Lent X: In Memoriam Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grace, cheap perhaps.

bonhoefferI’m not used to this sort of thing. I like to hang around theological types but I don’t “get” theology because I have a terrible difficulty absorbing conceptual thought or reflection.

I’m aware the phrase “cheap grace” came from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer happens to be one of my few heros because he had the courage to do something I could never do in a million years: as I heard it, he surrendered a tenured position at Union Theological Seminary in New York and returned to Germany to join the resistance against Hitler and the Nazis.

It is a total coincidence that I thought of Bonhoeffer this afternoon. That is to say, it was a coincidence if you believe such things are possible. I am far from sure about that.

Because on this day 64 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hanged from a gallows in the Flossenburg concentration camp, only weeks before the liberating armies of the U.S. and Great Britain. As much as I am certain he was not death obsessed and ripe for martyrdom, I think he knew he would not get out of the war alive.

I don’t entirely understand Bonhoeffer’s concept of grace, cheap or expensive. I am certain that cheap grace leaves us fundamentally unchanged, while authentic grace both changes us and exacts a heavy price. It required an amendment of life, or maybe, at the very least, a painful examination of where we are as opposed to where we should be.

The words of the Jesus Prayer that lives deeply inside the Orthodox Christian tradition: Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s all there is. You can say it with a prayer rope to aid the repetitions. You don’t need to. Because I suspect Bonhoeffer would agree with the fundamental premise: we are sinners. The best of us is sinful. Unless we confront it and own the totality of our errors, the harder it becomes to expiate those sins. They seem to keep piling up like spiritual dust bunnies that take over your house.

Cheap grace is obtained by perfunctory Confessions or Reconciliations. Maybe you cannot fool God but you can fool yourself and you can fool the priest hearing you. It is obtained by receiving the Host at the Eucharist and then going out and, having consumed the Body and Blood of Christ, and then returning to the round of personal and public betrayals, of screwing around and cheating others, of acting as though the sacrament alone would free us from the responsibility to behave morally. The Sacraments become freestanding and disconnected from our “real” lives which are of course infinitely more important than the dog and pony show that happens in church or in a reconciliation room. And so we indulge in the delusion that the grace we receive is the real deal when instead it’s a piece of dry wafer and a sip of wine. 

I am as much to blame as anyone. Why tonight I was sent these thoughts is beyond me. I suspect I am being enjoined to read Bonhoeffer. Not reread him, but actually surmount my learning disabilities and concept-phobic behavior and push through the unforgiving force of Bonhoeffer’s prose. In other words, start my spiritual practice or penance (we do we recoil at that word?) after Easter and start reading a theologian who greatly honored but I fear may go into unsettling territory.

Which only means he was doing his job. And maybe it’s time for me to help him.

May be the many Graces of this Easter–both pain and joy–be with all of us.


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