A Politic of Grace
Without it integrity is a shameful slog
I took a long-overdue walk this morning and was listening to a recent episode of the OnBeing podcast. It was a conversation between two organizers— Ai-Jen Poo of the Domestic Workers Alliance and Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement— which was part of a series entitled, The Future of Hope. The whole conversation is delightful and edifying, but the part that truly grabbed me was their discussion of the necessity for a politic of grace.
Those of you who’ve been with me for a long time here at the newsletter know I feel really strongly about grace, and its close cousin, mercy. I was lucky to grow up in a religious community that taught me about integrity and raised it up as a spiritual calling. However, what was often missing from the teaching I received about integrity was the necessity of grace and mercy. Instead, if one failed to maintain integrity the result was shame— shame for your own behavior, or shame received from those who judged your behavior.
So, what is grace? For those who believe in God, grace, according to Merriam-Webster, is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” But what if you don’t believe in God, or want to, as Tarana Burke suggests, revolutionize grace? Then I think you have to consider the other definition of grace, a “disposition to or an act of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.” In other words, God is not the only origin for help, kindness, or care. It comes from us— to be offered to other people and ourselves. In fact, I would argue, it must be offered because our stubbornly imperfect humanity isn’t an optional state, something we’ll be able to train ourselves out of someday. It’s just what is.
If we want to steer our imperfect human lives in the direction of intentionality and ethical conduct and faithfulness to our most deeply held beliefs then we’re going to need a metric ton of grace because we won’t always succeed. We won’t live up to our highest ideals every minute of every day. If our default response when this inevitability presents itself is shame, judgment, and despair, then integrity becomes nothing but a painful slog through an endless valley of suffering.
So, what about mercy? How is mercy different from grace? Grace describes help that is “unmerited”, which loops us back around to religious notions of original sin and such. As if God doesn’t actually owe us anything but offers it anyway, even if we don’t “deserve” it. Personally, I think that’s a bunch of hogwash. I think we’re always deserving of consideration and care. And I believe we are here to extend consideration and care to each other because the alternatives are shitty. Since we exist and need each other our choices are grace or judgment.
One heals. The other hurts. It’s really that simple.
Mercy comes in when we have actually done something wrong. Actively, maybe intentionally (and maybe not). But we have undeniably transgressed in some specific way. Then we are in need of mercy, “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power.”
The reality is that we are always subject to each other’s power. That’s what it means to be in any relationship, and in a community— to make one’s self vulnerable to other people’s power. Therefore, when we transgress it is in their power to offer us mercy, and we can offer or withhold mercy in return.
It is worth saying something at this point about forgiveness, which I’ve never been terribly good at myself. Forgiveness, as I’ve come to understand it, is an acceptance of whatever happened and a release of animosity. It’s a path you have to recommit yourself to over and over again, and some days I just don’t have the energy to walk it. I’ve found, though, that I can sit down with my eye on the path and wait for my willingness to arise again. It does, eventually.
Whether you, like me, struggle with forgiveness, I don’t think you have to feel forgiving in order to offer mercy when someone hurts or violates you. You can choose not to punish them, not to continue the cycle of violence or harm. You can acknowledge their humanity. That’s within your power, and that’s mercy.
It is tempting to think of grace and mercy as soft things, maybe even naive, but if you have ever extended true mercy to someone who has wronged you then you know. Mercy is fierce, powerful, and world-changing. It cracks your heart wide open.
And if you have ever felt grace break over you in the wake of a painful mistake then you know it is wild and wondrous. Grace will bring you to your knees and then join you down there, holding you hard, whispering in your ear, “You are not alone. Not perfect and never alone.”
Integrity is not a theory. It’s a praxis. Meaning that it’s always a work in progress. You’re always a work in progress. I am, for sure, always a work in progress. And that work can be, even in its difficulty, ennobling. It can elevate and strengthen us. It can also soften us and make us more supple, more able to hold ourselves rooted while the winds of change whip us about.
When the world wants to make us hard, when shame wants to make us brittle, grace and mercy keep us flexible and loving in our integrity.
May our integrity work keep us steadfast and supple. Through us, may the world become more grace-filled, more merciful, more whole and compassionate. Amen.
“And I believe we are here to extend consideration and care to each other because the alternatives are shitty.”= YES. I’m glad you ended with ‘amen’ because that was exactly the last word needed there!! 💜
I am really appreciating your writings! They resonate with me deeply and they make me feel all warm and fuzzy and it all feels and seems profoundly true. Thank you for doing this. My own understanding of grace is just what I sense when I witness something so beautiful that it makes my heart skip a beat (whether it be an act of kindness or integrity or something in the natural world that fills me with awe).