The False Promise of Cheap Grace

Ever since it became clear that Joe Biden had denied Donald Trump a second term, words like “unity,” “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have been floating around the more sensible corners of the Internet. After over 70 million people voted to keep Trump in office and some 75 million voted to oust him, citizens of a deeply divided nation are envisioning a world where the bitter political differences of the Trump era are set aside and the nation goes back to the (mythical) genteel bickering of the Bush and Obama eras.

In circles where such entreaties aren’t being rejected out of hand, it’s striking that all the responsibility for “reaching out” is being placed on Democrats and other liberals, while essentially nothing is being demanded of the Republican voters who established Trump’s reign of terror in the first place and enabled all of his vile excesses over the past four years. Always the victims, even when they control all of the levers of power, conservatives are demanding that liberals welcome them back into polite society with no strings attached, and many liberals seem eager to do it.

Tempting though it may be to take the easy road to something resembling peace, not only would such an approach be counterproductive (more on that later), but the whole concept of immediate reconciliation betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what reconciliation is and how it works.

To understand why that is, it’s helpful to examine the Catholic sacrament of big-R Reconciliation, also known (incompletely) as “Confession.” Catholics are expected to periodically confess their sins to a priest and receive “absolution,” or forgiveness, to ensure that their souls are in the proper shape to be judged by God at death. Dying with unconfessed sins can result in a trip to Purgatory or Hell, depending upon how serious the sins are.

But there’s more to it than that, and the sacrament is actually made up of several key steps that are important to understand. The first step is contrition. The sinner must acknowledge that they’ve sinned, i.e. admit that they’ve done something wrong. Next comes penance. The sinner must perform some outward act, often saying a prayer a certain number of times or doing some work of charity, in order to make amends for their sins. There’s also an expectation of repentance, a commitment not to sin again (or at least try your best not to). And then, only then, comes reconciliation. The sins are forgiven.

That last step is critical and shows what the sacrament is all about. Reconciliation is built around the idea that a sin damages the sinner’s relationship with God, and the sacrament of reconciliation is a way of healing the relationship. Contrition, penance, and repentance are the sinner’s way of reestablishing the relationship by confronting, correcting, and rejecting the behavior that separated him from God’s grace.

Regardless of the metaphysics of it all — whether God is really harmed by sin, whether these steps are actually necessary to preserve God’s forgiveness, whether human beings can really forgive sins, and all the other schismatic issues that my Protestant readers are no doubt getting their hackles up about as they read this — I think going through the process is beneficial to the penitent. By putting his own skin in the game, reflecting on the nature of his misbehavior, and taking affirmative and conscious acts toward betterment, a person can genuinely improve himself and his worldview.

The kind of forgiveness that people might expect without these undertakings is an example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” As Bonhoeffer described it, “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.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, a life of grace was impossible without personal sacrifice, without handing something over of oneself to account for one’s shortcomings.

The same process applies in our relationships with each other. If you harm your spouse in some way, simply saying “I’m sorry” may not be enough if the injury is significant. There needs to be a sincere acknowledgment of wrongdoing, an understanding of how your behavior hurt the other person, a commitment to do better going forward, and often some outward act to “make it up” to the other person. A forgiveness that comes after this process, in which the transgressor puts something of themselves into obtaining the forgiveness, is more meaningful and, likely, genuine than a “forgiveness” that comes immediately after a reflexive apology with no further sacrifice.

The “cheapness” of the forgiveness in the latter case should be clear. Voicing forgiveness of a transgression without believing that the other person is truly sorry and sincere about avoiding harm in the future is likely to be poisoned with resentment and suspicion, making true healing impossible. Likewise, instantaneous forgiveness of sins without remorse on the part of the sinner does nothing to inhibit sinfulness going forward and leaves little use for any religious convictions behind the concept of sinfulness itself. Cheap grace is no grace at all.

And that’s what I worry is being offered and demanded in the conversations about liberals and conservatives “reconciling” now that Trump has been ousted. Trump and Trumpism have created significant, concrete harms to millions of people and to the fabric of American society itself. Any reconciliation without some accounting for this damage will be at best worthless and and worst dangerous. It will be worthless if liberals maintain their resentment, suspicion and derision toward conservatives because they haven’t learned anything or rejected the base instincts of Trumpism. The divisions will remain, even if holiday dinners are slightly less tense. And such empty reconciliation will be downright dangerous if conservatives, suffering no consequences for their enablement of Trump, are able to wait around until the next Trump comes into power and go back to their old sinful ways.

This doesn’t mean that Republicans need to embrace the entirety of the Democratic platform or abandon their personal and political convictions. But certain basic tenets of democracy need to be acknowledged and confessed. The President shouldn’t promote white supremacy or police brutality. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement aren’t valid political tactics. Children shouldn’t be put in cages. Scientists should have a role in responding to a deadly pandemic. People shouldn’t be barred from the country because of their religion. The federal government shouldn’t withhold life-saving aid from states that didn’t vote for the President. And most fundamentally, it’s not acceptable to place an incompetent, racist sexual predator in charge of a nuclear arsenal for the sake of judges and tax cuts. These are values that never should have been negotiable and certainly aren’t now.

Like many people I have ended friendships and distanced myself from relatives because of Trump. I would love for those relationships to be healed. But that’s impossible until I’m convinced that my friends and relatives have rejected Trump and all his lies and empty promises. This isn’t a matter of being stubborn or holding a grudge, it’s a recognition of what reconciliation and healing really are, and what they require.

Lawyer and religion think-abouter.