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September 28, 2006

Back when I used to go to my friend’s youth group, he invited me to come and join his small group discussion. As someone who didn’t believe in God, I wasn’t sure I’d be so comfortable with this. Being in a room full of people and only having to listen to the youth pastor give the sermon and close my eyes and put my head down at the appropriate times is one thing. Actively discussing God in such close quarters is quite another. But I decided I’d give it a shot, because, frankly, I’ll try anything once.

And I’m really glad I did. Because the book we were discussing, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, was something I could really connect with. I didn’t like everything in it, mind you. In fact, there were some things I hated in it, some things I really hated. But the basic message, to me, is beautiful. You see, while I may not believe in God, I believe with all of my heart in grace. There are few things I believe in more than grace.

I’ll take a potent example from the book to demonstrate what grace is. Imagine that you are in a room alone with one of the Nazi concentration camp leaders. The Nazi is on his deathbed, withered and sickly, and is clearly going to die within minutes. Gathering all the strength he has left, he tells you about all of the horrible things he’s done in his life. You know the stuff–starvation, torture, murdering someone before the eyes of his family–he’s done it all firsthand. Then, with his last breaths, he asks you one thing: to forgive him. Just forgive him for everything he’s done. No one else is listening, and no one else will ever find out what passed between you and him in that room. Do you forgive him?

I don’t know if I would be able to muster the strength to tell him I forgive him. But I believe that no matter how horrible the things you have done are, you can still be forgiven. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in grace.

The problem is, I seem to be the only one who does.

You see, because I believe so much in grace, I don’t believe in justice. Justice is stupid. Whoever made up justice, anyway? That person’s a moron. Because everybody goes around speaking of justice like it’s the ultimate truth and the ideal of the universe, and that just pisses the hell out of me. Have you ever thought about justice? Have you ever thought about the word “deserve”? I mean, really thought about it? What does that word mean, “deserve”? I’ll tell you my understanding of that word. It means that good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people. Karma. You deserve it. That makes so little sense to me I could just puke.

Of course, it makes plenty of sense on the societal level. The fact is, people respond to incentive and to punishment, and sometimes the only way to get people to do more good things is to have good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That’s why we have laws, and jails, and tax breaks, and all those other institutions that encourage us to keep doing good things. But people don’t think of those institutions that way. They don’t always think of them as something necessary for the greater good, so that people who are rewarded will continue to do what they’ve been doing. They see reward and punishment as ends in themselves, the just and merited culmination of a good person’s good deed or a bad person’s bad deed. But they still don’t bother to explain why. If reward and punishment do not result directly in improved behavior and a general increase in well-being for the society, what the hell is the point?

Why should good things only happen to good people? Isn’t our goal to increase the amount of good in the world? Then shouldn’t good things happen to everyone?

Now let’s go back to the situation I described in the beginning. If you tell the Nazi that you forgive him, nothing bad will come of it. Nobody will tell the world that you said Nazis are okay. It will have no effect on the outside world whatsoever, and the Nazi will take the secret to his grave. So why not just give him his wish? It hurts no one, but it does help that one person, who must be unimaginably tormented by the thought of all his sins for him to expend so much of his dying breath telling you everything about himself. It helps him rest easy, finally rest easy. And since it helps that one person and costs neither you nor anyone else anything, that should be reason enough to do it.

And do people believe this? You can bet that if you share the beliefs of most western religions, you probably don’t. All of these religions center around some kind of afterlife, when some people are saved, and others are not saved; when some people are rewarded, and others are punished. But the thing is, once you’ve reached the afterlife, you’ve already lived your whole life. You can’t go back and change anything you’ve done. No future act of yours will have any consequence on the well-being of the world; you can’t even go back and tell people that you were rewarded, and that they had all better do what you did so that they’ll be rewarded too. Then what function does the reward/punishment system serve? The answer, of course, is that the reward and punishment serve no function; rather, they are ends in themselves, as dictated by the law of “justice.” Goddamn, I hate justice. You know, I think most evil occurs as a result of that idea of justice. People do bad things to other people because there’s always this deeply rooted feeling that the other people deserve what’s coming to them.

