BEFORE “AMAZING GRACE,” LET’S SEE REPENTANCE!
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is A Verb!
It has been almost a month since the June 17 night-time massacre of nine black worshippers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged perpetrator of that terroristic act of mass murder, a 21 year old white man named Dylann Root, has been captured and jailed. The family members of the slain valiantly confronted Root during court proceedings to express their pain and to offer prayers for his conversion from a person of hate. They have buried their slain loved ones. But they will forever bear soul-deep wounds.
One of the things that I found striking during President Obama’s eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney was his decision to talk about grace and lead Reverend Pinckney’s grief-stricken widow, daughters, family members, congregation, community, and colleagues in singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Mr. Obama delivered a moving eulogy. He has a decent singing voice. “Amazing Grace” is a wonderful hymn that holds special meaning for black churches and congregations.
But as I watched Mr. Obama speak about grace and sing that “hymn of the church,” I reflected on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship.
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. … Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. … The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything else can be had for nothing.
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance …
Ponder those words: “no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”
When has anyone expressed contrition about nurturing and perpetrating the systemic sin of racism and wicked tolerance for inequality that fed Dylann Root’s soul?
When have we heard a word of repentance concerning the systemic and pervasive racism that still drives so much of life in South Carolina, the South, and the rest of the United States?
When President Obama sang about “Amazing Grace” he invited, inadvertently or intentionally, Pastor Pinckney’s grieving family, congregation, community, and the nation to embrace the “cheap grace” Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced. He did not stand before a grieving family and demand that South Carolina and our nation repent from systemic racism. He did not demand repentance from people who built their personal, political, and cultural fortunes on white supremacy to insist that the victims of white supremacy not express righteous outrage at the latest example of the terrorism that stalks people of color every day.
Mr. Obama sang “Amazing Grace.” The congregation stood and joined the singing.
And I wondered, who confessed to being lost? Who confessed to being blind? Who admitted the wretchedness mentioned in the very first words of that hymn? Who named that wretchedness in the context of the massacre at Mother Emanuel? Who accepted personal responsibility for being part of that wretchedness, supporting it, profiting from it, and pandering to it?
What did the repentance involve?
When did the repentance happen?
What does it mean when unrepentant people brazenly sing “Amazing Grace” in the face of horrifying evidence of their complicity with systemic racism and in the faces of a grieving widow, children, congregation, and community?