What's Tony Thinking

The Morality of Grace


After the 2016 election one of the biblical passages that was on my mind came from the prophet Amos. Amos indicted the heedless wealthy of his day for their indifference to the plight of their countrymen who were vulnerable and suffering. Here’s Amos:

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall, who sing idle songs . . . who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” (Amos 6: 4 – 6)

The clan of Joseph was the smallest and least powerful of Israel’s tribes. Here it stood for those left out and left behind. On the brink of the 2016 election books like Hillbilly Elegy and articles like “How Clinton Lost the Working Class” described those forgotten in the new America of globalism and high tech.

Now, in a pair of recent columns Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have re-visited that topic and the people who have experienced “the ruin of Joseph” in our own time and nation. Kristof drew particularly on his childhood in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and his growing up in a town I know a bit, Yamhill, Oregon. He profiled a family he knew well from elementary school years, the Knapps.

Of the five Knapp children who Kristof remembered as lively, “smart and talented,” only one — who was in prison for an extended period — survives. The others all died in drug or alcohol abuse related deaths or suicide. The Knapps, like many in rural and small town America, saw jobs and futures disappear and made self-destructive choices. Their deaths were “deaths of despair.”

In the second of the two columns Kristof responds to those who followed their first piece with scathing and dismissive judgment on the Knapps and those like them.

“When my wife and I wrote about my old schoolmates who had died from ‘deaths of despair,’ the reaction was sometimes ugly.

“‘They killed themselves,’ scoffed Jonathan from St. Louis, Mo., in the reader comments. ‘It was self-inflicted.’

“Ajax in Georgia was even harsher: ‘Natural selection weeding out those less fit for survival.’”

While acknowledging that many readers did respond to the profile of the Knapps with compassion, many others like those cited above did not.

“Plenty of readers responded with compassion. But there was a prickly scorn from some that deserves a response because it reflects an ideology that underlies so many failed policies. It arises from the myth that we live in a land of limitless opportunity and that those who struggle have simply made ‘bad choices’ and failed to muster ‘personal responsibility.’ Dr. Ben Carson, who grew up poor and black in Detroit and is now the nation’s housing secretary, has described poverty as ‘more of a choice than anything else.'”

“This ‘personal responsibility’ narrative animated some reader critics of the Knapps. ‘This article describes ruined, pitiful people,’ one reader commented. ‘The main problem they have is weakness of character.’”

The Kristofs argue that it’s not an either/ or. Either the Knapps blew it or they were victims of social change and explanatory frameworks that dismissed them and people like them.

“My friends the Knapps made mistakes. Of course they did. But they weren’t less responsible, less talented or less hard-working than their parents or grandparents who had thrived in the postwar era.

“What changed was diminishing access to good jobs, reduced commitment to investment in human capital, a hurricane of addictive drugs (some peddled by the pharmaceutical industry), and the rise of a harsh social narrative that vilified those left behind — a narrative that workers often internalized. Workers lost their dignity and hope, and that exacerbated the spiral of self-medication and self-destruction, of loneliness and despair that swept through my No. 6 bus.

“We moved from an inclusive capitalism in the postwar era to a rigged system that hobbles unions, underinvests in children and then punishes those left behind.

“What would a better social narrative look like? It would acknowledge personal responsibility but also our collective social responsibility — especially to help children. It would be infused with empathy and a “morality of grace” that is less about pointing fingers and more about offering helping hands. It would accept that a country cannot reach its potential when so many of its citizens are not achieving theirs.”

I was intrigued by their reference to a “morality of grace” and so followed the link to a 2015 book, Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy by Victor Tan Chen. Chen, though not himself religious, contrasts a morality based on the Christian concept of grace with other, and prevailing frameworks, like “meritocratic morality” and “egalitarian morality,” which track roughly with the political right and left respectively. A morality of grace is less concerned with judgment and extends hope and compassion even to the “undeserving.” This is rooted in a theology that understands Christ died not for the deserving but, as Paul says, “for the ungodly.”

I am grateful for the Kristof’s portraits of the Knapps and those like them, a subset of our society too easily written off. And Chen is onto something important in the term, “morality of grace.” To my mind that is the moral perspective that characterized a theologically substantive mainline or liberal Christianity that has now lost traction and influence in America. It is the world and world-view conjured by Marilynne Robinson in her Gilead trilogy. We are the poorer for its loss.



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