A few months ago, I watched my niece moderating as her young sons played a game. They were doing the usual banter kids do in competition: calling each other out on the rules, watching to make sure the other didn’t gain some advantage in a way that was not “fair,” often with the admonition, “You can’t do that!” And finally, “Mom!”
She intervened gently, saying, “Why don’t you give him grace for that? Remember, he gave you grace before on that other turn?”
I could tell that this is something they had talked about before. Both boys understood “grace” as part of their family dynamic. Sometimes you give it and sometimes it is given to you. It keeps the peace and keeps the game going.
I have thought about this often in the context of our adult relationships. There is power in the ability to give grace. Most of the time, it costs nothing, sometimes, it costs a lot. Sometimes it is easy to give, done almost without a second thought. Other times,it is very hard, and we wonder if our grace is being taken advantage of. It takes effort, and trust, and something like love to give grace with no expectation that it will be returned, or with the certain knowledge that it will not.
I have looked lately for evidence of grace in public life. On the micro scale, it is certainly there. We hold doors for each other, let someone go ahead of us in line, donate blood, offer cash or food to a person in need. Face to face grace, you might say. It is everywhere, if you look.
But on the larger scale, it is hard to see grace these days. We have hardened ourselves into teams or tribes and the very idea of relinquishing some of our power in the form of grace for those not on our “side” is frightening. We assume that they will use it to hurt us, to gain advantage, maybe even to obliterate us. The tragedy is, we aren’t always wrong about that.
What would it take, I wonder, to return the regular giving and receiving of grace to public life? To make the ownership and use of power a force for good, rather than a blood sport? I look to my two young great-nephews and wonder, “What do they have that allows them, in the heat of competition, to give grace?”
They have shared purpose. They want to continue to play. If one abandons all the rules and cheats, and the other throws the game board over in fury and frustration, it is over. Everyone loses.
Our shared purpose as a nation is clear. School children memorize it as the preamble to The Constitution, which clearly sets out our shared purpose as a nation and as a society.
We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, promote domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and preserve the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
None of those reasons are about the individual. They are about shared goals (union, justice, tranquility, common, general – ourselves AND our posterity). Like the two young brothers, we have a familial, shared purpose intended to continue for generations to come.
They have wise guidance. My niece, their mom, gently reminds them that grace is theirs to give and receive, and she doesn’t dictate, but influences them to use their power for what will turn out to be the common good. The playing continues.
We have wise guidance. It is not found on cable news, or in harsh political rhetoric. It is found in history, in the writings of those who struggled before us, the philosophers, the poets, and in the examples of the saints, the volunteers, the advocates and the charitable. But that wise guidance does not come without effort. We have to seek it out, through education, study and the observance and emulation of the wise.
They believe in justice, because they have practiced it. The giving of grace requires either faith or knowledge. My niece encouraged the older son to give grace by reminding him that his brother had shown him grace previously. And it obviously was not the first time. Their practice of giving grace gave each of them the knowledge that the other would not take unjust advantage. This is admittedly a hard one. Someone had to be the first to extend grace, and extend it based on faith alone. But as genuine justice is practiced, grace becomes easier.
We as a nation have committed horrific injustices, and still do. There is so much work to be done, so much practice. We are far from reaching a place where all are secure in the knowledge that their grace can be freely given. But I have to believe that we can reach that place. And we must do it quickly, because while we argue, and cheat, and cling to our team’s ideology and “rightness,” our house is burning down around us. Others are suffering, and we must look up from our game board and see their distress.
I made a list for myself of seven things I can do to help myself hopefully grow into a practitioner of justice and grace.
- Continue to develop and practice everyday grace. Hold doors. Be patient in traffic. Give charity without judgment. Be open-hearted. Be grateful. Step outside the comfort of the tribe. Be humble. Pay kindness forward.
- Memorize the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. Say it often, paying attention to the words.
- Memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Listen to what he said about a “nation so conceived and so dedicated,” even while he stood on a blood soaked battlefield of a terrible civil war.
- Regularly read the speeches and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Regularly read the New Testament, in the Book of Matthew, Chapters 5-7. The teachings attributed to Jesus apply to any society, and every individual, believer or not. They set out how to behave with kindness, humility, generosity, integrity and fairness.
- Protect and fight for the institutions that equalize power, so that grace can be more freely given. Support the public schools, free and fair elections, transparent government, the free press, fair housing, opportunity, a livable wage. Empower others.
- Strive to be an instrument of peace.
I have read a lot lately about anger. I feel a lot of anger, and frustration, and fear. I think those emotions are natural and justified. But what shall I do with them? I hope to transform the heat of anger into energy for change, and to follow the example of two little children in the giving and receiving of grace.