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Prodigal Son As Great Society

David Zahl and Will McDavid of the Mockingbird site critique my remarks on David Brooks’s Prodigal Son column. (My remarks are here; David Brooks’s column that started it is here.) They take exception to my focusing on the repentance part of the Prodigal Son story. My point was that the story is first and foremost about grace and mercy, but we mustn’t overlook the fact that it started when the Prodigal Son repented and asked for mercy. I talked about the old Catholic phrase they used to tell penitents preparing for confession: that they should have “firm purpose of amendment,” which simply means you should really intend to repent. Excerpt from Zahl and McDavid:

If this sounds reasonable, that’s because it is. But Christ’s parable is not about a reasonable son or a reasonable father or their reasonable relationship. Doubtless Dreher means well, but his line of thinking opens the door for forgiveness to be predicated on proper repentance, or what he calls “firm purpose of amendment” (a milder “desire and resolution” in his ex-tradition’s catechism). There may be other biblical passages you could use to defend such a framework, but this isn’t one–after all, the son isn’t even allowed to finish his speech or declare his intent. So if the phrase “firm purpose” makes you shiver, you’re in good company. It’s a reliable recipe for religious neurosis, one which thrusts a person into the kind of excruciating internal guessing game that drove Martin Luther to despair: How do I know I’ve really repented? What if I say I repent but don’t feel it? What if I feel repentant but don’t act on it? What if I only act on it for a while? What if there’s something I need to repent of that I can’t remember? What if my neighbor’s repentance looks a lot firmer than mine? What if I’m in a coma? You get the idea.

When repentance gets cast as our part of the equation of forgiveness (or reconciliation, or redemption), rather than the God-given way we connect with His prior forgiveness, we dig ourselves into a hole of scrupulosity, that rather outlandish-sounding word for using penance as a tool, or technique, for appropriating grace. It’s telling, too, that earlier in the article Dreher summarizes Brooks’s view as emphasizing the truth that the Kingdom of God is “mostly about love, mercy, and grace.” Hmmm… Some might say it is comprehensively concerned with those three words–and comprehensively concerned with justice, too, such that love and justice coincide perfectly in God. In any case, the “mostly” here should raise an eyebrow. It leaves (too much) room for our inner-elder brother to stretch his legs–and all of us have one. The “mostly” allows space, however minute, for our too-predictably-human “justice” to take control of matters but also, and more fundamentally, because it implies that love and justice are locked in a zero-sum tension. Yet the Prodigal Son story views justice–the younger son’s reconciliation–as something which occurs totally through grace.

Well, hang on. I made my observation in context of Brooks saying that the Prodigal Son story can be a guide to public policy. Speaking of the boys’ father and his lesson to the self-righteous older brother, Brooks says:

The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.

True. But Brooks also says that for the transaction of mercy to work — for the Prodigal Son to be restored to communion with his family — there must be “mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project.” In public policy terms, that means a real commitment by the penitent to turning from his prodigal ways. It is right for one to expect the Elder Brother to be merciful to his lost brother who is trying to mend his ways, but in public policy terms — and remember, the Kingdom of America is not the Kingdom of Heaven — it is justified for the Elder Brothers (that is, the people who played by the rules) to expect some commitment from the prodigal younger brothers to work on “some common project.” When I asked in earlier posts what the poor owe to the rest of us, this is what I’m getting at: solidarity. People who have wrecked their lives and need help from the community, whether in the form of government assistance, or from a private charity, have nothing to give back except their commitment to change, to engage in mutual upbuilding of the community. In public policy terms, offering mercy without any expectation of repentance creates an unhealthy situation in which those seeking “mercy” (= support from the community) come to expect it without having to share anything of themselves in return, and those offering “mercy” do so impersonally, not really caring if the lost brother is reclaimed and renewed, but basically paying a guilt tax.

Speaking theologically and not, um, governmentally, I still disagree with Zahl and McDavid. I don’t know what theological tradition they’re coming from, but reading their blog’s FAQ, it seems pretty clear that it’s nondenominational Protestant. I don’t want to describe wrongly what they believe, but I think I have a good idea from reading their definition of sanctification,  and this:

When repentance gets cast as our part of the equation of forgiveness (or reconciliation, or redemption), rather than the God-given way we connect with His prior forgiveness, we dig ourselves into a hole of scrupulosity, that rather outlandish-sounding word for using penance as a tool, or technique, for appropriating grace.

What is “His prior forgiveness”? Is that a universalist view? I don’t follow this.

If I’m reading them correctly, then what we have here is a basic clash between how Protestants understand the working of grace, and how Orthodox and Catholics do. Note well that there are differences between Catholics and Orthodox on this too, but I believe I’m on solid ground in saying that for Orthodox and Catholics, grace is a free gift of God, one that we open ourselves up to through first through repentance. We don’t earn grace, certainly, but we cannot benefit from it unless we turn from our sins. For Orthodox Christians, sanctification is a process of growing in grace through constant repentance, prayer, receiving the Sacraments, and so on. The Mockingbird guys write of sanctification like this:

 Theologian Gerhard Forde, a key Mockingbird influence, saw the two as one and the same, describing sanctification as “coming to grips with your justification.” Imagine a person who has been given an absurdly expensive gift by someone who not only refuses to be repaid, but considers any attempt at repayment to tarnish the gift itself. The only course of action is to deal with the free gift, to dwell on its lavishness, to internalize its beauty, to live out of a profound sense of gratitude.

Gerhard Forde was an American Lutheran theologian, and the author of a book called Radical Lutheranism, a concept with which, I gather, many American Lutherans took issue. My sense is that there is a fundamental theological divide between Mockingbird and Your Working Boy on how sanctifying grace works. Taking the Prodigal Son story as a model for public policy, I would say that the broader community needs to respond to any prodigal who seeks genuine restoration with the community not by haranguing him or making him work his way back, but by welcoming him. Yet if he just wants a handout from the community without recognizing mutual obligation, which from him means a real willingness to change his ways, the restoration will not work. The prodigal brother will just be a mooch.

Similarly, it seems to me that that moment of grace in which the sinner turns decisively away from his sin is only the beginning of the journey to full restoration of our broken souls. The Orthodox Church doesn’t see church as a court of law, but as a hospital — and sometimes, what we need to be healed will hurt. This, I said in the original post, is why the church is a hospital, not a hospice. A hospice is where you go when there’s no hope left, and all they can do is alleviate your pain as you die. The Mockingbird guys wrote, in response to this:

Some Christians may need a hospital to get better, but I for one need, as Dreher so ably (if unsympathetically) puts it, a hospice.

You need a place to die without pain? Is that really what Christianity is all about: palliative therapy, not the kind of therapy that heals and restores?

Anyway, if Mockingbird’s theory of the Prodigal Son story were a matter of public policy, it seems to me it would be the Great Society: cut ’em a check and expect nothing, because nothing can be expected, and they can expect nothing of themselves.

I could be wrong.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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