Tag Archives: religion

Voting for Grace

This election season is about to come to a close.

In this last week, there has been an uptick in the intensity and urgency coming from both sides as Tuesday’s election approaches.

I have noticed, as I have been listening to and reading some of the chatter about the election, that “values voting” has risen quietly to the surface. These “values” are, at least according to the recent ad released by Mike Huckabee, as “Marriage. Life. Freedom.” (Consequently, the Mike Huckabee ad was an ad that came out during the summer, funded by the group Catholics Called to Witness.)

When these values are listed, we are immediately supposed to know that the most important and dangerous issues facing us as a nation are gay couples who wish to be recognized by the state, abortion (which has been legal for forty years) and religious liberty. Religious liberty being that value that is already written in the constitution.

I have become increasingly frustrated with these “values,” and the claim that many Christians make that these are the only values that matter. Especially since, as a lifelong Christian, and a “values voter” myself, I cannot recognize any of these values as actually having any urgency.

Instead, when I go to the polls, the “value” that I will use to make my decision is that of grace.

Grace, of course, is a biblical value. Paul, in particular, is quite pushy in the grace department, which makes him rather soft on crime/sin. “You are not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14) Being bound by grace means that we (Christians) are bound to Jesus Christ, who gave us the “free gift of eternal life.” (Romans 6:23) This also frees us from the rather dire consequences of our actions, namely death for sin.

Voting for grace means ignoring the call for individual responsibility, because grace undermines individual responsibility entirely. In the system of individual responsibility, each of us is on the hook for all of the decisions we make, including the bad ones. Under grace, there are still consequences for our actions, but those consequences are softened. When we sin, we often have to deal with the immediate consequences of our actions, but we are offered opportunity for grace and forgiveness.

Our country is on an “individual responsibility” kick. There is a belief permeating our politics that whatever someone’s station in life, they earned it absolutely and without question. This seems true for the very poor as well as the very wealthy. This position is naive at best. Most of us who are wealthy are not wealthy just because we worked hard. Lots of people work hard who are not wealthy. The wealthy are wealthy because, somewhere along the line, someone helped them. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t made good decisions or choices. Many have. But wealthy people are not islands. And lots of people make wise choices.

Likewise, those of us who are poor are not poor just because we are lazy and dependant on the government. Lots of people are lazy and don’t end up completely destitute. More likely, those of us who are poor are poor because we are trapped in a system. The system is particularly hard on those who are physically and mentally disabled. Other people who are poor have simply encountered bad luck. To be sure, some poor people have made bad choices. But lots of people make bad choices.

Voting on grace means that I believe that our fortunes are shared – both good and bad. When my neighbor has to sleep outside because he does not have a home to go to, that is on me. (About 3.5 million of our neighbors every year experience homelessness.) When my neighbor gets sick, it is my responsibility to make sure that she is cared for. (About 46 million of our neighbors are still without health insurance.)

Many pundits have claimed that this election is more about the economy than it is about values. They say this as if the economy is without values. This election, I intend to vote for grace. This means voting for an economy that will care for the poor, the sick, and the displaced. This means ignoring the false ideals of individual responsibility and realizing that I am my brother’s keeper. Jesus Christ gave freely his own life so that I might live. The very least I can do is give a few tax dollars so that the poor might eat.

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Sell All You Have, and Take Responsibility for Your Own Damned Life

The other day I read this article over at the NY Times.

In it, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, along with his college roommate, Scott, tells the story of how Scott was diagnosed with prostate cancer. To give a quick and unfair summary (you should go read the piece yourself, if you haven’t), Scott quit his job, and to save money, he quit health insurance. He did not get annual physicals. He ignored early signs of a potentially serious problem. He finally got treatment when he spiked a fever and his health was obviously deteriorating. Scott had Stave IV prostate cancer, a diagnosis that likely could have been avoided if he had sought regular preventative care. (Prostate cancer, if caught early, is often something that men live with. It can be slowed and contained in many cases.)

So today, Scott is still uninsured, but is being treated for his cancer. His medical bills are in excess of half a million dollars right now, and he has qualified for charity care. The hospital is covering his expenses. Some doctors are intentionally not billing him. He is being taken care of.

Now, let’s be clear here. Scott made a stupid and irresponsible series of decisions. He could have afforded health insurance, but chose not to get it, due to the cost. Ditto for regular physicals. Ditto for getting early symptoms checked out. At ever step of the way, he made the decision that most benefited his short-term financial desires, without taking into consideration the very real financial (as well as physical) risks. He knows he made the wrong choices. He admits it. And he very well may pay with his life.

In the piece, Kristof asks whether we want to live in a country where a person’s mistake or irresponsible behavior lands him with a death sentence. He writes, “We all make mistakes, and a humane government tries to compensate for our misjudgments. That’s why highways have guardrails, why drivers must wear seat belts, why police officers pull over speeders, why we have fire codes. In other modern countries, Scott would have been insured, and his cancer would have been much more likely to be detected in time for effective treatment.”

The response to this article has been, not surprisingly, mixed. Some (lefties like me) say that this is the reason that we need affordable health care to be available to all people in the United States.

(Side note, Scott could have afforded insurance, and chose not to buy it. There are many Americans who are not so fortunate as to be able to afford insurance.)

Others (who are more right-leaning) claim that Scott is essentially getting what he deserves. He was irresponsible. He screwed up. Why should anyone else take responsibility for his irresponsibility? Particularly, why should government take responsibility for a person’s irresponsibility?

You reap what you sow, in other words.

Now, here’s the thing. Some of the people responding with the hard-line responsibility jargon are also those who are deeply committed Christians. I do not mean this in an ironic sense. They are compassionate in their private lives. They love God. They care for their neighbors. The believe and depend on the grace of Jesus Christ.

