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Thinking Out Loud

Grace is Not PC (Part One)

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 07, 2017

Grace is Not PC Part OneMy wife, Debbie, was standing in line at a Fed Ex store recently having some photocopies made. The woman in front of her was dissatisfied with the service. Instead of simply complaining, however, she began ranting at the employees in the most vile, disrespectful and demeaning manner. The employees stood shocked and silent. At the end of her harangue, the woman said, “We don't have to be politically correct anymore. And you can’t make me.”

Debbie leaned forward and whispered to the woman, “What you said didn't have anything to do with political correctness, just a lack of manners.”

Debbie's grandmother, Ruby, would have been proud of her, and not just because Debbie knows the difference between non-PC language and rudeness. She also knows that Grace is not just PC.

We have been watching for years the gradual erosion on civility in our country and the triumph of vulgarity. It was in 2004 that one of my favorite journals, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, dedicated its fall issue to the topic of “Discourse and Democracy” in which David Brooks wrote an essay titled “A Polarized America,” and James Davison Hunter wrote another on “The Discourse of Negation and the Ironies of Common Culture.”

The failure we are facing, as these and other analysts of the culture and politics will tell us, goes much deeper than merely keeping a “civil tongue.” The problem goes much deeper than mere partisanship and identity politics too. For some of us, at least, it goes straight to the heart of what it means to be Christian.

Today's blog, therefore, isn't really about popular culture or social norms, though it touches on both. My concern today is with us as Christians, because, sadly, so many Christians are actively engaged in graceless behavior. In other words, I’m preaching today to the choir. And I’m doing so because the choir is in conflict.

This struggle over discourse and behavior affects persons on the political left and the right, those who see themselves as conservative and liberal and progressive, Democrats and Republicans, Independents and Libertarians. Maybe the Federalists and the Whigs are dealing with it too. At some time or the other, I would guess that most of us have engaged in some level of discourse or behavior of which we are less than proud, whether we have done so publicly in a Fed Ex store or in a Sunday school class, or with a few like-minded friends.

There are abundant opportunities for us to behave otherwise. And there are opportunities enough to shape our behavior however we may see ourselves politically. As far as I can tell there's no partisan restrictions on St. Paul's lists of actions violating the Spirit of Christ. There are also no partisan limitations as to who can exhibit the fruit of God's Spirit.

Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy - all of which St. Paul lists among the “acts of the sinful nature” alongside debauchery and idolatry - can afflict anyone whatever their partisan or social or cultural affiliations. Equally so, the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control - can appear among us all, if, that is, we are willing daily to crucify the "sinful nature" and to "live by the Spirit." Those who keep step with the Spirit in their daily walk, St. Paul says, refuse to become arrogant and conceited, and do not provoke or envy one another. (See Galatians 5:16-26.)

What surprises most of us reading these two lists of sins of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit – and what must really irritate some preachers who would prefer not to have some favorite behaviors listed right alongside of some acts of gross immorality – is that these lists are meant to turn upside down the conventional moral code that would privatize sin and virtue. According to St. Paul, what makes some of these things sins is the damage these things do to community; and what makes others virtues is how they build up community.

Gordon Lindsey communicates Paul’s message particularly well in his new study of Galatians, Charter of Christian Freedom (Wipf & Stock, 2017). He explains that, “when Paul uses the term ‘flesh,’ he is thinking of the human being as a creature of nature. As a creature of nature, we are governed by the drive for self-survival, even when that means taking the life of other living beings to sustain our own.” But this “me-first” mentality which elevates my security and survival above every other consideration, however common for beasts of the field, is not Christian. Paul tells us that “self-vindication” should be listed right alongside the other vices, because they all represent “a violation of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Lindsey, Charter, 129-130.)

Lindsey continues: “If we read carefully, we note that the fruit of the Spirit is not miracles or mighty acts of ethical behavior, but rather deep-seated traits of personal character. … What the Spirit does is nurture within us those traits of character that will express themselves naturally in the way we choose to behave.” (Lindsey, Charter, 131.)

Paul reminds us that the symbol of the Christian faith is not a castle but a cross. He reminds us that we do not live for ourselves, but are called "to be to others what Christ has become for us," as George MacLeod once wrote. And when we find ourselves in Christ being "transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12:2), we will find every aspect of ourselves being changed, including the way we behave, speak and listen to one another.

Next week, I would like to follow St. Paul's development of these ideas one step further, into territory that moves from compassion to active kindness.

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