Every pastor knows the difference between the grace of the Gospel — salvation through faith in Christ and repentance for our sins — and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which he defined as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”
Imparting a proper understanding of grace is an essential part of discipleship. And most discipleship takes place outside the four walls of the sanctuary. What we say publicly in response to major news events falls under this umbrella. When elected officials come looking for cheap grace, playing along isn’t just politically problematic — it’s theologically dangerous.
Before a white supremacist stormed an El Paso Walmart and shot 46 people, 22 of whom are now dead, he posted a statement online that parroted word-for-word much of President Trump’s racist rhetoric about an “invasion” of Latino immigrants. The terrorist later stated explicitly that his mission was to kill as many “Mexicans” as possible.
President Trump, who has stoked fear and loathing of Latinos since the opening remarks of his presidential campaign, had to respond. Reading from a teleprompter at a press conference two days after this act of racist terrorism, he said in part, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”
What was missing from the speech was repentance — to God or to the people he has wronged. He took no responsibility for his lengthy history of using racist language, let alone for inspiring racist violence. In fact, his re-election campaign continues to stand by use of the “invasion” language. Defiantly defending use of language that inspired a deadly act of domestic terrorism shows that the president not only sees nothing wrong with what he did, but is morally unfit for continued service. Anything short of stepping down at this point would be a grasp for cheap grace.
Within hours of his remarks, The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all ran headlines announcing Trump’s condemnation of racism. Cable news talkers described him as striking a new tone. The line served its purpose.
Our tendency can be to look for a reason to give this president credit for something, to see a silver lining, to not be critical all the time. I get it. I’ve spent most of my life in politically “purple” churches where coming across as partisan not only risks dividing the congregation, but could also put the pastor’s future in jeopardy. Between that hard reality and our responsibility to eschew partisan bias, the inclination to give a modicum of credit for statements like the president’s line on racism is understandable on one level.
And I talk every day with people who work at the intersection of faith and politics. I heard some folks suggest that criticizing Trump’s words after El Paso and Dayton would make his critics look unreasonable and political.
But succumbing to this concern about appearances would clearly cheapen grace, which damages discipleship.
In between President Trump’s statement and his subsequent visit to El Paso, 17,000 El Pasoans issued a statement calling on him to stay away. It read in part,
We hope you take a moment for genuine introspection, deep soul searching, and penance. We hope you will genuinely change. We hope you will have the grace and humility to ask for our community’s forgiveness. We hope that following this horror we will never again hear the racist, xenophobic, and hateful language that has marked your presidency. We hope you will cut your ties to white supremicists [sic] like Kris Kobach, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller. We hope you will champion laws and policies that ban assault weapons and high yield magazines, enact universal background checks, and demand red flag laws that take guns from those who are a harm to themselves or others. We hope you will stop policies that criminalize, demonize, and dehumanize migrants. We hope you will uplift our Southern Border as the “New Ellis Island” of our age — a gateway to an inclusive, welcoming America that is still the land of opportunity for all. Only then, after you have demonstrated this change, genuine and meaningful, in your words, your acts, and your heart, can we welcome you in El Paso again. In the meantime, we must insist you are not welcome here.
These people, speaking with moral clarity born of trauma, lay out a vision of authentic repentance. I see in their demands an echo of the call for repentance and offer of grace that God extends to us all.
I believe President Trump must go a step further still. His cursory condemnation of racism last week wasn’t accompanied by a cessation of his racist campaign rhetoric — even continuing to push the same narrative that motivated the El Paso domestic terrorist. And for years now, he has used the world’s largest megaphone to shout language that incites violence. What has followed is a wave of white supremacist attacks unlike anything we’ve seen since the Civil Rights movement.
Real repentance and real healing starts with relinquishing the power he has abused to deadly effect, just as a military officer who presided over war crimes would give up his command before seeking a pardon. In order for grace to not be cheap, it’s time for President Trump to resign.