ELUSIVE GRACE: Loving Your Enemies While Striving for God’s Justice. By Scott Black Johnston. Foreword by Barbara Brown Taylor. Afterword by Patrick Hugh O’Connor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022. Xvi + 154 pages.
Living as we do in a time of great polarization, it’s easier to say we love our enemies than to actually love our enemies. This is especially true “while we strive for God’s justice.” It seems that we are so divided that you are either with me or against me. There are no other options. At least that’s the way it seems to be. But is it true? Could divine grace, though elusive, provide a foundation for not just finding common cause with others with whom we differ, which might be difficult, but might we find ways to reduce the cultural temperature? That is the question that faces us as we navigate this current moment.
Scott Black Johnston believes there is a way for us to both love our enemies (our opponents) and pursue God’s justice. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible with the aid of God’s “elusive grace.” Johnston comes at this question from the perspective of being a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA), serving in the neighborhood where Donald Trump had been living before his residency in the White House. Johnston currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. The church essentially sits in the shadow of the Trump Tower. Before he took this position he served as a professor of homiletics (preaching) at Austin Theological Seminary.
It is from the perspective of serving as a pastor of a church sitting a stone’s throw from the Trump Tower, that Johnston addresses the current situation. He brings to the conversation a perspective that many mainline Protestant pastors will understand, as most of our churches are politically diverse. It’s from this perspective that he sees the divide present in society. Perhaps the divide is even starker when you’re the pastor of a prominent New York City congregation. Johnston tells us that he learned the hard way the depth of the present divide. At the very beginning of the book, Elusive Grace, Johnston tells the story of what happened when he and another PCUSA pastor — the pastor of the congregation in Queens where Donald Trump was baptized as an infant — paid a visit to Trump. After Trump won his election to the presidency, the two pastors reached out before the inauguration and asked to meet with him. The offer was accepted, and the two pastors, one of whom is Black, met Trump at the Trump Tower. They spoke frankly about their concerns and then prayed for Trump. When the members of the two congregations heard about their visit, they faced both anger and disappointment among their members. The same was true on the part of their colleagues. Their response is understandable. Donald Trump has been a divisive figure since even before announcing his candidacy in 2015. The question is, can we, even if we stand opposed to the perspectives and actions of a person we oppose, engage them in conversation and even prayer? As I pondered the question posed by the book’s author, I wondered what I might do if I had been in their position. The question that emerges from all of this concerns how we as Christians might exhibit God’s grace in the world.
The thread that runs through Elusive Grace is what Johnston calls the “Great Awokening.” As one might expect, takes up the current rage about “wokeness” and combines that term with the idea of the Great Awakening. Johnston writes that “our society is again engaged in impassioned conversations that aim to identify and unpack our corporate moral failings, individuals are being challenged to be moral agents, pushing back against systemic wrongs” (p. 5). Of course, not everyone agrees as to what these moral failings might be. While the earlier awakenings were rooted in the churches (spiritual communities) this time the roots of the awakening/awakening are secular ones. The question Johnston poses for us is whether the churches can tap into this movement and provide it with a spiritual core. As we engage in this moment of “awakening,” might we be both “agents of change and voices of healing” (p. 5)?
Johnston has designed Elusive Grace to be used in congregations to encourage conversation about the current state of affairs. He divides the book into three studies. The first study focuses on reclaiming virtue by focusing on seven heavenly virtues: temperance, Justice, Prudence, Courage, Faith, hope, and love. He emphasizes the final virtue, writing that it is the “Sine Qua Non” for reclaiming virtue. In fact, Johnston connects love with the Easter message. He points to the ancient story of Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, He writes of an ancient Easter icon that depicts Jesus “getting in touch with his inner Chuck Norris and kicking the doors down. Hell’s hardware lies all over the ground. The hinges, nails, and locks that have imprisoned humanity are shattered. Bending his knew, Jesus grabs the hands of people standing in shallow tombs. He helps them escape” (p. 49). In thinking about this virtue of love, Johnston envisions Jesus on the loose, engaged in life-changing work, while inviting us to join him in that “hard, virtuous, audacious work of love” (p. 49).
