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Costly Grace

Talk is cheap. It is easy to speak well-worn religious platitudes in front of audiences that want to her such God talk. It is easy to genuflect deeply before a grotesque hybrid of reactionary politics and the American civil religion called by the proper name Christian. Politics of this kind is an example of cheap grace. The role of faith so far in the 2012 election ought not to be measured according to cheap, easy God talk, but rather it ought to be measured by policy positions. If candidates choose to make their religious beliefs part of the public discourse, then they hand us a measuring stick by which to assess their sincerity. The question becomes: how do a politician’s positions reflect a spiritual morality informed by h/er profession of faith?

The idea of cheap grace is a concept expounded by Christian pastor and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist turned conspirator against Hitler in Nazi Germany who was executed April 9, 1945. He chose to side with the oppressed while his nation and its sense of patriotism and national unity demanded lock-step allegiance to itself. Bonhoeffer made a decision to follow the teachings of Jesus as he understood them rather than follow the prevailing social and political currents of his time.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned the importance of the social gospel, the responsibility of Christians to insist upon social justice in a realistic way, from Reinhold Niebuhr while a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While in New York, he taught and learned from African Americans at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He learned a theology of liberation through African-American spirituals. His time in the United States fueled Bonhoeffer’s passion for social justice. He came to understand that theology, political/economy, social concerns and ethics were inextricably interconnected. He reasoned that to be a true Christian—one who follows the teachings of Jesus—one was obligated to stand with the least, the weak, the oppressed of a society.

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