Grace – undeserved favour – through the lens of ‘stigma cancelling culture’.
“Stigma and Shame are bad – toxic man! We must erase them from our culture, right? Like, you know, no one should be made to feel bad about themselves or their choices, it’s bad for your mental health!”
Author? Pretty much any millennial raised by the pop-culture.
What is becoming more disturbing is that this previous statement is no longer simply an innocuous personal opinion spruiked in a reason vacuum, it is now rapidly becoming the colloquial verbiage of psycho-social policy making.
Everything from drug use, unfettered sexual activity, and even certain contexts for violence is having all moral framing stripped from their contexts.
If it is not abundantly evident by now, at the very least any semblance of subtlety in the agenda being foisted on society is gone. The progressive erosion or marginalisation of cultural underpinnings, such as sustainable and objective morality/values, sustainable meta-narratives, religion, and family security, stability and well-being, has seen this relentless push to redefine conditions, states and behaviours via a ‘values neutral’ labelling, avoiding anything even suggesting categories of 'bad/poor/wrong' choice or behaviour, unless of course, you are an advocate who is challenging policies that don’t permit or look poorly on your preferred conduct, then these terms are permitted – more on this later.
Hedonic pursuits particularly such as sexual activities and drug use in this emerging and aggressively posited matrix are now moved from a behavioural issue with negative health/social outcomes, to a purely health issue with some behavioural side effects.
In a secular psycho-social framework, that seeks to redefine ‘morality’ or expurgate it entirely from the cultural lexicon, it must commence by untethering it from moral frameworks like religion. The language must erase, as mentioned, terms like ‘right or wrong’ in certain contexts. Of course, other conduct that may be deemed as having some negative effect on the broader community, not just the individual, must be viewed through a secular lens of ‘ethics.’ This is the secular framework for ‘adjudicating’ on what may now be considered ‘sin’?
The World Health Organisation have been tampering with this language for years and in a (frankly bizarre) attempt to fit all remedial responses to ‘unhelpful’ or ‘harmful’ language, have decided to create an new health category for such conduct; socio-behavioural illness.
However, there is now evidence that the poorest in developing countries face a triple burden of communicable disease, non-communicable disease and socio-behavioural illness. W.H.O (May 2013) [emphasis added]
It is vital to note here this new category of socio-behavioural illness and the careful wording of this title. In the First World culture’s emerged relativist framework there is the perpetual endeavour to avoid traditional labels and particularly the avoidance of moral language, as they may be construed as pejorative. Yet attempting to deny or deconstruct traditional morality does not mean ‘immorality’ vanishes from the socio-cultural arena; it cannot because we will always continue to suffer the ‘illness’ that immoral behaviour produces. Thus, it would appear, the necessary invent of this new category.
As early as 1950s both secular and Christian commentators were aware of this emerging paradigm, as secularism and post-modernism (all fuelled my various versions of Marxism) gained greater traction in the now Christ-jettisoning West.
Professor Hobart Mowrer who held positions as instructor at Yale and Harvard and in 1954 became president of the American Psychological Association also weighed in on what was then an emerging paradigm (and now seems to be entrenched into our Western culture) when he submitted the paper, “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” to the American Psychologist in 1960:
“For several decades we psychologists have looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and we have acclaimed our freedom from it as epic making. But at length we have discovered to be free in this sense to have the excuse of being sick rather than being sinful is to also court the danger of becoming lost. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity. And with neurotics themselves, asking, "Who am I? What is my deepest destiny? And what does living really mean?”
Another prominent psychologist William Doherty (1995) in his book entitled “Bridging Psychotherapy and Moral Responsibility”, recalls his thoughts on the issue as follows:
“Like many others, I was trained to avoid “should-ing” my clients, to never inflict the language of “ought” on them. I had been socialised into a therapy profession that by the 1970’s had developed the firm conviction that “should” entraps people into living life for someone else. According to this school of thought, the only authentic life is one based on heeding the dictates of “I want.”
Anglican 'legend' and once Chaplain to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, also took a swipe at this accountability diminishing framework.
“We live in a culture in which a whole gamut of scapegoats is ready at hand – our genes, our chemistry, temporary hormonal imbalance, our inherited temper and temperament, our parents failure during our early childhood, our upbringing, our education, our social environment – together these constitute an infallible alibi!”
Dr John R.W. Stott (‘Christ the Controversialist’)
The Gospel and Grace – where do they fit now?
