We see this in politics and most certainly, in the Church. When was the last time you can recall a Christian leader permanently leaving the public stage after it being revealed he/she was involved in some sort of serious scandal? They don’t leave, they just reinvent themselves.
As I record this, former congressman Anthony Weiner is staying in the race for mayor of New York. In case you forgot, he’s the one who resigned in 2011 after sexually suggestive tweets he sent to virtual strangers became public. He’s staying in the race, despite reports of serial sexting under the nom de thumb “Carlos Danger.” He joins disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer, who is running for comptroller, on the ballot.
It isn’t only New York: recently, South Carolina voters returned Mark Sanford, who ruined the phrase “hiking the Appalachian Trail” for the rest of us, to Congress. These and other instances of politicians “falling from grace” and then being restored to a measure of respectability, are usually explained by the statement “Americans are a forgiving lot.”
As a Christian, I am all for forgiveness, as I’m sure you are. But what’s on display in these instances isn’t so much an example of forgiveness as it is of “cheap grace.”
That’s how David French put it at National Review. The expression “cheap grace” comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.”
“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is the grace we bestow on ourselves [and] the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Ultimately, it is “grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
As French pointed out, “the pattern is familiar and depressing: Public stumble, public apology, public rebirth-and then the next public stumble follows with depressing frequency.” Some politicians “opt out of scandal” by “marrying their mistresses and prancing in front of cameras with their latest adoring spouse,” but the end result is the same: a parody of forgiveness and grace that makes the real thing increasingly unrecognizable.
I agree with French that the allure of “cheap grace” is easy to understand.
“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.”
But grace and true forgiveness are supposed to alter the trajectory of our lives, not preserve it. They are supposed to make us better as well as wiser. How this might happen is illustrated in the story of John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War. In 1963, Profumo was at the center of a huge sex-and-spies scandal that eventually brought down Britain’s conservative government.
Profumo resigned “disgraced and stripped of all public dignities.” Yet when he died in 2006, the Telegraph wrote “few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him.” That’s because, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Profumo “did the hardest thing for a political figure. He really went away.”
“He didn’t give interviews, never wrote a book, didn’t go on TV.”
Instead, he spent the next forty years working at “a rundown settlement house called Toynbee Hall in the East End of London.” Really working. He washed dishes and cleaned toilets.
In a 2003 interview, in response to the question “what have you learned from this place?” he replied, “humility.”
And that’s precisely what is missing in our culture of public confession and cheap grace.