And is Christianity really any different, for all its claiming to have the monopoly on grace? In this religion, too, there are people who are saved, and people who are not saved; reward, and punishment. Still, Christianity manages to keep up the facade of grace by its assertion that all sins are equal to one another. All sins are equal to one another. Theft can be forgiven, and so can murder, and even genocide. They’re all just sins. So tell me, why is lack of faith any different? Isn’t lack of faith just another sin? Because, assuming that God does exist, lack of faith is the result of nothing more than being a poor misguided soul. That’s the reason pretty much all evil exists. We’re all just trying to do what we think is right, and often we stumble in the process. Why condemn the faithless for simply making an honest mistake, one that any of us could have made just as easily? You, Christians, I’m talking to you! Have you never questioned your faith? Is it such a fundamentally obvious thing, to have faith, that to lack it excludes you from all that is good in the afterlife? Can you really be so sure that, under vastly different circumstances, you would still have acquired and kept your faith through it all? And if not, why is it that you deserve to go to heaven, while the faithless are left behind, when your faith can be so easily shaken just as theirs were?

Now I’ll tell you what I hated about What’s So Amazing About Grace?. I hated that it calls grace the one fundamental thing that separates Christianity from all other religions. That’s total bullshit. You Christians don’t believe in grace any more than people of any other religion do. Your beliefs are ultimately founded on the ideal of justice–good things shall happen to some people, and bad things shall happen to other people, and the way the good things and the bad things are distributed depends on the actions and decisions of the people who receive them. They are all based on the idea of “deserving.”

Well, fuck deserving. If there were really a religion that believed in divine grace, it would preach that salvation is for everyone–not just the non-sinners, not just the believers, not just the chosen people–for everyone. It doesn’t matter what you do in your life, it doesn’t matter what horrible things you’ve done to no longer “deserve” salvation–none of it matters. What matters is that good things should happen to people. That’s all. Good things should happen. And everything we do should be based not on some idiotic ideal of “justice,” but on contributing the greatest amount of good to mankind that we possibly can. That’s what should happen.

If you think everything I’ve said is crap, then fine. I accept that. But I do hope you’ll come to terms with grace, real grace, because I believe that the world would be so much of a better place if more people shared that belief. And that’s all I want.

EDIT: Soon to come, an equally long rebuttal from ThisUserNameIsMeaningful on his site.  Go read it.

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8 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    This is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking posts I’ve read in a very long time.

  2. Ideal A is dead. Long live ideal B!:)oh and way to add your own human biases to God. you would fit right in at home writing the Bible, huh.

  3. Anonymous permalink

    just curious, what makes good good and why should anyone receive it? personally, i think that if bad things happen to good people, it will result in good.honestly, i cant say much on behalf of Christianity, im still figuring everything out myself. but i believe the whole issue of faith and salvation is dealt with in the following manner:salvation is going to heaven; heaven is spending eternity with God. hell is eternity without God, and some people wouldnt mind life without God.salvation, according to the Bible, is the result of faith. so what is faith? according to hebrews 11 .. “now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen … but without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is.” i can say that i honestly believe God exists. but its not faith until i trust him. faith is knowing about God, and then knowing God.youre right, lack of faith is just another sin. but it is through faith that sin is forgiven. right, why shouldnt everyone be forgiven? to receive it, you have to ask for it .. you have to want it. everyone who asks for forgiveness, who truly asks for it, will receive it from God. you can really want to forgive that nazi, and he can really want you to forgive him, but neither of you gains closure until he asks you, and you grant his wish. i see forgiveness by God the same way .. God is all too willing to forgive, and most of us want to be forgiven, but to receive it, we have to have faith in God that he will forgive, for if you dont really believe God will do it, going through the motions isnt going to do you much.but moving on .. why is heaven such a good thing? honestly. by definition, God is holy, and free of sin. he cannot tolerate sin, so everyone tainted by sin cannot join God in heaven. but thats everyone. so to get to heaven, you have to be forgiven, and to be forgiven, you have to ask for it, and to ask for it, you have to truly want forgiveness because you have faith that in God and that he will forgive you. so to have faith, you have to truly want to know God and trust in him. if you dont want to, either through apathy or ignorance, you will not be punished by having to spend eternity with God. the way i see it, everyone gets what they really want. its just a matter of what you want.those are just my thoughts i am throwing out, dont associate them with anything, but thank you for posting this, i honestly appreciate it .. your grace vs justice argument is going to give me a headache =)

