The Offensiveness of Grace

I’m a fairly calm, even-keeled person. Some would even say mellow. As a matter of fact, I pride myself on being slow to anger. Except perhaps in parenting. And maybe when reading the news. Also when the puppy needs to be taken outside at 3:00 in the morning. But really, I don’t get angry very easily. Which is why I was so surprised by an ordinary interaction with an old friend the other day, which left me feeling angry. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. This friend and I are not as close as we once were, simply because the circumstances of our lives have changed. It was nice to catch up. But then things shifted for me emotionally. She relayed some happy information about another friend we had once shared, which was news to me as I have lost touch with that other friend. I suddenly felt a little angry for not being in the know sooner. I hope I didn’t show it. I got emotionally hooked by a piece of information that had nothing to do with me. In retrospect, I think I reacted because I missed that friend and the closeness we once shared. My anger wasn’t really anger; there was something more like sadness underneath it.

Sociologist Brene Brown calls anger the discharge of discomfort and pain, and it happens all the time. One morning in her kitchen, she dropped her mug full of hot coffee on the kitchen floor and it broke, splattering coffee all over the floor and onto her white pants and pink sweater. And she immediately got angry and blamed her husband Steve, who, for the record was not even home at the time. This happened instantly, through a complicated set of connections she made in her mind. Her husband had come home a bit late the night before from playing water polo, and she can’t sleep until he gets home. So because he was late and she didn’t get enough sleep, she was having a second cup of coffee, which she normally doesn’t do. Since the pain of dropping the coffee had to be someone’s fault, it was clearly his. It was at this moment that she realized the extent to which she is a blamer. We are all blamers to one degree or another, quick to be angry at others out of our own pain. Sometimes this is small scale stuff, like when I was catching up with an old friend or when Brene dropped her coffee. But sometimes it happens on a much larger scale, which brings me to a third example.

This week I had the opportunity to study some of Rachel Carson’s work. You might remember her as the famous author of Silent Spring about the dangerous overuse of pesticides, which was published in 1962. Before that, Carson had the reputation of being the greatest scientific writer of the 20th century. She was an unusual mix of biologist and literary genius. She could write a scientific work in an accessible way for a general audience, inviting us all to share her sense of wonder in the natural world. She was widely read and very popular. Her earlier works were on the New York Times bestseller list for a record-breaking number of weeks. But all that changed when Silent Spring came out. It was controversial. Despite her meticulous research and an airtight case, the critics hit back hard. Questioning the unregulated use of DDT was equivalent to questioning the moral authority of government and industry, and people got very angry. The particulars of the debate are fascinating, and now we take her findings for granted. But what interests me is the anger of the crowd. The reaction went from a debate to something much angrier and even mean. In an attempt to discredit her, people called Carson unqualified and ignorant, a communist, a bunny lover, a hysterical woman, a woman who kept cats, and a spinster. If we apply Brene Brown’s theory to this reaction, it would appear that the crowd’s anger was a discharge of something else, perhaps an uncomfortable sense of loss for truths they had cherished. New truths can be deeply unsettling, even offensive. So much so that, in biblical terms, the crowd was ready to throw her off a cliff.

I see a parallel in Carson’s story to the few short verses we have today from Luke’s gospel. Jesus goes from being the darling of the synagogue, young and wise, to the new villain, all in one short conversation. Things turned quickly, and the people were filled with rage. “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Why the sudden shift in what they thought about him? My theory is that, like Carson, he spoke a truth that was unsettling and offensive.

The people had asked him to perform miracles in his home town, just like the ones he had been doing in Capernaum. The locations here are important. Capernaum had a heavy non- Jewish population. His Jewish community wanted Jesus to minister to his own people. Jesus defended his ministry to outsiders by offering two Old Testament stories, which the crowd would have known well. Both Elijah and Elisha, prophets of Israel, took God’s favor to non-Jews. Israel had always known of God’s grace toward all peoples. But it was difficult to hear. We all know what it’s like to be at war with ourselves, sometimes making casualties of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love (Fred Craddock). The offensiveness of grace is a challenge for all of us, just as it was for the synagogue that day. God’s grace is always easy to accept until we have to apply it to people we think are beyond its reach.

Angry crowds are an old problem, but also a pressing one. We live in a world in which crowds want to throw people off of cliffs all the time, especially those who speak truths that disrupt how we see the world. Righteous discontent and anger are good things, but anger that is really the misdirected discharge of pain or discomfort is at an epidemic level. Our gospel today raises a critical question for us. How do we stay focused on following Jesus instead of getting swept up into angry crowds? Jesus didn’t get hooked by the angry crowd in Nazareth. He passed through them and went on his way. How can we manage our own reactivity like he did? How do we follow his lead, and stay focused on seeking truth, especially when a new or different truth is difficult for us to accept? These are pressing questions not only for our spiritual life, but for our society.

We can study the extraordinary leadership of people like Jesus and Rachel Carson for their wisdom. Great leaders share certain qualities in the face of crisis. We can see in the gospel that Jesus had the capacity to separate himself from the angry, emotional process going on around him. He had clarity about his principles and vision. He was willing to be vulnerable. And he had persistence in the face of resistance (Ed Friedman). That’s a list of qualities to consider for people who want to be great leaders, but it’s also a list for those of us who aspire to be great followers. Following Jesus means embracing his clarity, truth, and vulnerability, while avoiding getting swept up in angry crowds. Time and again, he showed us a way that claims grace over division, calm over storm, compassion over hate.

Let’s strive to be great followers of Jesus. On a small scale, this means getting a little less angry when a puppy has to go outside in the middle of the night, or when we need someone else to blame over dropped coffee. On a big scale, it means opening our hearts to seeking truth, even if it means we might have have to change our minds. It certainly means avoiding cliff throwing. And it means calming our reactivity so that we can see more and more of the wider truth of God’s grace. As followers of Jesus, we can lead the way.

Kate Alexander