Mastering in Ungrace
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2011 Jan 06
President Obama recently praised the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance after serving an 18-month prison sentence on charges related to a dogfighting ring.
According to an Associated Press article, "Obama spokesman Bill Burton says the President told owner Jeffrey Lurie that while he condemns the crimes Vick was convicted of, he believes people who have paid for their crimes should have the opportunity to contribute to society again.
With his second chance, Vick has led the Eagles to the playoffs this year after assuming the starting job.
Not on the Vick bandwagon is commentator Tucker Carlson who, commenting on Obama's praise of an act of grace, said that Vick did not deserve a second chance.
Carlson said he should be killed.
"I'm a Christian. I've made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances," Carlson said as guest host for Sean Hannity's show on Fox News Channel. "But Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did [it] in a heartless and cruel way. And I think, personally, he should've been executed for that. He wasn't, but the idea that the president of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs… [is] kind of beyond the pale."
Carlson went on to call Vick "some creepy rich overpaid football player."
ESPN notes that Vick, who saw his first dogfight as a 7-year-old, has revived his career and is taking steps to rebuild his image. He spends time on his off days working with the Humane Society of the United States and speaking to school and community groups about the cruelty of dogfighting. He has said he'd never be able to completely forget the horrific acts he witnessed and committed.
I do not know Michael Vick. I do not know Tucker Carlson. But Carlson is right - Vick deserves to die.
So does Carlson.
So do I.
That is the just penalty for sin before a holy God.
And that is where Carlson's Christian faith should have interceded.
In Christ Among the Dragons I write of a British conference on comparative religions that brought together experts from all over the world to debate what was unique, if anything, about the Christian faith in relation to other religions.
Was it the idea that a god became a man? No, other religions had variations on that one. Even the great Greek myths were about gods appearing in human form.
Was it the resurrection? No. The idea of the dead returning to life could be found in many different ideologies.
Was it heaven, life after death, or an eternal soul? Was it love for your neighbor, good works, care for the poor or homeless? Was it about sin or hell or judgment?
The debate went on for some time, until the famous author, C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. Lewis himself had journeyed from atheism to agnosticism, evaluating the many differences between the various world religions, coming to Christianity in the end. Lewis asked what all of the debate was about, and found out that his colleagues were discussing what Christianity's unique contribution was among world religions.
"Oh, that's easy," said Lewis. "It's grace."
And after they thought about it, they had to agree.
As Philip Yancey has written, grace, at its heart, is getting what you don't deserve, and not getting what you do. The idea of God's love, coming to us free of charge, without strings attached, seems to go against every instinct within the human race. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, the Muslim code of Law - they're all ways to try and earn approval.
Only Christianity contends that God's love is unconditional.
Since a Christian's relationship with Christ is built on grace, we are to extend that grace to each other, else we become like the ungrateful servant that Jesus once spoke of - the one who was forgiven much, but refused to turn around and forgive someone else (Mt. 18:21-35).
Every human being is marked by weakness; when you lock eyes with someone, you can safely assume that they carry deep wounds, have endured backgrounds of enormous family dysfunction, that they live - day-in and day-out - with areas of temptation and struggle, where they are fragile and often broken. It is precisely at the place of our brokenness - even sin - where grace is meant to be applied. That is what Jesus died for. Nowhere is this talked about with more clarity than in the book of Romans. There the apostle Paul writes that: "...[sin] doesn't have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it's sin versus grace, grace wins hands down...Grace... invites us into life" (Romans 5:20ff, Msg).
I've come to see, with increasing clarity, that this is something that more and more of us who consider ourselves Christ followers are somehow missing. I know I miss it with unnerving frequency. Once we've identified something as a sin, a real wrong that has been done to us, or that we've seen someone do to someone else, it's as if we have a license to turn grace off and condemn. It's as if that person can never be given another chance, is no longer deserving of consideration for anything good, and is to be rejected and reviled. A kind of "one-strike and you're out" mentality.
In truth, while we still live and breathe on this planet in community with others, grace has no limit to the amount of strikes, and nobody is ever out. Not that we ever condone the sin, or approve of it, or make light of it; but it is that very sin for which Christ died. To refuse the extension of grace is to emasculate the power and work of the cross.
As C.S. Lewis also noted, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."
Russian novelist Dostoevsky once wrote that grace heals our vision, letting us love a person by seeing them as God intended them to be. Compare that to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in his autobiography of the ability to "smell" the inmost parts of every soul, especially the "abundant hidden dirt at the bottom" of a character.
That is someone who mastered in ungrace.
So thank you, Mr. President. I may not always agree with you politically, but on this, I stand with you with all of my heart.
In fact, I'm betting my eternity on it.
James Emery White
"President Obama praises Eagles," December 27, 2010, Associated Press, as reported on ESPN.com at http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=5960735
"Tucker Carlson addresses Vick role," December 30, 2010, ESPN.com News Services, online at http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=5967015
Many of these musings on grace are taken from Philip Yancey in his work, What's So Amazing About Grace (Zondervan), as well my own book Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).