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Grace and Social Justice

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” So begins Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s compelling book The Cost of Discipleship, written as he grappled with the reality of the German Church’s capitulation to the racist mechanisms of Nazi Germany, calling his fellow believers to take up the cross and follow Jesus. In the wake of yet more racist violence in the United States, perpetrated by police and civilians alike, white Christians are soul-searching about our own complicity with institutionalized racism, realizing how our silence in the face of racial injustice has perpetuated that injustice and implicated us in the denigration and oppression of our Black siblings. As I have listened to my fellow Christians grapple with what this means, I have heard many appeals to the “cheap grace” which Bonhoeffer criticizes. Yes, we have preached and lived a cheap grace; our words and actions belie our professed belief that Jesus Christ died on the cross for all humanity and rose again to bring a kingdom free from suffering,  domination, violence, and sin.

So, where do we go from here? How does the Church move forward in the face of white Christians’ complicity? The temptation is to run ahead full throttle and powered by “white guilt,” preaching sermons on how to fight racial injustice and calling our congregations to the forefront of the battle in a desperate effort to avoid appearing like we, too, have fallen prey to cheap grace. But the danger here is that in our fear of cheap grace, we forget the power of real grace. Without the lavish outpouring of God’s grace on the Church, all our efforts towards racial justice will be in vain. While preaching an abundant grace may seem like the wrong way to combat a cheap grace, the reality is that without an expansive conception of grace, white Christians will continue to deny our sin, to expect premature forgiveness from Black Christians, and to act out a performative allyship that falls short of genuine racial reconciliation.

We fear that preaching grace will result in apathy — that if white Christians know unconditional forgiveness, we will never be motivated to work towards racial reconciliation, since we benefit so much from our position of white supremacy. I would argue that an unconditional grace is actually what allows us to acknowledge the real depth of our sin. It is easy for nice white Christians to blind ourselves to our role in the problem. We think that if we avoid racist jokes, have a couple of minority friends, and attend a protest or two, then we are anti-racist. Problem solved. But the reality is that every aspect of our lives as white people is propped up by the oppression of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, because racism permeates the structures of our society.

Thus, the sin from which we need to repent lies beyond our comprehension. The police system that protects us and our wealth brutalizes their bodies. The education system consistently produces better results for white children than children of color, and when those children of color graduate and get jobs, they earn less on average than their white peers. Housing in majority white neighborhoods is worth more than housing in majority Black neighborhoods.

White people benefit from racism even when we avoid committing overt acts of racism. Honestly educating ourselves about white supremacy will bring us to the realization that the sin of systemic racism pervades our lives in ways that we cannot control. If we believe God’s grace is small, we will be tempted to turn away from this and define racism in ways that we believe we can control, so that we can avoid those sins or at least ask forgiveness when we see we have committed them. If we believe God’s grace is abundant, we will be free to own the reality of this systemic sin and repent from it.

Repentance is the first step towards a genuine reconciliation with our Black brothers and sisters. However, this reconciliation is a long, hard process, and the temptation white people face here is to rush through it to assuage the guilt that we feel. I do not want to make light of the fact that at times Black people have exhibited extraordinary courage to forgive. The relatives of the “Emanuel Nine” whom Dylann Roof massacred in Charleston, SC, on June 17, 2015, found the strength to offer forgiveness to Roof at his first court appearance. When this happens, it is a shining example of the power of the gospel. But as anyone who has been deeply hurt by someone knows, usually forgiveness is a much longer process. More often, the victim needs time and space to process the sin before he is able to offer forgiveness, and even after the forgiveness has been offered, it takes time for trust between the victim and the offender to be rebuilt.

If “white guilt” is our driving force as we seek reconciliation, then we risk pushing our Black friends and neighbors to reconcile with us before they are ready and before we have journeyed the long, hard road that reconciliation is. If we know that we are forgiven by God, then assuaging our guilt no longer needs to be the driving force in seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead, we can be motivated by a genuine desire to make things right and we can walk that road alongside our Black brothers and sisters at their pace and in their time. An expansive understanding of God’s grace places them and their needs, rather than our guilt, at the center of the process.

A surface level repentance and a rushed process of reconciliation are hallmarks of what is called “performative allyship,” that is, jumping on the social justice bandwagon because we want to look good, not because we are genuinely committed to the work entailed. Right now we are in a societal moment when working for racial justice is applauded all around us. This increases the drive to go through the motions to look like we are “good white people,” to post the right thing on social media, to contact our Black friends just to check in, to read the right books. I do not mean to downplay the good that can come from each one of these activities, but if our motivation is convincing ourselves and others that we are not the problem, then no genuine change will come from any of them. If we know that God’s abundant grace covers us and our sin, then we are free to commit to the hard work of social justice without worrying about how it makes us look. I do not have to convince people that I’m a “good white person” because I am not one. I am a forgiven white person. True repentance and reconciliation come from this.

A cheap grace and a small grace both result in the continued complicity of white Christians in the oppression of our Black brothers and sisters. It is only when we plumb the abundant depths of God’s amazing grace that we are truly free to journey the long hard road of repentance and reconciliation.

Molly Jane Layton is a postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of New York and M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary.


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