Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
— Deitrich Bonhoeffer.
Although I feel vaguely sacrilegious saying this, when I first heard the name “Carlos Danger” yesterday, the very next name that came to my mind was the heroic Dr. Bonhoeffer’s (for those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s compelling life story, here are the basics). His formulation of “cheap grace” – the easy grace we give ourselves – felt appropriate to not just the ongoing Anthony Weiner trainwreck but also to the Eliot Spitzer comeback and to Mark Sanford’s recent reelection as well. And I’m not just picking on politicians. The Oprah confession has become such a staple of modern pop culture that it’s a virtual standing joke.
The pattern is familiar and depressing: Public stumble, public apology, public rebirth — and then the next public stumble follows with depressing frequency. Certain Republican politicans have become adept at opting out of scandal by marrying their mistresses and prancing in front of cameras with their latest adoring spouse. At least Spitzer and Weiner have been able to keep their families intact, so far. (Memo to allegedly Christian conservative pols: Your marriage maneuver may work with some Republican primary voters, but I don’t see any biblical evidence that it works to placate the One whose opinion actually matters.)
We’re all susceptible to cheap grace. Perhaps that’s why we’re so eager to bestow it on others. Failure is embarrassing. Shame is unbearable. We want to close the worst chapters of our lives as quickly as possible and just get on with living on the same trajectory as before, minus the embarrassment. Such an outlook, however, neglects true repentence — invariably to our detriment.
At its theological core, repentence represents a true “turning,” not just a feeling of shame, and certainly not a mere cessation of the narrow set of behaviors that caused the shame. Saying, “I haven’t sexted for a whole year” hardly defines or represents a truly penitent heart.
I’d recommend reading Peggy Noonan’s recent profile of John Profumo, the disgraced British politician, who responded to his scandal not by regaining power but by serving the poor, in the most humble form imaginable (cleaning toilets and washing dishes). That is a true turning, a true rejection of the person he was.
There is no politician so brilliant, so captivating, and so charismatic that we need them in our lives even in spite of their scandal and shame. Sure, some may go on to do fine work even as their personal lives fall apart, but do we need them?
We do, however, need examples of repentance. In other words we don’t need their “public service” — the name politicans give to their quest for power — but we do need the true public service of humility, honorable living, and redemptive suffering. We need the Cross and the sanctification that follows its embrace, but even in the absence of that vital spiritual transformation, simple humility would be a vast improvement.
Go away, Anthony Weiner. Go away and do some good. The people of New York will survive without your leadership.