In the formative years of my Christian faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of my favorite voices. I loved his prophetic voice, and even more than his voice, but the power of his voice matched by his incredible integrity. In his famous book, Cost of Discipleship, he talks about cheap grace.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace with Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
The church has wrestled with this idea for almost a century. In our fleshly nature we will always slide back to cheap grace, and we need the prophetic voices to call us to true grace. In the same way, there has been a transition over the past 50 years where the church has increasingly worked towards having a faith that takes the work of justice seriously.
But, in the same way as grace, as time moves on, once strong movements get tweaked and deformed. And I am afraid that the important work of Justice is being co-opted by a shadow version of Justice, Cheap Justice.
A definition of Cheap Justice might be something like: Justice that uses the poor and marginalized as props to satisfy our own pride and self-righteousness. Cheap Justice is also a justice that is not equally executed. Justice that is Christian must be connected to the love of mercy and the humble walk with Jesus.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO gave an acceptance speech, which on the surface was awesome. I was like, AMEN! And good for you! Here are a couple of statements that got the most applause:
"From the earliest days of iTunes to Apple Music today, we have always prohibited music with a message of white supremacy . . . Why? Because it is the right thing to do."
"We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division, and violence: You have no place on our platforms . . . You have no home here."
"If we can't be clear on moral questions like these, then we've got big problems. I believe the most sacred thing that each of us is given is our judgment, our morality, our own innate desire to separate right from wrong. Choosing to set that responsibility aside at a moment of trial is a sin."
You can watch the entirety of his speech here.
Like I said, on the surface, these are awesome statements. Statements which I agree. But upon further reflection, I can’t shake the idea that this is just the worst form of virtue signaling. It allows people who agree with him politically or ideologically feel great about themselves, feel superior as they put down and dehumanize those who think differently, all the while being completely hypocritical because this form of justice does not cost them one thing.
True justice is going to be costly justice.
Imagine if Tim Cook was not simply virtue signaling. Imagine if he put his money where his mouth was and deplatformed music from iTunes that was divisive, hate-filled and violent. How much money would he lose if most Rock and Roll and virtually every Hip Hop song fit this definition? What about deplatforming people who spoke in hate-filled ways towards Trump. That would be costly, too costly. And therefore it won’t happen. There isn’t a huge market for white supremacist music, so to speak out against it is a no-brainer. It’s like being against poverty or war. Amen! (Said, everyone!)
I don’t really want to pick on Tim Cook. He isn’t a Christ follower, nor does he claim to be. But this speech was merely the best, most recent, most apparent example of how we have given up true justice for cheap justice.
We in the church, especially the more liberal or more progressive branches of American Christendom, are moving rapidly off course. It was a needed correction to compel our sisters and brothers to have deeds match our faith, and those deeds are marked by more than compassionate care for the poor. But we are called to leverage our power, leverage our spheres of influence to stand up for them personally and systemically. I love that call!!
But as we realize that this call still won’t change the giant systems we live in, and this work is the work of the mustard seed, not the bush that it produces. I am afraid that many of my colleagues have jumped the shark, and we are giving up the work of justice for the virtue signaling of justice.
We love to post about refugees, immigration, racism, the abuses of political power (I mean the violations of the Republican party). But our shouting sounds very similar to shouting that we are against poverty. We create straw men monsters out of our opposition then claim the moral high ground.
In this season of Advent, I am compelled again that the Kingdom of God is ushered in by a baby, born to an obscure family in the middle of nowhere. And that it is through humility, sacrifice, and care for the poorest and weakest among us that the Kingdom of God gets fully realized. Now, what that looks like for the unique way that God has made you and the unique context God has planted you are the hard spiritual work of every Christ follower.
Our faith must be marked with works. And that work is proven by its fruit. And that fruit is characterized by virtues that have marked Christians for centuries; Kindness, Humility, Patience, Diligence, Chastity, Temperance, and Charity.
May our acceptance of God’s grace be transformative, and not taken for granted. And in the same way, may our work for justice be that work for justice! Justice that is marked for genuine care for those on the periphery and not a mask for our own resentment and self-righteousness.
And may all this be true in me first.