Christians understand God’s grace as a gift that is undeserved—an unsolicited gift that springs from his bountiful love. It is no doubt comforting to think that we live in a universe presided over by a benevolent and loving god—a god whose love is akin to that of a parent, a love that can be relied on when all else fails, a love that need not be earned—in short, unconditional love. Despite its unquestioning appeal, the idea has a dark side, to which the devout are oblivious. In light of the role that God’s grace has played in President Barack Obama’s understanding of the events surrounding the massacre in a South Carolina church in June 2015, the concept deserves careful examination.
Christians are encouraged to imitate their god in their private as well as their public lives. In private life, divine grace is the inspiration behind the Christian conception of love in marriage. In the Christian view, love in marriage should imitate the love of God—unconditional, unearned, and undeserved. Far from being something we “fall” into, love is a resolute decision, a pledge to love unconditionally. So understood, marriage is not a juridical contract between two people. A contract becomes null and void when one of the parties fails to live up to the agreement.
This is not the case in the Christian conception of marriage, because marriage is not an agreement between two people but between each of them and God. Consequently, there is never a reason to default on the pledge regardless of the conduct of the spouse. This view of love is no doubt heroic—and I think that it is definitely worth trying, because unconditional love may well have a cathartic effect. But it also has a dark side, because it is unreasonable to keep trying when no success is achieved.
Let me give an example of success and one of failure. In the film Ryan’s Daughter, a young woman in a small Irish town pursues and marries an older man to whom she thinks she is attracted. The marriage is not as exciting as she anticipated. Then she meets a younger man, who happens to be an English soldier, and has an affair with him. The husband is aware of the affair but says nothing. But the townspeople discover the affair and later accuse her of betraying them to the English for their helping Irish rebels obtain arms. They abduct the young woman, strip her, shave her hair off, and have even worse humiliations in store for her. Luckily, she is rescued in the nick of time—mainly by the husband! He packs all their belongings and takes her away from the town to start a new life. The film left me with the impression that the young woman might gain a new appreciation for her husband and love him in a way that she had not done before. In that sense, the Christian example of love may well be transformative. However, that is not necessarily the case.
The young woman may turn out to be another Madame Bovary and continue to have an endless series of affairs. Then it would not only be foolish for the husband to remain steadfast; it would be a form of self-flagellation. But Christians think this is a virtue. St. Augustine thought that his mother was a heroic example of Christian love in marriage because she remained true to her husband even though he beat her continually. Because the abuse was constant, Augustine could not fall back on the assumption that unconditional love is transformative, so he claimed that abusive husbands must be accepted as a punishment from God for sin. However, there is no indication that his mother was prone to any particular vices, other than the ubiquitous original sin with which we are all supposedly tainted. That is what I mean by the dark side of the effort to imitate God’s grace. It is masochistic, and it encourages bullies. It gets worse.
The Christian injunction to love your enemies is another example of the imitation of God’s grace—undeserved love. However, it is a mistake to assume that it is a repudiation of revenge. On the contrary, it is a matter of forgoing a limited human form of revenge in favor of a superior form of vengeance—the eternal punishment of God. As St. Paul explains: “Bless them which persecute you: bless and curse not. . . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:14–20). That is the dark side of the injunction to love your enemies.
I am not denying that in an effort to imitate their loving god, some Christians have displayed unsurpassed acts of kindness and forgiveness, not only in private life but also in public life. In June 2015, a white supremacist gunman massacred nine black men and women in a historic church in South Carolina headed by the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Confronting the killer in court, the bereaved relatives of the murdered men and women addressed the gunman, saying that they harbored no hate for him and were ready to forgive him in the name of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that hatred destroys those who hate, so it is not worth harboring hate in one’s heart. However, going to the lengths of forgiving the killer is stunning. In classic Christian fashion, President Obama understood this as a manifestation of God’s amazing grace.
