Commentary

When I picture what God looks like, I picture Bertha Hamilton. Mrs. Bertha has worked with my mother for some 30 years and was my confirmation mentor. Mrs. Bertha is also a person of color and has deeply influenced the way I look at race and the cost of discipleship. She is a humble servant and someone in whom I see the face of God whenever I am with her.

I never fully understood Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term cheap grace until these past weeks. You see I bear the name Robert Lee, and I am a descendant of the Confederate General who led the army against this nation for state’s rights to own slaves. I had the opportunity to speak up and speak out after recent riots surrounding the preservation of a memorial to General Lee in Charlottesville, Va. On Aug. 27, I appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with the mother of the late Heather Heyer, a young woman who was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors. The hate I have received has been surreal and pernicious. The threats I have received inconceivable. But it all reminded me that Christians are easily tempted by cheap grace.

I’m positive Jesus would have called out the message boards and angry tweets if they were around when Matthew 18 was occurring. Jesus is clear how to handle disputes, disagreements, and anger in the church. But it seems to me many of our parishioners and clergy glance over this reality for the sake of “righteous” zeal.

It concerns me that I was told my appearance on the Video Music Awards and speaking up that black lives matter was enough for Christians to come unhinged and want to confront me. Some Christians have become so blind to hate that they have forgotten the importance of Matthew 18 conversations.

I’ve been told I sold my soul, that I am not to be celebrated, and that there is a place in hell that belongs to me. Does that sound like how Christ envisioned confronting conflict and discord amidst followers of the Way? Ultimately, we’re all in this together. No wonder people say Christianity just isn’t worth it anymore. The discord of our infighting has drowned out the sweet sound of grace.

Please don’t hear me as bemoaning the institutional church, I love it deeply. But the cracks are widening as we face down these issues that divide us. Evangelicals and mainline Protestants rarely come to the table anymore, we’re so locked off to each other that we can’t converse.This has also played out in the realm of LGBTQ+ rights. With the recent Nashville Statement made by a majority of white men is enough to make one’s skin crawl. I’ve been saddened that we can’t even talk anymore. We’re forced to issue our own statements in response or to write think pieces about how bad we’ve become.

I am convinced that the heart of the gospel falls nearer to love and reconciliation than it does to statements, hate messages, and Confederate monuments. So why does it seem that the loudest Christians on the block are issuing statements, conferring hate, and seeking the safety of idolatrous monuments?

Ezekiel makes it clear that we can change. We don’t have to live this way. In my own mainline tradition, I want to scream that if we don’t speak up now we will lose everything we hold dear. For mainline Protestants, we have to speak up and speak out in the name of the God we have come to know. Because Matthew 18 leaves us with great hope … “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

We might lose everything speaking up but we will gain so much more when you decide the time is now. We may forfeit everything for standing on the side of justice but that sounds a lot more like the way of Jesus than erecting or defending monuments and the Nashville Statement. The hope of this text is that in losing your life by being with people you will gain the promise and assurance of abundance.

It’s my prayer that the loudest voice in the room will become the voice of sanity. That the voice is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral.

This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect. This way of thinking shifts the focus of our faith from internal to external, from institutional to missional. To borrow from Dr. King, none of us know what will happen to us, but we’ve been to the mountaintop and seen what’s around the bend. It is costly grace that will lead us home, into the very heart of God in which we all dwell together. Cheap grace will divide us as the lure of acceptance without repentance turns us inward to only forgive and to sanction what is most familiar while rejecting those whom are cast outside our circle of care. 

So, keep the faith and know that the methods of reading the text are clear, when you gather for worship and seek the heart of God you will find it, but you must be prepared because the heart of God is not a white male’s view of the world. As troubling as that is for the world we must see it for ourselves. We should hope beyond hope that God will reconcile the most privileged of us to God’s self. We don’t deserve it because God is the god of the lowly. But I am confident if we do the hard work of reconciliation, God will be there.

Mrs. Bertha may never fully understand the fullness of what she means to me and countless others, but I know my image of God is not complete without her. So look for the people who exemplify God and a Matthew 18 way of doing things. Cling to the people for whom God is not distant but close at hand. Seek the people who when you are with them, you know the face of God. 

Originally published on On Scripture 

The Reverend Robert Wright Lee, IV is a pastor, professor, activist, and author. He currently writes for a number of religious and secular outlets and recently appeared on MTV at the Video Music Awards to speak out against white supremacy and racism. 

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