On Grace, Cheap and Otherwise

This will be to some extent a riff on my last post, about the ludicrous situation in German schools where parents of a diagnosed “special needs” child have the absolute right to demand that their child be placed in regular classes in any of the tracks, irrespective of their child’s actual abilities, actual educational needs, and most importantly irrespective of the other children’s right to an effective, undisrupted education.

Later the same day I posted it I was chatting with someone who is both a retired classroom teacher and a retired priest.  I should observe that my interlocutor’s politics are sufficiently far-left that there are entire swathes of human existence that it’s no longer worth it to discuss.  The ultra-radical left position is Truth, Justice, and Light and no mere fact will be permitted to alter that conclusion.  Anyone who has ever had a conversation with a genuine doctrinaire communist will know the sensation.  This trait is sad for me to observe because I’ve known this particular person for many years now and it has only been comparatively recently that this intellectual and moral rot has set in.

And by the way, I do mean “moral” rot in every sense of the word.  It was from my interlocutor that I heard the statement that there is “no difference” between “fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims.”  Really? I asked.  I must have overlooked all those news reports about foot-washin’ Baptists blowing up commuter buses, or the snake-handlers strapping remotely-detonated explosive vests to retarded children, then launching them into crowded shopping centers.  By like token I seem to have overlooked the video of the Mennonites piloting airliners full of bystanders into office towers.  And who could forget the dramatic stories we’ve heard of the security forces intercepting the Hasidim on their way to the airport with suitcases full of plastic explosives?  I told my interlocutor that I had no interest in a God who could not, or a religion which does not, distinguish between on the one hand picketing an abortion clinic and blowing hundreds of people indiscriminately to kingdom come on the other.  In fact, any moral system which cannot discriminate between those two categories of action is not a serious system of thought and cannot and ought not be treated as such.

In any event, I expressed myself with some degree of acerbity on the wisdom of a bunch of UN bureaucrats, safely in their offices, decreeing that schools must be run on a transparently idiotic basis.  Well, my interlocutor puffed, after the horrors of the Holocaust it was “necessary to make a statement that there are certain kinds of behavior which are simply no longer tolerated.”  I said I thought the International Military Tribunal did a pretty good job of communicating that notion when it hanged all those perps.  I mean, snapping someone’s neck with a length of rope is a fairly unambiguous suggestion that you disapprove of something he’s done.

I then observed that the places where things like honor killings of teenage girls, female infanticide, slavery, debt peonage, and so forth are still practiced are precisely those societies who don’t give a shit what some UN scrap of paper says.  [Update (31 May 14):  And as if on cue, in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung we have a report on yet another gang rape of two girls in India.  First they raped the girls.  Then they hanged them, still living, in a mango tree, where their bodies were found.  Five men have been arrested, including three perps and two police officers who covered for them.  The girls, whom the police when notified refused to help because they were Untouchables, were cousins . . . 12 and 14 years old.]    It’s the societies where those sorts of things are conspicuously not done which will take that UN tomfoolery seriously and attempt to live by it.  With results as shown.  It’s kind of like the (by now tired) saw that pushing gun control because criminals have too many guns is like castrating yourself because the neighbors have too many children.

This then brought forth a lecture on “cheap grace.”  Everyone wants “cheap grace,” without effort or sacrifice.  Everyone wants this-that-and-the-other, “but no one wants to pay taxes.”  Quite apart from all the other logical flaws in that argument, I observed that destroying a child’s chance to get an education so that you can feel good about yourself for “making a statement” is about the cheapest grace I could think of.  And of course the vast majority of the leftish project is precisely that:  Using the coercive power of the state to force conduct which either does nothing to remedy an ill, or which can be shown to make the problem worse than it was, but which enables the people advocating its enactment to congratulate themselves on how virtuous they are.  It is, in short, the dynamic of what William Graham Sumner called “the forgotten man”:

“As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X.  Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X. . . .  What I want to do is to look up C.  I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man.  Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct.  He is the man who never is thought of. . . .  I call him the forgotten man… He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays . . . .”

