Editor’s note: As Lutherans, grace is at the heart of our faith understanding. But what does it look like to actually live out grace? In this series, we will explore what grace means and what it looks like to tangibly experience grace in action.
The prison chaplain started to take questions. After an hour of her presentation, we seminarians gathered in the small classroom on Chicago’s South Side sat quiet, digesting the breadth and scope of her work.
She found God calling her to speak gospel life to those serving time, usually a life sentence, for the most heinous crimes against humanity.
After a bit of an awkward silence I bluntly said, “How can you stomach to work with those people?” It was an honest, if self-righteous, question. The crimes that those under her care were convicted of made my stomach turn.
She was quiet herself for a moment. And then she lobbed true and achingly raw grace right at me. “Tim,” she said glancing at my name tag, “they are people too.”
How is grace a factor when dealing with those who purposefully hurt others? How is grace part of the equation when dealing with those who, with their words or actions, dehumanize and demonize others?
We need not look toward prisons to find examples of dehumanizing behavior and language, of course. That’s an extreme example. If we’re to believe the latest polling on the topic, we are, as a nation, more polarized than ever, often with each side accusing the other of seeking to cause harm to humanity in some form or fashion.
If we follow Jesus, who calls us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Mark 12:31) and to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28), this widening polarization should cause us no small amount of unease and squirming. We have a responsibility toward those we disagree with.
How is grace part of the equation when dealing with those who, with their words or actions, dehumanize and demonize others?
And while I can’t say that I know exactly how to live in this world embodying the grace that I hear Jesus calling us to, I can say that I think it begins with a posture that continually falls back on the refrain “they are people too.”
I may disagree with them, but they are people too. I may find their words hurtful, hateful or even harmful, but they are people too. In the most extreme instances, they have done terrible things, but they are people too. And as much as I hate to admit it, this is true whether or not they extend this same grace toward me or others.
Grace is a posture that, in its base form, understands that those formed from the dust of the ground are, somehow, formed with a trace of the Creator on them. This means that, even if I desire to dispose of their words, and dispose them, they are not disposable by God.
And honestly, I find grace totally unsatisfying for my ego. My flawed heart often desires the opportunity to prove how right I am. When people harm others or speak in dehumanizing ways, my first reaction is usually one that seeks to harm in kind. I seek retribution.
But retribution can only condemn. Grace, on the other hand, can save. And our God is one of salvation.
I suffer under the sway of grace because it makes my attempts to prove my rightness against people’s wrongness ultimately impotent. This is the way that our own Martin Luther speaks of God’s grace: as something we suffer under. Our egos want to plead our case, but grace overpowers it.
In a world of right and wrong, a posture of grace fills the air with divine calls for right relationship over simple right and wrong; for purposeful love over pure hate; for sacrificial service instead of power.
Grace calls us to chaplain the soul of the person instead of dwelling on raw condemnation.
I do not know how we wholly embody God’s radical grace in a world of imperfection, pain and real consequential differences. But, for me, it begins with the reminder: “Tim, they’re people too.”