The Thickness of Grace
We live in an atmosphere choked with the fumes of ungrace
Grace is what makes human coexistence possible.
Every thriving relationship in history—between friends, family, communities, and countries—has been saturated with grace. Grace is what lets us stumble, fall, get back up, and try again. Grace is what welcomes you back after you have failed someone or failed yourself.
Grace is what the Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr calls “the ‘x’ factor.” It knits families, friendships, and countries back together after betrayal, hurt, and even violence. It’s the father running to embrace the prodigal son when he’s starving, penniless, and drenched in shame. It’s refusing to reduce people to the sum of their worst actions. We see it in the humility of the utterance “There but for the grace of God go I.”
True grace is otherworldly. It goes against every instinct we have to seek revenge for wrongs or to shame and humiliate people who have acted immorally or unethically. It is what the theologian Dorothee Sölle, who grew up in Nazi Germany, called “borrow[ing] the eyes of God.” It enables us to see the divinity in every person, no matter what they’ve done, what they believe, or who they voted for. Grace is giving other people space to not be you.
Grace is the original self-care. It shushes the hectoring inner critic that tells us we are too much, too little, too fat, too thin, too good, and not good enough. Grace invites us off the hedonic treadmill of relentless achievement and success, which never delivers the happiness it promises. Grace doesn’t care what size your waist is and celebrates every new wrinkle as evidence of wisdom earned. Grace shrugs at your unachieved New Years’ resolutions and teaches you to be kind to yourself, just because. Grace reminds you of the “love yourself” part of Jesus’s command “Love others as much as you love yourself.”
Grace is amazing.
It’s the sweet sound that cracks open a hardened heart. It smooths the edges of rough regret about the things we did and the things we failed to do. It gives us permission to accept that we were doing the best we could with the information we had—or as Maya Angelou said, “You did . . . what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” Grace tills the ground so that peace, wholeness, and completeness can take root in our burdened bodies, relationships, and the world.
Reduced to its absolute essence, grace is “unmerited favor.” In the Christian tradition, it’s what God gives us free of charge. But in a country that fetishizes accomplishment, tells people they can “hustle and grind” their way to worth, and fancies itself a meritocracy, many—like the prodigal son’s older brother— are offended by the idea that other people would get something they haven’t earned.
Practicing grace, in other words, can be really freaking hard.
It’s something we love to receive, but often the last thing most of us want to offer. Instead, we incline ourselves toward what the author Philip Yancey calls “ungrace,” withholding that which the world desperately needs. We become the prodigal’s older brother glowering in the background, jealous and fuming about how undeserving his younger brother is of his father’s reflexive affection and forgiveness. Ungrace has become the lingua franca of our discourse. More often than not, it’s the lens through which we view people who don’t share our religious, political, or moral values. Those people may be our leaders, co-workers, neighbors, or increasingly, members of our own families.
“Our lack and misunderstanding of grace and shrunken capacity to give grace is one of the things that makes the world such a brutal place,” Lisa Sharon Harper, the writer and antiracism leader, told me in late 2020. “Discernment is necessary. Judgment is vanity.”
Yet our mortal daily bread is to sit in judgment of “bad” people, to call out those who hold “bad” beliefs, and to punish people who have done “bad” things. This is what the “good guys” do. Doing so makes us feel strong and righteous, like we are on the side of the angels.
Until it doesn’t.
“We will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish,” wrote former president Barack Obama in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land.
The stakes for us really are that high, both personally and as a country.
It would be hard to overstate just how much some Americans have come to despise each other, at least in the abstract. In a January 2019 paper, “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” researchers asked Republicans and Democrats if they believed that members of the opposing party were “just worse for politics” or “downright evil.” More than 40 percent in each party chose “downright evil.” Twenty percent of Democrats and more than 15 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement “We’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.”
Online culture often reflects and feeds the hatred opposing political factions have for each other. But even within like-minded communities, purity spirals can lead to ostracizing, bullying, shaming, and deplatforming people. When it’s at its best, social media is a revolutionary tool for much-needed accountability, as we saw with #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. At its worst, it imitates the warped values of our inhumane criminal justice system and confuses cruel and disproportionate retribution with accountability and justice. This behavior occurs across the political spectrum and in nonpolitical online communities.
In hindsight, it’s perversely fitting that the King of Internet Trolls became president of the United States. We were already teetering on the edge, but our public discourse indisputably took a turn for the worse when Donald Trump took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The political became extrapersonal as many people started to experience serious fractures in their relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
All around Washington, DC, where I live, yard signs reading hate has no home here began to crop up in 2017. Donald Trump’s name didn’t appear anywhere in the design, but the message was an obvious reference to the president and his followers. A longtime friend, a moderate Democrat who is one of the most even-tempered people I know, joked to me that at his lowest point he felt like posting a sign that read, “Hate has a home here,” giving voice to a shared rage about what Donald Trump had wrought in this country.
My friend was worn out, and so was I. Whereas I used to go on air to discuss things like health care or foreign policy, with the election of Trump, I now spent the bulk of my time having to react to the president’s latest tweet or push back against the shameless lying from an endless succession of Trump apologists. I was emotionally exhausted, frustrated, and angry a lot of the time, like so many others around me. I was hearing more and more, “I can’t live like this anymore.” The fractures were compounding, and people were finding themselves estranged from others who were important to them. If this agitation, fear, and rage had been helping anyone or any causes I cared about, perhaps it would have seemed worth it. But it wasn’t.
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him,” Booker T. Washington once warned. Well, I went that low. And then some. On good days, I could limit my negative feelings about those who I felt were causing so much harm to mere disdain. On the worst days, I hated their guts. But feeling hate, like being unforgiving, is tantamount to drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It only deepened my misery.