In his historic speech at the funeral of Rev. Pinckney, Obama explained the link between the Christian doctrine of divine grace and American politics. He said: “We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.” He added that the killer intended to sow hatred and deepen divisions by his act, but the very opposite has happened. People, black and white, have come together, not only in South Carolina but across the country, in a marvelous show of solidarity. Obama interpreted this human goodness as a testament to God’s grace. He assumed that this display of human goodness was itself a gift of grace. He claimed that by taking down the Confederate flag from the state’s capitol, we express God’s grace. By refusing to allow our children to “languish in poverty” or attend “dilapidated schools,” we express God’s grace. By embracing “changes in how we train and equip our police,” we express God’s grace. By recognizing the “mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation” and doing something about it, we express God’s grace. Indeed, God’s grace is manifest wherever “people of goodwill” strive to make “a more perfect union.” The president ended the speech by singing the lyrics of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Like the hymn, the speech casually skates over a host of difficulties. First, what is truly amazing is that human beings are willing (even eager) to live in accordance with such a heroic moral law—a moral law that goes beyond anything required by natural justice. It is a testament to the goodness of human beings. Such goodness deals a fatal blow to the idea of original sin around which Christianity revolves. In other words, the enthusiasm with which Christian morality is embraced contradicts the Christian insistence on human depravity. In order to resolve this contradiction, Christians, including President Obama, explain all human goodness as a gift of God’s amazing grace. Good conduct is a supernatural gift from God, without which it is not possible for fallen humanity to fulfill the requirements of the moral law. This is why President Obama felt it necessary to thank God for the conduct of Rev. Pinckney’s congregation.
Second, the doctrine casts a dark shadow on the character of God. Why would a good God give human beings a moral law that they are congenitally unable to fulfill because it is at odds with their nature? That is downright malicious. And, since this gift of grace, without which human beings are unable to fulfill the moral law, is not given to all equally, how fair is it to punish those to whom grace was not given? The classic answer, provided by St. Augustine, is to compare God with a creditor and humanity with his debtors. If the creditor decides to wipe out the debts of some of the debtors, the rest of the debtors have no basis of complaint. In Augustine’s view, there is no injustice in the fact that some debtors are required to pay their debts even though some are not.
The trouble with this response is that the debt is based on the assumption that we are all sinners deserving eternal damnation. But surely, this puts Rev. Pinckney on a par with the killer! Both are equally deserving of damnation. This preposterous injustice was so evident that the Catholic Church had to invent purgatory. But the Protestant churches preserved the absurdity of the Jesus doctrine exactly as Augustine understood it.
Third, the idea that whenever we do good work, whenever we act to make the world a better place, we are displaying God’s grace has dangerous political ramifications. Even though President Obama rejects the assumption that those who disagree with his policies are evil, it is impossible to see them in any other light when you think that the policies for which you are striving are a manifestation of God’s grace. For some white Southerners, the Confederate flag represents the dreamy and languid way of life prior to the conquest by the Yankees. That would be fine, if only this way of life were not so totally dependent on the violence and injustice of slavery. So, this is a clear case of right and wrong, but not all political conflicts are so stark. Most political conflicts are between competing goods.
Finally, if we are unwilling to take credit for the good that we accomplish, we will be unable to take responsibility for the evil that we do. The United States has for too long seen itself as doing the business of God in the world. But it has been unwilling to take responsibility for the unintended havoc that it has wreaked. Even though President Obama is trying to dampen his country’s global ambitions, he is still speaking the language of American Exceptionalism. As for future presidential candidates, they may as well be singing the refrain at the end of the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, when the American troops are marching off to fight in World War II to the tune of George M. Cohan’s Over There:
Over there over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming ev’rywhere
So prepare say a pray’r Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
The tune has all the joyous hallmarks of the glad tidings, the salvation of the world, the coming of Christ, and the demise of all enemies. True to their word, the Americans have not come back, because it is not “over over there”—nor will it ever be. The world cringes in the face of all that amazing grace!