If stigma is to be excised from the societal arena, then all vehicles that have the potential to generate that sense of stigma – including shame, guilt, sorrow and grief – must be removed, silenced, or otherwise amended in attempts to assuage the ‘sin’ sick soul.
So, where does the ‘Good News’ fit in this construct, and the Grace that has traditionally emblazoned this Gospel?
Grace – getting what you do not deserve, and Mercy – not getting what you do deserve, only have any semblance of meaning or context for significance when they pivot around something; measured against something? More on this later
The Gospel and the vehicle of Grace, seeks to ‘set you free’, ‘heal you’, ‘deliver you from evil’, ‘rescue and restore you’, ‘forgive your sins’ and make you whole.
However, what if the candidate believes they do not need any of these?
- I’m not bound!
- I’m not sick!
- I don’t need ‘delivering’!
- I don’t need rescue!
- I certainly have nothing to be sorry about!
Language is as important as are the terms and definitions it crafts. By that I mean the way we present or couch an issue can have huge bearing on how it is interpreted, and when it comes to God’s Grace the late 20th and early 21st century, language has been carelessly misused in our attempt to pitch the sale of this matchless construct and resource.
For Grace to be the undeserved favour it so richly manifests, by its very nature it must commence with a critical position from the outset. Grace, by its glorious presence not only identifies, but highlights (by juxtapose) the error, dysfunction and brokenness so revealed by the Holy Creator of the Universe and His standard.
Under Grace, the ‘favour’ can only be so if it is ‘undeserved’, meaning the party is/has done something contrary to a deserving posture. Clearly, all of humanity fall into this – according to the Divine proscriptions.
However, it is important to understand that the Grace of a Holy God never affirms the error, though it may support the individual in their attempts to do, be or otherwise behave, in a manner that is recalibrating toward righteousness. Grace never says ‘it’s okay that you have sinned, as if to diminish the harm of the action, but it is able to distinguish the person from the act and prescribes the way forward to escape, not merely the consequences of the error, but the actions that leads to it – ‘support’ in this context is not affirmation.
Divinely sourced Grace and Mercy do have limits, despite the ill-founded proclamations of Christian memes. As we alluded to earlier, the limit is reached when these invaluable resources are not recognized or required by the ones to who it is offered.
- “I don’t need undeserved kindness, as I’ve done nothing that warrants it”, or
- “I am simply deserving of a favour because I believe my life is rubbish and if there is a God, he owes me at least that!”
Both these scenarios disqualify the candidates needing of them. Thus, Grace and Mercy do not apply, simply teleological consequences, and Divine adjudication.
This was in operation during Christ’s incarnation. It is important to remember that Jesus Himself ‘shook dust off His feet’ when departing from those who refused His Good News and the Grace it bestowed as either not requiring it or not seeing value in it – and what’s more He counselled His followers to do likewise.
It is not abuse, nor ridicule, but it is an accusation – An accusation of ignoring and thus limiting the application (not offer) of Grace, that meant the reprobate cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were seen in a more positive light. At the very least it is a public disapproval (not affirmation nor support) of bad practice and the need to move toward others who realize they need it.
In all the history of error, injustice, bad practice, or whatever, it is the responsibility of Kingdom people – surrendered, self-denying and cross bearing people – to bring that Kingdom perspective to enhance, enable and empower by instruction and model (not ridicule, undermine, manipulate) people who may be acting contrary to that best-kingdom practice with impunity, and to the harm of others. We may not be malicious, nasty, vulgar or tyrannical (we all love quoting extreme expressions of error to put ourselves in better lights) but even if we were, Grace doesn’t condone mocking, ridicule or pejorative titling. However, Grace (as I’ve mentioned) actually calls out and highlights all that is contrary to God’s Glory, but more; it calls out that which hinders our adoption back into active Kingdom Family – that which stops the relationship that YHWH so longs to have with His highest creation.
As with God, so for His Ambassadors, we must understand that Grace never removes our Biblically based and Kingdom informed critical faculties – ever. It does, however, re-frame them to be redemptive in the pursuit of best practice. Not seeking punishment but rehabilitation and transformation; the ultimate intent of Grace.
However, If the later re-framing is not done, then it is a fatal misuse of this most precious Divine Construct, as the Parable of the Great Wedding Feast reveals Matthew 22: 1-13
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is renowned for his diatribe against what he called ‘cheap grace’, the following is just one such expression.
