grace like legalism, peace like fighting well

My mother loved the 700 Club, but she's always been a hippie at heart.

I suspect that parenting (and geography) partially explain how I was raised within conservative Christianity but escaped its frequently associated legalism. Faith in Christ was never about rules in the communities I grew up in or the ministries we've served in as adults. Christianity was as simple and as difficult as following after Jesus. It wasn't until I started writing about faith online that I realized how rare that experience can be, and I am tremendously grateful to my family and faith communities for modeling something better.

We all know how damaging works-based religion can be. We've seen with our eyes and felt in our bodies the havoc it can wreck. Legalism creates fearful perfectionists, punishing questioners and specific sinners more than others. It drives some into rebellion, never to return to a faith so small and sharp. Others come back bearing wounds and shame that rules alone can never heal.

Legalism is the antithesis of grace, bearing little resemblance to Jesus' ministry or the path he calls us to follow him down. Recovering fundamentalists and progressive-leaning folks, for what little those labels are worth, have been voices of love and correction to a gospel that is less than Good News.

But I'm noticing something strange from my insider/outsider perspective: the anti-legalism crowd can be just as prone to rigid rules. Their rules are of a different stripe, but they can be every bit as damaging. Recently, these two have become plain:

1.)  Favor unflinching support for the guilty/penitent (and powerful) over healthy community boundaries and caring for the vulnerable.
2.)  Insist that all criticism is "un-grace," rooted in sin or hate.

Neither of these "rules" makes sense or looks at all like the ministry of Jesus.

Relevant Magazine, a well-read website among Christian twenty-somethings and beyond, recently published an article about gender and sexuality by Hugo Schwyzer, a man with an admitted history/[present, 2013] of predatory behavior and violence against women, sustained antagonism toward women of color, and a current writing resume (Jezebel, etc.) that would disgust most Christians. They did so without disclosure or apology. Complaints were raised and a conversation introduced about how to demonstrate grace to abusers without re-victimizing people or silencing dissent, but none of that happened at Relevant, as they deleted a number of dissenting comments and defended their author. I emailed them concerns and never heard back.

Christians know that God's grace cannot be earned and is given freely. We should proclaim from the rooftops and by the lives we lead that all are loved and made in God's image, and that all can find forgiveness, freedom, and purpose in Christ. This is the gospel, and it is good news for all of us sinners, including Schwyzer and other abusers of power and people.

But grace does not eliminate consequences for sin--or abuse. Often love looks like accountability, especially for people who hold positions of leadership or authority. Love looks like protecting vulnerable people from harm.

Grace never means that anyone is entitled to a mic, a platform, or a public ministry. Grace is the opposite of entitlement. Using grace to claim privilege or to favor the powerful over the hurting isn't grace at all--it's oppression-as-usual for the sin-soaked empire and out of place in the Kingdom of God. Authentic redemption and community healing cannot play out of the backs of the hurting or abused.

Christian community may offer forgiveness and still withhold positions of authority from certain membersGrace and accountability are not mutually exclusive. The privilege and responsibility of public leadership is not a birthright. Grace is free, but trust is earned and lost, sometimes irrevocably.

Criticism can be handled with grace. Some battles aren't worth choosing, but we don't get to decide that for one another, and there is space to wrestle through hard things within Christian community. Accountability is necessary and vastly preferable to faux peace or abuse-enabling.

Speaking truth-in-love is a delicate, difficult balance to strike. Favoring one over the other is an easy trap, but Jesus is Truth, God is Love, and there is no other way for Christians called by Christ's name.

What if peace isn't the absence--or squelching--of conflict? Disagreement is, after all, inevitable. Community life is considerably less pleasant in practice than our romantic ideals betray. Can shalom be found in the fight? Reconciliation is hard work, and I suspect that love requires digging in as much as letting go. Let's do it with grace, yes. But perhaps our concepts of grace are both too broad and too narrow.

So we take our cues from Jesus and his upside-down, last-shall-be-first Kingdom. We bind up broken hearts and push back the darkness clinging stubbornly to even our best intentions and sweetest sounding words. We incline our ears to stories from the margins and repent of every rule that chokes out the shalom we long to reveal in our midst and our ministries.

The work will be slow and difficult, but when we taste the fruits of grace and peace, we won't settle for counterfeits any longer.
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