The expression “cheap grace” comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who ended his life on a Nazi gibbet.  Here’s an excerpt from his explanation of it.  He being a theologian, it is couched in theological terms, which means it suffers from a degree of fuzziness that makes it very difficult to begin from this text and arrive at a useful answer to the question, “What am I supposed to do about this?” where “this” is an actual problem facing an ordinary human in the course of an ordinary life, a life of conflicting moral obligations in irreconcilable directions.

To illustrate:  I could, for example, donate significant portions of my income to the local help center, or the local humane society, or the local pregnancy crisis center, or the local food bank, or any number of other outfits I could pluck from a simple leafing through the telephone book.  All of those organizations are immediately and actively engaged in the assistance of those of God’s creatures who either cannot help themselves or have got themselves into a pickle from which they cannot escape by their own efforts.  And I know for a fact that every last one of them is operating on a shoe-string, never more than a payroll or two from shutting the doors.  On the other hand I have three sons, two of whom have developmental issues which require specific actions by our family, sometimes by our entire family.  Accomplishing these actions requires our family to arrange its existence to accommodate some unusual demands in terms of time, location, and not least money.  It is everything we can do — and not infrequently more — to stretch things to make those accommodations.  My giving a significant portion of our family’s income to those other organizations — irrespective of their worthiness — will produce an immediate and measurable detriment to the well-being of people for whom I have the highest moral responsibility.  To the extent that Congress decides to incorporate the marriage penalty into the Internal Revenue Code that likewise would have an immediate and measurable detrimental effect on my ability to fulfill my own moral duties to my children.  A rise of another dollar per gallon in the price of gasoline would, by increasing the cost of getting the wife to work and the boys to school, materially diminish the resources which we have available to make ends meet.  By “materially diminish” I mean reduce to the point where something needed — not nice-to-have, or even pretty-significant, but actually make-or-break — goes un-obtained as a result.

My interlocutor’s argument rests on a fundamental misunderstanding.  It necessarily assumes that my “not wanting to pay taxes” is my rejection of higher moral purpose in the allocation of that portion of my life (and my wife’s) that went into obtaining that money.  It is nothing of the sort.  It is, however, the rejection of the position that someone else may legitimately require that I consume my life in the furtherance of their moral vision, in the discharge of what they decide to be my duties.

But this “make-a-statement” public policy morality is deeply confused in an even more fundamental sense.  It is recognized by every serious thinker that what we do by compulsion neither entitles us to praise nor exposes us to censure.  We recognize physical duress as a legal defense to just about everything except murder.  By like token who has not seen someone preening about his virtue in doing X, Y, or Z, and thought, “Don’t pat yourself on the back, hoss; you had to do that anyway.”  Thus by compelling others or being compelled in our turn we cannot claim any moral points.

I’m no biblical scholar, but as I recall Jesus said, “Come and follow me”; he did not send draft notices or organize press gangs.  I also have this recollection that Jesus commanded that we give our own property, not that we go out and, at sword-point, take from some to give to others — chosen by you — so you can pat yourself on the back for your magnanimity.  I don’t recall Jesus demanding of the Roman governor that he introduce laws and policies which were known to exacerbate poverty and prevent or thwart the efforts of the poor to escape it.  When Jesus preached to the fishermen mending their nets, it was not about their duty to starve their families in the name of “sustainability.”

Oh, but my interlocutor claims, repeatedly in the Bible judgment is cast on Israel as a nation for its iniquity.  Guilt and virtue are thus evidently collective attributes, and so we can comfortably apply the moral principles which govern us as individuals to entire societies, so that I can pat myself on the back for making a statement which cements misery in place and even creates more.  I suggest this approach is theologically and historically ignorant, and morally repugnant as well.  As to the latter, collective guilt is precisely the same position taken by Stalin and Hitler.  On the other side of the same coin, it would condemn as deserving of incineration every child burned to cinders in Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.  I am not interested in a theology that affirmatively blesses that outcome.  And bless it is what it does, far beyond merely mourning it as a necessary evil, but an evil for God’s forgiveness of which we had better get on our knees and pray.  According to that mode of thought those children partook, and were precisely as guilty, as the hands who turned the valves on the gas chambers at Sobibor.  Again, I’m not interested in a God who can’t tell the difference.