  4. {deep breath}…
    You probably weren’t asking for this, so I apologize, but here it goes:
    Yes, forgive the Nazi!  As a Christian, I am called to forgive others:
    “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) (There are a lot of other verses that talk about this)
    Salvation, aka “going to Heaven” isn’t determined by faith.  As Christians, we believe that we are “saved” by accepting that Jesus came and died for our sins.  I realize that that sounds similar to faith, but the emphasis is on what Jesus did as opposed to anything we can do on our own.  We also don’t believe that we can “deserve to go to heaven”.  It is essentially only by the grace of God that we can.  Anyone’s faith can be shaken.  Even the disciples who walked with Jesus asked him how to increase their faith (Luke 18:5). As a Christian, I have faith in what I honestly believe is truth.  Therefore, life circumstances can’t change that (ideally). 
    Be careful of confusing Christianity with the church.  I can’t blame you for doing so, but the church has never been the best representation of God’s love or grace.  Christianity is NOT founded on justice.  Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  We believe that we are not deserving of anything from God.  Anything we do receive is only by his grace.
    God is just, but we are told that justice is not in our hands.
    Salvation IS for everyone.  There is no such thing as a non-sinner.  The apostle Paul deliberately murdered Christians before being converted, and he ended up writing a large portion of what became the New Testament. That’s what’s so amazing about grace.  There is nothing you can do, or nothing you could have possibly done, that God can’t forgive and forget.
     
    Some more Bible verses I feel like throwing in:
                “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
                -Romans (written by Paul!) 3:22
    “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said:”It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
    -Matthew 9:10-13
    “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees.  Hypocrites!  For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.”
    -Matthew 23:13
    “This is the only work God wants from you: believe in the one he has sent.”
    -John 6:29
    “God saved you by his grace when you believed.  And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
    -Ephesians 3:8-9
     
    (sorry, this got long… feel free to reply!)

  5. (jk- that last verse is actually Ephesians 2:8-9)

  6. did u write this all today?  wow … i feel very much over shadowed…
    anywho, i think the whole thing about faith is very confusing, i think with me, i dont really have a lot of faith, if any at all, but i think the whole point is to try.  at least, i think i am trying.  that’s why i respect the fact that you acutally went to the discussion group.  methinks its an excellent way to get all your questions answered in the Christian biased manner.
    the whole thing about justice … hmm, i think ur more angry about revenge.  u know…. the whole eye for an eye shindig ….  justice seems much more gray and neutral, it depends on the person in power to define justice.  maybe thats just my own twisted logic.  but i must say, ur post was very compelling. 

    why am i not doing my korean hmwrk??