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…Costly grace is the Incarnation of God…Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cheap grace Vs Costly Grace)
Standard, measure, justice and…who says?
So, back to our opening question, what does an ‘undeserved favour’ have to pivot around to give it the worth and weight?
To investigate such a pivot point we could cite justice as a centre or at least starting point. However, justice too is still measured against another benchmark – a more seminal point of origin. The invoking of ‘justice’ declares there is a standard, a measure, a value of ‘rightness’ that must be upheld, or at the very least defended. But, from where does this standard, measure or value emerge and by what authority… Who says?
Humanists and secularists could spend hours, days in fact, debating such an origin, but until we have an agreed upon benchmark – a plumbline – that one would hope defines what is good, right and true, then it is difficult to call out an unjust act; well at least in any objective sense.
Let us pretend, at least for this short journey, that we have landed on some agreed upon standard of what is ‘good, right and true’. It is only then that we can craft prescriptions and proscriptions that uphold and defend against breaches of that position of justice and consequently give us standards that are good or bad, when juxtaposed with a person’s conduct.
It is only here that the incredible offerings of Grace and Mercy have any context, let alone any weight.
“All sufferers can find comfort in the solidarity of the crucified; but only those who struggle against evil by following the example of the crucified will discover Him at their side. To claim the comfort of the crucified while rejecting His Way is to advocate, not only for cheap Grace, but a deceitful ideology.”
Early Evangelical Reformers saw this spiritual and moral mandate as having far wider scope than mere personal salvation or even subjective moral conduct. They believed that human society cries out for peace, justice, order, and the conducts that bring best health, well-being, relational and work practices for all, that only God's Kingdom could bring. Of course, in a relativist society, this hunger to promote such on the unsubscribing culture is problematic,
Jesus Christ, the Messiah – The Saviour of the World taught us that, the Gospel of the Kingdom starts with ‘seeking first God’s jurisdiction, dominion and rule, and then His Standard for what is good, right, just and true’. (Matthew 6:33) Thus this all of life embracing message must not simply be proclaimed, it must also be enacted and embodied.
- Demonstrated and
This of course, by its very nature spills over into the public square, it can’t but not. The following excerpt from founder of Wheaton College in the Eighteenth century, puts ‘legs on this’ reality.
“The need of developing nation is to increase in wisdom, righteousness and strength and to cast off whatever is in consistent with that noble age to which youth aspires. Only that with is true and right can abide….Society is Perfect where what is right in theory exist in fact; where Practice coincides with Principle, and the Law of God is the Law of the Land…every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns…One cannot construct a perfect society out of imperfect men…every reformer needs a perfect state of society ever in his eye, as a pattern to work by, so far as the nature of his materials will admit…The Kingdom of God is Christ ruling in and over rational creatures who are obeying him freely and from choice, under no constraint but that of love…what John the Baptist and the Saviour meant when they preached the ‘kingdom of God’ was a perfect state of society…though this kingdom is not of this world, it is in it… those who locate Christ’s kingdom in the future to the neglect to the present and those who seek to construct a local heaven upon earth [are] shutting out the influences and motives of eternity.” Charles A Blanchard – founder Wheaton College (page 9,10 Discovering an Evangelical Heritage)
This robust passionate projection is never about ‘control’ of the public square for sake of homogeneity. It is however, about a relentless push with the Divine Posture, to usher in Kingdom best practice for all. So that indeed, the ‘rain’ of blessing can even fall on the unjust.
The Kingdom of Heaven is established not only in the perfect standard of His righteousness, but also done so in the way of the servant – the Way of the Cross. Reverend N.T. Wright in his work The Day the Revolution Began, put it like this. “The victory of the Cross will be implemented through the means of the Cross…Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed. This is how the Revolution continues.”
When Christians separate these two, they are at risk of; on the one hand becoming dictators, rather than ambassadors, educators and models. On the other hand, a posture of service without God’s Kingdom Righteousness creates a toxic entitlement that leaves the creature simply indulgent in their self-deified state (whatever that may be) and Idolatry sees community rule shift from the perfect divine order in love and grace, to either malevolent compliance driven domination, or an utter chaotic decay of any semblance of the divine identity, agency and capacity that was the humanity created in His Image.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the remarkable apologist and thinker Clive Staple Lewis, from this essay, The Abolition of Man.
“Dogmatic belief in objective values is necessary for the idea of Rule that is not tyranny and obedience that is not slavery.”
Shane W. Varcoe