Greg Carey: Grace Inside the Church and Out

When I was in middle school, I committed an act of vandalism significant enough to elicit a police investigation. Three weeks passed before I was called into the principal's office to meet the detectives. I thought I'd gotten away with it. I still managed a firm denial, but the police already had a confession from my friend and accomplice. Also, an eyewitness had pegged us. We were busted.

I had no idea what would come next. Without our knowledge, the police handed the matter over to the school system. A couple of weeks later my Mom and I were seated before the superintendent of education. He issued a stern warning, and I was required to work off the damages. That's it.

I got off light, as did my friend. Honestly, I don't recall doing much work in compensation. And I never heard of the incident again.

We all have life stories of our own. In mine, this turn of events stands as a landmark. I was a nice kid and a nice student, but I had issues to work through. I experienced this act of grace as a wake-up call, and I never did anything so blatantly destructive again. Moreover, I idolized my grandfather, who was as decent a person as anyone would ever meet. He experienced the pain of knowing what I'd done, and he died only a couple of months later. His memory still inspires me to the most challenging standard: everyday decency is much harder to come by than occasional acts of petty heroism. The grace I received from my community set me free for a more intentional way of living.

I'm using a theological word here, grace. In theology grace involves God's basic disposition toward humanity, God's characteristic way of bestowing love and favor toward us. We Christians like to say that grace is unmerited: God extends kindness toward all of us regardless of our relative degrees of rectitude. We further believe that grace has the power to change us. Encountering grace, we experience joy and gratitude - so we begin to act differently.

There's more to grace than I've sketched here, much more, but let's go back to my twelve year old self sitting in that administrator's office. The superintendent mentioned that I was a good student. I didn't cause much trouble, he said, although I probably got into more mischief than most kids. He also noticed that my Mom was a public school teacher herself, a single mom making a positive contribution to society. Those factors justified his kindness toward me. My friend received the same treatment.

We also both happened to be white.

What I experienced as grace was compromised by a large measure of privilege. Who my momma was and what she did for a living. Her education, which led to me coming to school ready to read and do math, knowing how to act in an academic environment. Our race. All these factors protected me from the criminal justice system.

Compared with our peers, the United States is a relatively cruel society. With our inequitable health care system, our children die at rates nearly twice what occurs among our peer nations. We incarcerate our own citizens at five times the global average. Education quality varies dramatically within our society, to degrees unheard of in other wealthy nations. And we convince ourselves that such realities are normal.

In my view this reality has a theological dimension. Our cruelty correlates with our religiosity. Did you know that white Protestants, evangelical and mainline alike, are slightly more likely to support the death penalty than are other white Americans? Other research links conservative Protestants with relatively punitive opinions regarding criminal justice. Perhaps most telling, folks who adhere to biblical literalism are likely to favor harsher punishments for criminals, whereas those who attend church frequently tend not to favor harsh sentencing. Apparently religious activity makes us kinder - except when it's accompanied by certain kinds of theology. Chew on that a minute.

In other words, religion plays some role in our opinions regarding crime and punishment. But what really matters is the kind of religion we practice and the kinds of religious communities we build.

Our current political climate could scarcely be more lacking in grace. Needless to say, we've elected a presidential candidate who tweets insults at anyone who crosses his path, one who gleefully mocked a reporter's disability and now denies having done so. But we're all in this together to some degree. Any expert will tell you that violent crime has been declining significantly in the United States over the past 25 years or so, but most Americans believe things are getting worse. For some reason we resonate with fear - and fear rarely inspires grace.

Receiving grace should lead us to extend grace toward others. That's how it's supposed to work. Inside the church, we have a long way to go.