Three weeks ago I was at Freakstock, the annual Festival of Jesus Freaks, a German protestant church made up primarily by punks, hippies and other subcultural types. It was a great experience and I’m a bit sad I didn’t go there before. It is exactly this community of alternative and happy Christians my age I’ve been looking for. All the other people I could relate to were either my parents’ generation, non-Christian, or people who lived elsewhere – like the readers of YAR.
There were many beautiful and inspiring things happening, but what was most exciting to me were the Psalters and the Volksküche (people’s kitchen). During the day people were cooking in giant pots in the Volksküche so that in the evening people could have supper together. Everyone was invited to eat, but also to cook, cut, salt and wash the dishes. The Volksküche’s tent was also a great place to meet people, and I ended up spending most of my time there.
The Psalters are a band from Philadelphia, Turtle Island, who mix mainly liturgical texts with punk-folk music and consider themselves nomads. I didn’t know them before Freakstock and am still very excited about their music, the musicians and their concerts.
What connected these two groups of people and what caused them to inspire me so much was the fact that both worked solely for donations. At the Volksküche there was a pot where you could put in as much money as you thought the food was worth to you and the same was true for the records of the Psalters. There were no fixed prices and everyone was free to give as much as she could and wanted. You could even give nothing!
These practice got me thinking and in a conversation with a friend I ended up saying: „(God’s) Grace is for donations”
After I said it, we discussed it and found it resolves a lot of tensions between a „sola fide” (only belief (saves)) and an approach which stresses the importance of actually showing your faith through works.
Grace is a word most people would say means to receive something completely unearned. And that’s true. The grace God offers us is something we can never earn. No matter how pious (or radical for this audience) you are, no matter if you resolved every conflict on earth, or converted everyone to a radical discipleship – you can’t earn Grace. Nor could you do all these things without God’s grace, I guess. The concept of undeserved grace redeems us of the coercion of our consciences to do “good”, which so often leads us to justify our means by our ends. Grace redeems us of our feelings of guilt and shows us that we are embraced by God just the way we are.
But. There’s always a but. A concept’s strengths become weaknesses if they lose their subversiveness, become commonly accepted truths and begin to push other truths away.
The same happened with grace. I’m not an expert on church history to point my finger at the exact cause for this swing, but let’s just say that at some point the idea of unconditional grace won over the idea that faith has something to do with works – especially radical works.
Now, people who say that works are also essential for faith and doubt that all Christians should do after their conversion is to sing worship songs and not have premarital sex are heretics to many Christians.
But that’s what they called the prophets, so I’ll take that as a compliment.
I think works are important even essential to my faith, and yet I’d just as strongly say that no one can deserve grace. How to handle this open contradiction?
That’s where I believe “Grace for Donations” is a good concept.
Grace for Donations means everyone takes what they need and gives what they can. Some need more and seem not to give anything, while others are not able to receive a lot, yet think they need to give a lot back. Some give differently than was expected, like those who brought their vegetables to Volksküche, or those who cut vegetables and helped to prepare the food, while others “only” gave 5€ for their supper. By receiving grace you can pass it on and thus also give something back, like those who were so excited by the Psalters that they told all their friends about it who later came to the booth and gave a lot of money for the records.
Those who start the grace and have costs on their side (be it the Volksküche on a very low scale, the Psalters who actually live by the donations they receive, or God who completely delivered himself and the entire cosmos to humanity) need an enormous amount of trust towards the consumers that they will actually return enough so the whole thing works.
But it is exactly this trust that makes the consumers feel recognised and challenged to return the trust and move beyond consumerism to becoming part of the Grace-movement. Sometimes the trust is not returned, like when the Volksküche had a negative balance of a 100€ a day before the festival ended (I hope it got settled), but this disappointment when vocalized serves to remind the recipients of grace of their responsibility which they can then assume.
One last and very exciting similarity between grace and the gift-economy (to which the “for donations” principle belongs) is, that many people find it impossible to accept both. We are so conditioned to see everything as having a fixed price, as being measurable, to see duties as something one can and must fulfill and then be rid of them that it seems impossible and unbearable to us that there is an alternative.
Grace instills fear in the fallen human, because he wants to know good and evil, measure it, and put it into categories. But once accepted, Grace opens up a new reality where measures are not needed anymore and we are free to give as much as we can and receive without fearing the resulting obligations.