In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer popularized the concepts of cheap grace and costly grace. Bonhoeffer, writing in a Germany already swept up in the fervor of Nazism, spoke of cheap grace as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” In contrast he argued that, to be effective, grace needed to be bound to a practiced discipleship. Without this context, grace loses its meaning and leaves the church devoid of its witness:
“The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition.”
In a similar fashion, many today settle for a cheap hope which also has unintended consequences. Cheap hope is the pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is a hope that offers little to remedy the problems of this world and asks for even less. This hope is cheap because it was won for us by Christ requiring no action of our own, and it is false because it leaves us trapped in fear, unmotivated to take risks for others, and bends us away from the love Jesus incarnated.
Cheap hope is the belief that an election, however historic, is enough to bring justice to a country. It is also a victory won by a handful of heroes and some furry little Ewoks.
In these last few days before its release, it is surprising how little is still known about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One thing is very clear however; that cheesy celebration on the forest moon of Endor was premature. The bad guys may be different, and some of the good ones may be older, but ample pain and chaos remain across the galaxy.
The original Star Wars was titled A New Hope. As a movie that couldn’t assume a sequel, it also ended with a celebration. Still, George Lucas did have the vision to leave some things unsettled. While the victory at the end of this film (the destruction of the first Death Star) does represent a turning point, a new hope if you will, a number of plot points including the survival of the main villain (Darth Vader) remain unsettled. When we discover our heroes again in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it is immediately clear that the struggle is still ongoing.
While our world has made any number of forward steps, it’s hard to deny that we are aren’t also faced with unsettled challenges of our own. For those who hold to a cheap hope, acts of terror, continuous war, and the devastating effects of global warming (which they often don’t “believe” in) are a strange affirmation of their safe reward somewhere else. For people of faith, their actions are oddly nihilistic because their cheap hope is beyond this world. Personal safety and comfort are prioritized when we believe destruction is inevitable.
What’s exciting, and maybe a little disappointing, about the fantastical world of The Force Awakens is that after 30 years, very little seems to have changed. New heroes have arrived to join the struggle in ways that parallel the original trilogy. Rather than the dawning of the utopian era that the celebration on Endor suggested, it’s likely that we’ll be treated to a generational passing of the torch. The struggle may be different, but it will continue – just as it does in the real world.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda
In the final movie of the original Star Wars trilogy, the main hero, Luke Skywalker, almost succumbs to the dark side of the force. His temptation isn’t the power that is offered to him by the evil Emperor Palpatine; oddly enough, his pull towards the dark side was actually a byproduct of his deep love for his friends, a repeat of his failure in The Empire Strikes Back, and the infamous Skywalker impatience.
Luke: Your overconfidence is your weakness.
Palpatine: [looks back at Luke] Your faith in your friends is yours.
Vader: It is pointless to resist, my son.
Palpatine: Everything that has transpired has done so, according to my design. Your friends, out there on the sanctuary moon, are walking into a trap, as is your Rebel fleet. It was I who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. [mockingly] Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive (WATCH)
No, Luke isn’t tempted to the dark side by power; he loses hope as the Emperor’s cruel words chip away at his vulnerabilities exposing his lack of discipline and, dare I say it, spiritual maturity.
Costly hope is the kind we have to struggle for. While it may contain some future promise, it is not detached from the condition of the world we live in today. This hope requires us to be fully engaged, disciplined, and patient; it is emboldened by love and sacrifice on the behalf of others (even upon a cross). Costly hope is the only kind that ever really changes the world.
Beyond the flights of fantasy, we are encountering a disturbing moment in the United States where many people are choosing fear over light. Some of the loudest political and religious voices spew messages laden with paranoia and xenophobia; others offer subtler, but just as destructive, versions of the same. When we embrace such fear it requires us to trade cooperative peace and progress for narrow promises of security for a few.
In this Advent season, we find ourselves again needing a new hope. Thankfully we believe in a God who does not leave us alone, one who cares for all those with whom we share this earth. May we be people who believe that costly hope is worth the struggle, and know that even when “light shines in the darkness, the darkness has not overcome it.”