My former boss and friend (which is better than a boss and former friend), Bishop Hee-Soo Jung spoke frequently about the “grace margin.” I first encountered this term in the 1970s when I studied Jurgen Moltmann and adopted the theology of hope as my core vision for the Christian life. Bishop Jung, Dr. Moltmann, and I all use the term differently, but there is a core, a “golden thread,” that is woven through all. I won’t try to speak for Drs. Jung and Moltmann, but for Dr. Dick I don’t seem to be able to keep him quiet. Now is a perfect time and opportunity for Christian leaders – laity and clergy – to extend a margin of grace – grace space – into a constrained, constipated, and consternating ecclesial and societal quagmire.
There is currently no margin for healthy tension. Any lubrication between two opposing surfaces has worn away. Our engines of understanding are locked up and our block has cracked. Our gaskets are blown. Our arteries are clogged. I could mix a whole lot more metaphors to emphasize that the systems of engagement that have served for centuries are no longer functional. As brain, mind, and neurological research reveals more and more about the human capacity to deal with complexity, our cultural structures (government, business, education, religion) sink into greater and greater simplistic binary thinking. Everything is polarized – basically the only universal truth – everything has been reduced to a form of “either/or” thinking. Coexistence, coequality, compromise, and cooperation are endangered species. And to what good end? How can we thrive in an atmosphere of winners and losers, sinners and saints, good gals and bad guys? And what do we actually gain by making someone else wrong so that we can be right?
And we are systematically erasing any middle ground, any space where we might find commonality and rapport. Words like “tolerance,” “accommodation,” “acquiescence,” “acceptance,” “bipartisan,” “liberal,” “inclusive,” “conservative,” “challenged,” – words that have some conditional range for progress – are rapidly being labeled unacceptable. For each of these (and hundreds more) the worst possible definition or intention is assumed. “Tolerance” was once viewed as a big step toward “acceptance;” “acceptance” toward “inclusion;” “inclusion” toward “community.” Now “community” is less tolerant, accepting, and inclusive because we have found creative ways to turn value positive words into value negative concepts.
Okay, fine, so this is what’s wrong. Where does grace come in, and what is grace space (margin). For Christian disciples, it begins with a step back, a commitment against reactivity, and a commitment for humility. Simplistic, binary response to a complex situation? Obviously not, or we would be doing it. We no longer know how to DO humility. We do not seem to be able to calm down and be responsive instead of reactive (and hostile). What about the step back, what is that all about? Ready? Engage in regular and disciplined practices of personal piety and the practice of the means of grace. Don’t get excited — this isn’t really Wesleyan, and to be completely fair, Jesus himself stole the ideas. Prayer, reflection on the teachings, fasting, Sabbath observance, corporate worship and ritual, acts of mercy and service – there were the practices Jesus was raised in. Granted, Holy Communion is all Jesus, and “Christian” conference indicates a more C.E. bias, but sacred and united covenant community is ages old. I am fully aware that we human beings have never excelled in these areas, but previous millennia seemed to have taken it a bit more seriously.
Grace space is where we intentionally and mindfully make room for God’s Spirit in our lives, in our relationships, in our families, in our communities, AND with the people we do not like, do not respect, and do not agree with. Why? Because we all have to live together and God’s vision is for the reconciliation and restoration of all creation. Our task is to WORK THIS OUT! Every way we strive to make this harder, to make it more difficult, to make it more divisive is effort made to distance ourselves from God. If there is no grace space, there is no Holy Spirit. If there is no Holy Spirit, there is no God. If there is no God, what’s the point?
Winning the argument, making the other side look bad, getting our own way, scoring points off our opponents, hurting our adversaries, denying the worth and personhood of our siblings, gains nothing and destroys everything. So, stop. Stop doing harm. Stop spreading poison. Stop hating and hurting. Then, fill the space with prayer. Fill the space with devotional engagement with scripture. Fast. Meditate. Talk less about what you don’t believe and don’t like and more about what you do believe and do like. Share vision for God’s will be done on earth, as in heaven. Share the sacrament. Sing spiritual songs – together. Give thanks to God. And enjoy the new space – filled with love, kindness, compassion, and justice.
Note: Jurgen Moltmann is still alive and kicking at age 95. If you have never read Moltmann, try Theology of Hope or The Crucified God.