What Good Is Grace When Their Boot Is on Your Neck?

Grace might not bring the kind of news we want to hear, but it’s good news nonetheless

Jonas Ellison
Jul 6, 2019 · 5 min read

The other day, I wrote about the ‘good news’ that we are redeemed (‘made okay’) at the core of our being, not through what we do but by who we are as an integral part of creation from birth (as embodied through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, of course — but not everybody is into this narrative, which is fine).

If I have my theology right (again, I’m a total rookie here), God — acting in, through, and as Jesus — died to the law. Jesus turned God from this booming force in the clouds into a broken and busted peasant on a cross looking out from our perspective.

As Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz Weber writes in her (incredible) book, Accidental Saints

It feels like a strange and abstract thing to say. “Jesus died for your sins.” And I’ve squandered plenty of ink arguing against the notion that God had to kill Jesus because we were bad. But when Caitlin said that Jesus died for our sins, including that one, I was reminded again that there is nothing we have done that God cannot redeem. Small betrayals, large infractions, minor offenses. All of it.

Some would say that instead of the cross being about Jesus standing in for us to take the really bad spanking from God for our own naughtiness (the fancy theological term for this is substitutionary atonement), what happens at the cross is a “blessed exchange.” God gathers up all our sin, all our broken-ass junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our crap and exchanges it for his blessedness.

Now, it’s easy to see that this is truly good news for the guilt-laden or shameful aggressor. But what about victims? Because if this unending one-way grace and mercy of God is true for me, it’s also true for the tyrant who has a boot on my neck.

This is the bitter pill of grace. It’s why our western transactional culture — even the Christian church — has such a hard time swallowing it. Because grace doesn’t make sense to the logical tally-keeping mind. Not only does it not make sense, but it’s also borderline offensive (as you’ll soon see).

A damning God — even one who damns the ones we really want damned — is a conditional God. And the gospel — the good news — proclaims time and time again that this God is unconditional. This God offers steadfast love even (especially) to the most wretched sinner (aka: all of us — yay).

So what does this ‘good news’ make of the victim in relationship with the aggressor?

I have to tell you, I don’t have a clever, tidy answer for this one. And I fear that anything I say can be seen as a way of sympathizing with aggressors. But this is part of the insanity of this Christian faith.

I guess it leaves us the victim on the cross where their only way to new life is to have their grip loosened on who they think they are. The victim is forced to either wallow in their self-identified state or somehow know that God isn’t crucifying them at that moment; instead, God is crucified with them and loving them the entire way.

The only freedom from victimhood is in the resurrection on the other side of the affliction, which has nothing to do with us. This is not an act of the will, but one of death and new life swooping in from outside of us. Maybe it happens after our heart stops, or maybe before. But that isn’t up to us. It’s something that, at a certain point, we have to surrender to. And most of us don’t get there without a hell of a lot of kicking and screaming first.

It also helps to understand the spiritual mechanics of what’s going on in the heart of the aggressor. As much as they seem to have the upper hand against the victim, they’re actually far more deeply imprisoned than they are. When one resorts to aggression or violence, they’re effectively possessed. Their identity has been placed so far outside of God that they’re blinded to life itself. If their justification rests in their aggression towards the victim, they’re in hell. Not after death, but right then and there. I say this not in a shameful way (though I should feel justified in shaming aggressors, as you’ll soon see, we’re all aggressors to a degree), but out of sorrow.

This is where having a low anthropology comes in. It shows us that aggressors live under the same psycho/spiritual condition that everyone else lives under (though it might be lying dormant for the victim at the point of the affliction). It’s not that the aggressor is any more good or evil than the victim, it’s just that they’re more swept up/blinded by it than the victim is at the time.

Sin (the human propensity to muck things up) has gripped the aggressor so strongly and the victim happens to be on the business end of it.

As victims, we can only pray that when and if the time of our persecution comes, we can be miraculously renewed in it. That the effects of our affliction ignite a new life in us that extends and offers the same mercy, grace and sustaining love to our aggressors with the same reckless abandon that God extends to us.

This is no simple ‘life hack’. It’s not an internal state that’s achievable through individual spiritual prowess. I don’t think we can meditate our way into this place. As I said, it’s a full-on death and a resurrection that comes from God, not from us.

And yes, this is grace. Grace comes not from us. If anything, it comes through us, but its source is never in the individual psyche. It swoops in undeservedly and makes all things new. Maybe not the kind of news we want to hear, but good news nonetheless.

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Table Talk

Ramblings on life, faith, work, and creativity from a…

Jonas Ellison

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Writer. Midlife seminarian. Bread-breaker-in-training. Werewolf Hunter. He/him. Blogs daily at http://jonasellison.substack.com

Table Talk

Ramblings on life, faith, work, and creativity from a midlife seminarian.

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