Bonhoeffer and chicken sandwiches

The Christian has to let grace truly be grace enough so that the world does not lose faith in this cheap grace. In being worldly, however, in this necessary renunciation required for the sake of the world–no, for the sake of grace!–the Christian can be comforted and secure in possession of that grace which takes care of everything by itself. So the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by grace! That is cheap grace as justification of sin, but not justification of the contrite sinner who turns away from sin and repents. It is not forgiveness of sin which separates those who sinned from sin. Cheap grace is that grace which we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from “The Cost of Discipleship”

One of the more interesting phenomena I recently saw in the social networking world was the heated arguments and mass de-friendings that occurred over the question, “Should I, or should I not, buy a chicken sandwich?”

Yeah, I’m talking about that whole Chick-Fil-A thing.

Some people I knew made it incredibly clear they planned on boycotting Chick-Fil-A because of their CEO’s habit of giving large sums of money to anti-gay marriage causes, got into arguments with their more conservative friends, and went on a de-friending spree when it got nasty. Others I knew made a big deal how they were going to buy all the Chick-Fil-A products they could poke in their mouths because they felt very strongly about heteronormative marriage, and proceeded to get into similar arguments, with similar results.

I live more than 150 miles away from the nearest Chick-Fil-A. I think it’s clear I don’t have a dog in this particular hunt. That said, no matter which side folks chose in this brouhaha, what disturbed me most was the absolute and self-righteous surety that some people displayed, standing behind whichever brand of “Christian” principles they chose to embrace. Whether they were claiming a literal, more conservative brand of Christianity, or a more liberal Christian theology, what disturbed me was the ones still standing after the smoke cleared sounded…um…a bit…uh…smug…in their convictions. They were doing God’s will, and that was that, and if someone disagreed, well, that was just too doggone bad. It sort of seemed a little bit how I imagine the Crusades, only with processed chicken.

Now, mind you, I’m talking two ends of a very broad spectrum. I think a lot of people quietly chose their side and acted, and a few stated their opinion and didn’t engage, and those of us who would not even be in the same town as a Chick-Fil-A any time soon simply watched it play out and said, “Well…I see where they’re coming from but it’s not my battle.”

Watching it all play out from a distance reminded me for some reason of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of “cheap grace” and “costly grace”–perhaps because when we make choices on what we will or won’t purchase, what we will or won’t eat, primarily on moral principle, and the act we choose is sufficient for feeling satisfied with one’s morality in it, we run the risk of engaging in cheap grace. Costly grace demands that we look at the lives behind our decision or the lives affected by it.

Costly grace reminds us that in a successful economic boycott, yes, the CEO of that company takes a hit, but the larger consequence is the potential loss of jobs by those least able to afford it. Hurting the pockets of a man who runs a chain of chicken sandwich restaurants also means to hurt a sizable number of minimum wage employees.

There’s costly grace on the other side of that coin too. Costly grace reminds us that if we support businesses whose CEO’s donate to causes or organizations that we believe have damaging consequences with regard to human capital, our money might be indirectly contributing to the harming of lives we would never have intentionally harmed.

Costly grace demands we ask of ourselves, “Is what I am choosing b/c of my own wants building up or tearing down the Body of Christ? Does my wish for a creature comfort bring humanity closer to God’s realm or does it tear it asunder?”

Furthermore, cheap grace requires considerably less of our own suffering. Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship at the height of Nazi Germany’s rise to power (1937.) It’s important to remember some facts of the times. After Germany’s defeat in WWI, they were geographically punished by loss of acquired lands and economically punished first by the economic cost of that war, followed by the Depression. An emotionally depressive pall gripped the country. Hitler stirred a sense of identity in the people, and it certainly would have felt good. The consequences of maintaining that identity were lost on most people, partially because it was hidden to some degree and partially because a beaten, hungry populace didn’t care to look. The people who did see it were most likely afraid. Bonhoeffer’s writings were both a clarification that the Christian path required humility and suffering, yet an urging to “be not afraid.” He was probably aware earlier than most what the cost of discipleship, at least in Nazi Germany, entailed. The cost of his own discipleship was execution.

The fact is, our economic choices based on principle alone don’t cost us much.

However, if we desire to follow the more difficult path–the path of costly grace–we will discover that as we look behind the principle and directly at the people involved, more is required of us. What else will we choose to do for the sake of those people? What else is God asking us to do, or to give up, or to do without, for the sake of a broken world?

One of my favorite lines in the movie The Wizard of Oz is when Toto exposes the wizard and he says, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Au contraire. May we always see the people behind the curtain, and may they be our prime driving force in our striving for a right relationship with God, rather than a sense of surety that our choices put us in favor with God.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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