As to the former point, the profound ahistorical character of this traipsing off to heaven or hell under one’s national banner, I observe that until the coming of Christ, the God whom we Christians worship was the tribal God of the Jews, and was recognized as such.  The truly revolutionary nature of Christ’s coming among us is revealed in the very beginning of the story, by the angel of the Lord who appears to the sore-afraid shepherds:  “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all nations.”  The Good News is not confined to the Jews, or to any other people.  It is for all, each and all of us.  Jesus did not preach to the power-brokers, to the soldiers or the administrators.  Further, I am unaware of any passage in any of the Gospels or the balance of the New Testament in which the enactment of statutes is prescribed as the device by which Christianity’s precepts are to be realized.  For that matter, if salvation or damnation is determined at the level of political units by collective political action, then no Christian until the time of Constantine could expect other than eternal damnation, because until then there was no Christianized political unit.  If one is to dispute that conclusion then one must accept as true the proposition that governmental action is not indispensable to Christianity (and if it is, then America’s got trouble with its First Amendment, but that’s a rant for another day) or to salvation for a Christian.  It then follows that one must ask, in terms of any particular government action, whether that action does or does not conform to the tenets of Christianity.  And here I must refer Gentle Reader to an expression used by Jesus:  “By their fruits shall ye know them.”  Not by how they look, or how they make the orchard keeper feel about himself, but by their fruits shall ye know the tree.  It is impossible to square that notion of judging-by-what-is-done with the make-a-statement approach to public policy.

Keeping all of the above in mind and working the subject back around to it, it seems to me that to the extent that Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace” can be applied to public policy questions at all, that the logic of his thought would reject the idea that “costly grace” is to be achieved through governmental ukase.  After all, does not the entire socialist experiment (an experiment on the lives of others, let us not overlook) practically encourage the view of, “I pay my taxes; I’m done”?  [Sure enough, if you look at charitable giving in the U.S., you find it is by a wide margin greater than among societies who’ve out-sourced their virtue to the bureaucracy.]  What moral grasping-of-the-nettle does it require to fade a check to Uncle Sugar every April 15?  Is not the Christian’s perpetual prayer, “O Lord, show me Your Way”?  Why is it important that the Way be revealed to us?  It can only be important if we may — indeed must — choose between the Way of God and the way of sin, without necessarily being able to tell plainly which is which.  Of what relevance is that prayer when our choice is reduced to (i) pay your taxes or (ii) have the IRS come and pick you clean, then send you to jail?  When I am deprived by my government of the means to satisfy any of them, what moral significance is it to agonize over where my duty (about which word General Lee was spot-on right, by the way) lies as among my children, my wife, my aged parents, the people who are employed in the law firm I’m expected to keep afloat, my clients, the local charities whose board meetings are exercises in making two-plus-two come out to seven?  When you deprive me of the means to give physical form and effect to my moral judgments, you reduce my moral agency to no more than an academic curiosity.

This attribute of collectivism is no accident, either.  The aspect which makes Marxism (and other doctrines which reduce man to a component mechanism in someone else’s grand design) such a monstrous philosophical system is that it denies the moral agency of man.  I mean, think about it:  Adam and Eve were already made in the image of God.  What needed they to “be like God,” as they are told?  Knowledge of good and evil, morality in short.  It is our moral capacity, our ability to decide between what is just and what is unjust and act accordingly, that is the essence of the divine spark within us.  The entire rest of creation beyond mankind is incapable of “good” or “evil.”  When you reduce me to being a cog in someone else’s machine, whether you believe the purpose of that machine is “social justice” or “national greatness” or “forging the new communist man,” what you do is deprive me of my birthright as a child of God.

I deny you may claim “grace” from having done so.

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