meaning people will keep on insisting that the really, truly do mean grace for everyone. But that’s not how it plays out in the real world. It’s why we have fools spouting off about how “changed” they are, all the while continuing to victimize others, who are allowed to continue to serve in ministry—to the very people they have abused. It’s why we have extreme punishments for people for the mistake of being human, punishments which far exceed the “crime.” It’s why an adulterous spouse is eligible for membership and leadership, while the one who remained faithful is vilified (yes, this really happened). It’s why boys are told they should try to control their urges, but we understand they can’t if a girl is dressed a certain way. It’s why a thrice-divorced single parent is welcomed in, but a married gay person isn’t. (Not trying to condemn the single parent here, just pointing out that we pick and choose which is okay and which is not.)
Those aren’t examples of this radical grace of which we speak.
This problem is two-fold. First, we misapply grace. There is a mistaken belief that grace means that there are no consequences. I once listened to a mom relating a story about the wrongdoing of her teenage daughter. She explained that rather than punishing her behavior, she chose to let it go and didn’t confront her. This, people, is NOT grace. Grace would have been forgoing the punishment, while explaining to the daughter that she still had done wrong and that the trust they once had in her is gone. Grace would have been expecting that the daughter would show better judgment next time. Grace would have been expecting the daughter to earn back her parents’ trust. This is consistent with God’s grace. We may be forgiven and free, but we will still be judged.
The second problem is that we misplace In a misguided attempt at keeping the peace, we fail to hold the right people accountable. One of the worst things I heard in the last few weeks was in regard to Trayvon Martin. One of my friends said that we can’t make a judgment about whether Zimmerman was wrong because “we don’t know the whole story.” Well, yes, actually, we do. We know that an adult white man shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. (And if we’re honest, we know that had the races been reversed, or if both were black or both were white, he’d have been charged immediately.) There are not two sides to this story. There is one, and it’s Trayvon’s. There are not two sides to a rape, there is one—the victim’s (no matter how she was dressed, how drunk she was, or what her profession). There are not two sides to an adult molesting a child. There are not two sides to spousal abuse. When one person victimizes another, that person is always, always wrong. Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that we need to forgive the abuser and simply move on. If he or she says, “I’ve repented! I’m changed!” we’re supposed to overlook past flaws.
Which leaves no grace left for the victim.
Victims are told (by the church!) all the time that they need to “forgive,” “show grace,” “let it go,” “move on.” Those who have been abused and find people or situations triggering for their trauma are told that it’s their problem and they need to deal with it. Those who have been abused and wronged by family members are nearly always told that they need to “reconcile” with the abuser because cutting off a family member is “unhealthy.”
I don’t often speak of some of the things that my father has done to hurt our family. One reason is that this is exactly what I get. The whole you-need-to-forgive-because-it’s-only-hurting-you pile of crap. As a matter of fact, I have forgiven him. But I don’t need to subject myself to ongoing abuse. I don’t need to call him and have him harass me about who I am and attempt to frighten me into believing his bizarre conspiracy theories about how I care for my body. My children do not need to have a relationship with a mentally unstable person. Extending grace doesn’t mean that I return to the same foolishness over and over. (And before even one person tries to make it sound like I’m being petty, please do not go there. You didn’t live my life, and I haven’t given enough detail here for you to know even a fraction of this story.)
This kind of misapplied and misplaced grace only leads to further hurt. Where is the grace in that? I am all for forgiving people and giving them a chance to make a new life. I’m not in favor of doing that in such a way that anyone is traumatized. Just because someone is ready and willing to turn his or her life around does not mean that trust should be given freely.
Additionally, we need to be more aware of the difference between sinning and victimizing. A couple engaging in premarital sex may be sinning according to the church, but no one is being abused if the sex is consensual. A man raping his wife is one person victimizing another, even though it still involves a sex act (of sorts) and even though they are married. There is a world of difference. To call a man “abusive” for the first and then punish him severely is an outrage. It’s equally outrageous for the second man to claim he’s changed and then be allowed to serve unchecked in the church because he’s “repentant.”
How can we reconcile radical grace with appropriate accountability? I don’t have the answers. But I know that we need to start by listening to those who have suffered.