And they are undeserving of that grace.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:21-24

Most Christians believe, in one way or another, that they are ultimately dependent upon the grace of God. It is a grace that is given freely. We acknowledge that we are sinners, and that we are ultimately undeserving of the grace that is given.

Why, then, do we insist on personal responsibility when we are all recipients of grace of which we are fundamentally undeserving?

When I was in high school, the phrase WWJD became popular. “What would Jesus do?” became the popular question to ask. The answer was often some variation of “be nicer.” It was important to show compassion and love.

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”” Matthew 19:21

Jesus sets up a prerequisite for those who would follow him. FIRST, you care for the poor. You sell ALL YOU HAVE and you give the money to the poor. You do not, presumably, ask why the poor are poor, or accuse them of laziness. You give them your money. THEN you follow Jesus.

I will say this. I have fallen short of this prerequisite. I have a lot of stuff. I make sure that I am taken care of before I give a buck to the homeless guy in the Kroger parking lot. Then, if I do give a buck, I usually assume that he is undeserving of that dollar, because he’ll probably spend it on booze.

I fall short all the time. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. And I am thankful for the grace of God. I know that forgiveness is a possibility for me, though I have done nothing in my own life that actually merits that forgiveness.

Why are we content to live in a country in which grace cannot be extended to those who live in it? The Lord’s prayer asks, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

We all have debts; whether they are spiritual, financial, or personal, they are there. And many of us count on pure grace for forgiveness. Because we know that we cannot possibly earn that grace. We are too far in debt.

The difference seems to be, in the case of much of the Christian Right, that grace and salvation can be extended to those in the great hereafter, but so long as we have flesh on our bones and blood in our veins, each of us is on his or her own.

When it comes to health insurance, or food stamps, or housing, or childcare, the Christian (and Corporate Capitalist) Right seems to forget the grace that is freely given and insist that everyone must take responsibility. No really. Live with the consequences of your choices, even if those consequences are death. The ideology that Mitt Romney is putting forth in his presidential campaign is the super individual. We are all responsible only for our own, individual actions and decisions. If someone makes a poor choice, so be it. Let him rot.

You know, treasure in heaven.

And if you don’t have health insurance, I guess you’ll cash in on that treasure a lot sooner than those of us who have made all of the right decisions.

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Consequences

Trigger warning: sexual abuse.

Today is a day for… I don’t even know. Justice is not quite the word, because when it comes to sexual abuse against children, there is very little justice that can actually be achieved. I have in mind the image of Lady Justice, blindfolded, holding the balanced scales. In cases of sexual abuse against young people, there is simply no balance possible. So, this is a day for a moderate kind of recognition of the real-life consequences of the actions of those who perpetrate abuse as well as those who work to shield the perpetrators from the consequences of their actions.

Yesterday, the NCAA announced sanctions against Penn State University for the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. A $60 million fine. Vacating a decade’s worth of victories for the Penn State football team and their coach Joe Paterno. A ban on post-season play for four years. And though it was not part of the sanctions, Penn State removed the statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside of Beaver Stadium.

There is a saying in 12-step circles that it is right to allow an addict to have the benefit of his or her own consequences. In the case of addicts, this means that the family members and friends are doing the addict a disservice by shielding him or her from the consequences of her or his destructive behavior. And the truth is, the consequences remain, even when the addict is shielded from them. Instead of the addict suffering the consequences, often times, the consequences fall to the children or other family members. This is neither just nor healthy, and the fallout almost always does more damage than if the addict had been allowed to experience the consequences herself.

What we are seeing at Penn State is the fallout after entirely too much time, energy, and money was spent shielding Jerry Sandusky from the consequences of his destructive behavior. NPR ran a piece this morning in which some students were upset that they are being penalized for Sandusky’s actions. And, of course, they have the right to be angry. They are experiencing the fallout of an extended delay of consequences. But let us be clear. The NCAA is not the bad guy here. There is plenty of blame and anger to be spread around, but it ought not be directed at those who are finally enforcing consequences for a decade of cover-up. The fallout always happens, and the fallout is not necessarily just.

It is for this reason that I have to wonder when the fallout will come down in the Catholic Church, and who will suffer the consequences.

Today Monsignor William Lynn sentenced. Last week, Monsignor Lynn was found guilty of child endangerment for participating in a cover-up of sexual abuse. Let’s make this clear. Monsignor Lynn allowed priests he knew to be predators to continue to minister to children.

His sentence is 3-6 years. Now, apparently, the defense lawyers are appealing the court’s decision, and the appeal has a significant chance of being successful. The reasoning behind the appeal is that Monsignor Lynn never directly supervised children.

Monsignor Lynn is really a middle-man in this scandal. He did not abuse anyone directly. Apparently he even had moments when he wanted to document and report the abuse. “But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua instead had the list destroyed, Lynn chose to remain in the job and obey his bishop – by keeping quiet.”

I fear that we have not yet begun to see the real fallout from the abuse dolled out by predatory priests and the cover-up that extends all the way up the ladder to the Vatican. At Penn State, after a decade of sexual abuse perpetrated by one man, the university cleaned house, and the fallout is to the tune of $60 million, and other sanctions, most of which will be felt rather acutely by the students who had nothing to do with the abuse. In the Catholic Church, we are looking at decades of abuse by who-knows-how-many priests, and what we see most often is a single diocese making token settlements to a group of abuse victims.

All actions have consequences, and when the offender is shielded from the consequences of his or her actions, there is always someone else who ends up bearing the brunt of it. I don’t yet know how to predict who will bear the brunt of the fallout from the Catholic Church’s efforts to keep the misconduct of its priests quiet and secret.

“Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

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