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A controversial take: Proposing grace has a place in today’s toxic discourse

CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers’ new book, ‘Saving Grace,’ is not a theological study but instead a personal, social and political proposal on how to take grace into the divisive public square.

(RNS) — Those claiming to be Christians have not played the part when it comes to politics. Rancor and snark dominate Twitter and Facebook and not a little of it by evangelicals.

Pastors have pleaded from pulpits for Christian civility but social media has a way of displaying the ugliness lurking in our hearts. Name your issue: politics under Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Joe Biden; women’s ordination; social morality debates about poverty or racism or LBGTQIA or war or abortion or immigration; reparations; Black Lives Matter and critical race theory. Whatever the topic, spend 30 minutes on social media, and you will find those calling themselves Christians acting like they’ve never followed Jesus one step.

One of the ironies of our day and age is that some who claim the grace of God have become the least gracious in public discourse.

It’s as if they have taken one biblical example of public rebuke — say from one of Israel’s prophets or from one table-turning by Jesus or from the Book of Revelation’s most graphic passages — and have decided this is the way to address their opponents at all times.

Let it be said that grace has the power to transform — so grace that is not transforming a person into a grace-giving person aborts the power of grace.

For all their bluster about being people of grace, conservative Christians are not the ones appealing for grace in the public sector. No, instead it’s a progressive political commentator who is leading the way.

Kirsten Powers, a senior political analyst for CNN and a columnist for USA Today, might seem an unlikely candidate to take on the topic of civility and grace in the public square. After all, if you flip on your nightly news to CNN, you’re likely to catch her in a lively debate over the latest political controversy. However, in her new book, “Saving Grace,” Powers does just that.

"Saving Grace" by Kirsten Powers. Courtesy image

“Saving Grace” by Kirsten Powers. Courtesy image

The book centers on the question: What does the Christian idea of grace look like when it comes to political conversation and debate and to leading politicians?

For all the efforts of many thinkers, I know of no other book that moves us into the heart of civility by framing it all with grace and graciousness.

Grace has been explained theologically by John Barclay’s brilliant study of grace as a gift given that both creates a social relationship and also prompts reciprocation by the one who has received the gift (“Paul and the Gift”). In her book, Powers — knowingly or not — touched on all six of the major themes in Barclay’s study. (They are the superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy and circularity/noncircularity of grace given.)

“Saving Grace,” though, is not a theological study but instead a personal, social and political proposal. As such it is nothing less than a brilliant display of the public face of grace. Grace taken into the public square. What grace looks like when it sets up shop on CNN and in columns for USA Today.

Grace, Powers insists, is only grace when we offer it to those we despise or who get under our skin by the mere mention of their name. She’s standing firmly in the Christian tradition then when she writes, “grace exists especially for the person who we may feel is uniquely unworthy of it.”

Powers mines her own story with remarkable transparency and humility, at times calling herself out for bad behavior and harsh attitudes. She probes her own trauma for how she formed patterns of binary thinking and why she defaulted to self-protective responses around those who hold opposing political positions. She talks about her relationships with her family, with her partners, with other political analysts and columnists, and tosses a warm blanket of grace over them all.

Kirsten Powers in Oct. 2021. Photo © Verena Radulovic

Kirsten Powers in October 2021. Photo © Verena Radulovic

In her story we find one who had to learn to offer herself grace before she could do the hard work of offering grace to others.

Her discovery was that grace works to undo the demonizing of the other and seeks to understand people as people. As she puts it, “If there is one practical idea that encapsulates grace, it’s the belief that people are doing the best they can with what they have.”

Anyone who writes on politics in our day becomes the immediate target for the anger of about 50% of Americans. Her proposal for a public face of grace then is not some intramural practice with no one watching. No, for Kirsten Powers to offer grace in the public sector today requires a new posture in the show-stopping Super Bowl of politics every day of the week, 24/7, world without end.

The public face of grace is never reducible to playing nice. As Powers says it, “Practicing grace … can be really freaking hard.” Amen!

Her theory of grace, not unlike that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous “costly grace,” requires honestly naming sins and then repenting, repairing and reconciling. Which means grace has limits. The perpetrating priest or the politician’s insults are neither looked over nor pretended away with positive thinking. They are morally indefensible actions that require repentance before grace becomes operative.

And as Powers puts it, “at some point, a grace period ends. … The grace period for racism, misogyny, and all bigotry is over.”

Not that we can’t be in the posture of offering grace before the realization of the wrong, before the repentance, and before the repair that leads to social reconciliation. No, in fact, we will discover what Barclay calls reciprocation or circularity. If we offer a gracious word — what Powers at one point describes beautifully as “calling in,” instead of calling out — we may discover the rude, opposing political side reciprocating with grace.

Gracious words can unleash gracious returns. Powers, no naïve political analyst, hopes gracious responses will nurture a culture of grace that can save our society. Or in her words, “Grace is an idea worth saving, and in the end, it might just be what saves us — in ways we have not yet imagined.”

Who’s first?

(Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois, and the author, with his daughter Laura Barringer, of “A Church Called Tov.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)