While Study One invites us to reclaim the virtues, Study Two focuses on “Retraining Our Hearts.” We engage in this work by learning to love God, Jesus, mercy, truth, neighbor, enemy, and the good. This study serves as a reminder that not all loves are equal. Some forms are unhealthy and include bad habits (here he taps into the work of James K. A. Smith who speaks of our hearts being formed by our desires). In this study, Johnston calls on the reader (and the congregations studying the book) to focus our attention on the things God loves. This is important for the church as it faces the moral issues raised by the Great Awokening. He writes that in doing so “we cannot pay lip service to love.” Instead, “it must seep from our speech. It must coat our every word. If we cannot speak out of love, we would be well-advised, as Christians, to stay silent” (pp. 55-56). Of course, we can’t stay silent, so we must relearn how to love as Jesus has taught us to love — “with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds” (p. 56). He acknowledges the difficulty facing us as individual Christians and as congregations. He writes: “We are walking down a challenging road. There is acrimony in the air. The most natural thing in the world is to turn away. Then we hear it. The apostle’s cry floating on the wind. Gather up your courage. Commit yourself. Hold on to the good” (p. 105).
Study Three is titled “Regarding the Church.” Here Johnston offers chapters that look at “peace, unity, and purity;” “The Word Proclaimed;” “Called to a Larger Vision” and finally a look at what it means to offer “Space for Transcendence.” Johnston directs Study Three of Elusive Grace” at churches — more specifically, he addresses predominantly White mainline Protestant churches (like his Presbyterian denomination and my Disciples of Christ denomination — among others) that once served as “the primary mediators of this country’s moral conversations” (p. 107). While this is no longer true, Johnston wants our churches to ask how we as churches might bear witness to a different moral vision than the one being proffered in our time. Here the question has to do with the way the churches respond to the “Great Awokening.” Will we engage it or stay silent? If we engage it, then will we engage this moment out of love?
As we pondered the questions raised by Scott Johnston in Elusive Grace, the author offers an epilogue to the book where he speaks of “Courage for the Called.” In this epilogue, he takes note of the kinds of people God typically sends into the world, people like Samuel, David, Esther, and Mary Magdalene. He points out that God isn’t looking for Olympic gold medalists, but “anyone with a heart for this hurting world. In this God’s call is persistent.” (p. 135). This is the hope that Johnston has for his church and the rest of the churches — he wants the churches and their members to have the courage to answer the call to love even our enemies as we join God’s work of striving for justice during this “Great Awokening.” His colleague who joined him on that visit to Donald Trump, the Rev. Patrick Hugh O’Connor, writes in the “Afterword,” that “Creating a civil society requires courage and imagination. It requires challenging assumptions and risking ridicule to create a better reality. It means being open to the possibilities of exceptional goodness being realized and dealing with scorn and shame when evil seems to triumph. It also requires that we show up as our authentic selves — striving to reshape and reframe our world” (p. 137). That work requires courage, grace, and love. It’s not easy work, but a necessary one if justice is to prevail.
Scott Johnston offers us an important invitation in Elusive Grace. He brings to the conversation his experience as a pastor and as a teacher of preaching. We see this throughout the book as he brings in stories and experiences that highlight the message. It’s accessible for congregational use. That is by design. It is rooted in Scripture and theology, but also in real life. It is my hope that congregations might pick up this book and use the study guide to have important conversations that could begin the process of healing the world’s divides by bringing healing to the divides present in our congregations so that together we might become agents of justice and voices of healing. Mainline Protestant churches may never reclaim their former status as the primary molders of the moral conversations in our nation, but we can be witnesses to God’s Elusive Grace,” and in doing so contribute to the work of justice in the world.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.