  7. I think Buddhism is that belief-system. See there are two (non-practical) views of justice/karma.Pretend the universe has a hue for a moment. That hue is one of two kinds; good or bad. Not evil, just the opposite of good (which is to say not malicious). When you do something kind, you help the universe be a better place – you throw your dice in favor of the positive hue with that action. When you do something bad like murder, you fuck up the hue. Somehow you disturb things. And the correction for that is justice. It somehow alleviates the pain of the universe – the tear, problem, fuck-up, disjunction.Now I’m not sure where that belief system comes from. But I’m pretty sure it was a way for the smart people to make the world better. They told everyone “You fuck up the universe when you do this. And to correct it, we have to exact justice.” People not questioning justice is key to its function – just like people would say “Murder is bad because it’s wrong.” … Instead of “Murder is bad cause if half the people in the world killed one another every day, it wouldn’t take long for us to be gone totally, and most everyone can agree that would be very bad for us as a group.”Now karma is more interesting to me – a lot of people will say karma is an invisible hand that keeps the balance without ‘justice’ being exacted by humans. I like the idea, personally. It would be nice to think everything good or bad that happened to someone was exactly as things should be. It’s a convenient way of explaining the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why do bad people get all the breaks?” (although that seems a little f-ed to me). A better example would be explaining the inexplicable; someone caught in a flash flood or tossed by a tornado–who controls that?! Why did things happen that way. Karma…But that’s all very hard to describe and even harder to prove to people. The most perfect interpretation of karma I can conceive of is just what it seems like without getting too philisophical: Bad things happen to people when people do bad things. Think about that – you beat a child, child grows up to beat people. You cut someone off in traffic, they start off with a bad day and snap at someone. All of this is hurtful; it hurts to be beaten – sure in a physical sense- but also in an emotional sense. It sucks when someone snaps at you for no reason. Maybe you turn around and snap at someone else. And the system goes on. Sure, the guy that did the cutting off didn’t get direct comeupance, but when you put that out in the world it swirls around and creates a chain of events that continue interminably.If we all act shitty towards one another, you can be you’ll be treated shitty quite regularly.If we were all kind people, well you’d get a lot of kind treatment from your fellow human beings wouldn’t you?This side of karma is undebatable to me. At the least, that is the reality of the universe. If we were to stop inflicting emotional damage on one another altogether, what emotional damage would there be? What goes around comes around, right?In terms of grace, I don’t think Buddhism provides for it. The idea is to build kindness out of yourself and give it to others, to stop becoming a contributor. You will also be happier as a result, being less afflicted by those who behave in contrast to yourself. Afterall, that’s the path; the only way to stop handing it out is to stop receiving it. When you have completely stopped giving it out, you’ve stopped receiving it.I still agree with the idea of justice in the meantime- we’re not all enlightened afterall, and I don’t think it’s right to openly allow people to commit crimes along the way. Still, in Buddhism there is no reason why you can’t hinge on a moment, make a decision, and change from the person you’ve been. That’s the real beauty: In Buddhism salvation is for everyone, because in Buddhism salvation is a personal responsibility. Supposedly Sidharta was the first person to accomplish this, and he did it through the pure power of concentration and contemplation. He did not require the help of someone else. Not even partially dependent on some outside party. That solves a lot of the problems you’re thinking about right there. Should nothing.

  8. Hello my dear brother, Well, I must say…I was more than a little surprised by this very passionate and well-written entry. Is this only an ideal, a “wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way and we all thought like this…yeah right, back to reality” kind of sentiment? Or do you actually believe that you could follow through with what you are saying, no matter what the situation? Because if you do, then you are either one of those people who is just too good to be true, like Mother Teresa or Gandhi or Auntie Arlene – and having known you as long as I have, I would not rule out this possibility – or you are simply too naive and innocent to really know what you are talking about. Going back to this Nazi guy, sure you can say you’d forgive him, no one would be the wiser, you’d feel good about yourself, he’d die with a free conscience, yadda yadda yadda. You and I were born decades after the Holocaust. It’s one thing to read about the horrific things that happened then in books, or even to hear it from the Nazi’s own mouth. But what if you had been there, seen that very same Nazi murdering your family and friends and lived through it, and then decades later were in a hospital considering whether to forgive him on his deathbed? I don’t think there would be anything to consider. That said, I was a bit surprised at your lack of empathy. Some things a normal, rational person just can’t forgive. Maybe a normal, rational person wouldn’t actively seek revenge till his dying day, like I would if any spawn of Kimberly ever hurt you or Cyg, but he wouldn’t forgive, either. Sorry if I’m mistaken, but I don’t seem to recall you ever having had anything or anyone taken from you deliberately and maliciously by another human being. Until you have, which I sincerely hope will be never, can you really say for certain whether you could live up to your own ideal vision of grace?

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