“The Scandalous Grace of God”: A Christian explains why he’s no better than Dylan Roof

When I read the title of this piece in PuffHo’s “Religion” section,  “I am no better than Dylann Roof“, I took it as a determinist: all of us are capable of doing what Roof did if we had a certain combination of genes and environments. (As you may recall, Roof murdered 9 African-Americans at a Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been convicted and sentenced to death.)  Of course even a determinist would still use use the word “better,” in that the author of the piece, believer Jonathan Walton, surely was not as bad for society as was Roof.

Author Walton is identified as “InterVarsity’s NYCUP Director, founder of the LoGOFF Movement and co-founder of Good Journey Stores. Jonathan works to call students and community leaders to put their faith into concrete, sustainable, Christ-like action.” This gives us a clue that he’s going to talk not about determinism, but God. But Walton does mention circumstances in Roof’s background that could have prompted his murderous acts, though it’s seen more as a historical background than as an environment that could affect Roof’s brain and his actions:

“Additionally, to call Roof uniquely evil, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has also pointed out, is to ignore the history that made him possible. Roof is not a historical anomaly as much as a representation of a past that America prefers to sweep under its rug rather than commit to cleaning up. When Roof told Tywanza Sanders, one of the victims in the church, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” he was echoing a vast history that has used such rationale to decimate black lives. Killing Roof does nothing other than soothe the moral conscience of a country that would rather not reckon with the forces that created and cultivated his ideology.”

One can interpret this simply as Roof’s act resulting in part from endemic racism that he internalized. And I agree with Walton that killing Roof does nothing positive: it is a retributive punishment levied for having made the “wrong choice”—when the right choice wasn’t possible.

But the real reason the author is no better than Dylann Roof is religious, and to me makes no sense:

Every person is made in the image of God ― including me, my wife, my daughter and Dylann Roof. There is nothing that I can do for God to love me any more or any less. There is nothing that I could say to compromise God’s desire to be close to me, to know me and for me to be close and know Him. And that is the same for Dylann Roof.

Think about that. I presume that author Walton believes that God gave us true libertarian free will, so that Roof did indeed choose to murder others when he might not have. Nevertheless, despite the misuse of this free will, God still loves him! What that means is that no matter how badly you act, no matter how many humans you murder or mistreat, God loves you just as much. What unites Roof and Walton is the fact that they are both sinners. No matter that some sins are worse than others (is murder as bad as masturbation?); all sins can be expunged if you simply accept Jesus as your savior.

That is the old doctrine of sola fide, salvation (or “justification”) through faith rather than works:  no matter how bad a life you’ve lived, if you accept Jesus into your heart in your last moments, all will be forgiven and you’ll find a place in Heaven. That would hold, to use an extreme example, even for Hitler. Now, not all faiths adhere to this doctrine: it’s historically Protestant, and Catholics aren’t on board with it—as you know from having to confess your sins.

Sola fide is one of the things that theologians argue about but can never resolve because there’s no way to settle the issue, even in the Bible. For Scripture itself can be interpreted to favor justification through faith or justification through acts, depending on which verses you choose. It’s simply made-up stuff, but stuff that has conditioned the lives and behaviors of millions of people.

I have to say that if you’re a Christian who really believes that people can choose how to behave, the only kind of God that makes sense is one who rewards people for their acts and not their belief in Jesus. After all, think of the millions of people who reject Jesus simply because they weren’t exposed to Christianity: both before Christianity was founded and those who live in countries dominated by other faiths. Are they doomed for a circumstance that they didn’t choose, or because of when they were born?

Sola fide makes no sense to me, but it’s the basis of Walton’s article, an article in which he spreads a dubious theology all over HuffPo (and where’s the opposite view?). He ends with the explicit doctrine, expressed in rather infelicitious prose:

Dylann Roof might be sick, demented, or mentally ill ― but for sure he is sinful. His heart is deceitfully wicked above all things. And the only medication that cures this ailment is the love of Jesus. And those beautiful men and women that he murdered were studying the Jesus who died that we all might have life and have it abundantly ― including Dylann Roof.  Not just the folks who do everything right or excluding those who do evil. That is the scandalous grace of God. That is precisely why we study scripture as followers of Jesus. Because when we don’t, we mistake the laws of America for the Law of God and they are clearly not the same.

We are saved by grace through faith so that no man can boast. It is not my actions that set me apart but only God’s grace. I have put my trust in the Living God and it is His work on the Cross and my faith in Him that saved me. Thus it is not my actions that save or condemn me, but the condition of my heart. And what the Bible says about Dylan Roof is also what it says about me. So instead of picking up a stone to kill him and gnashing my teeth in anger and disgust, I will pick up the Gospel of John and do like Cynthia, Susan, Ethel, Depayne, Clemente, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda and Myra and ponder instead what kind of Jesus cries out for His murderers to be forgiven; not for them to be killed.

Aren’t you glad that you don’t believe in this kind of nonsense?

34 Comments

  1. Sastra
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Thus it is not my actions that save or condemn me, but the condition of my heart.

    So if Dylan Roof believes that Jesus died for his sins then his heart is in good condition — regardless of whether he includes the church murders among his “sins” or not.

    But a kind, compassionate atheist who would never murder anyone has a sick heart. Belief apparently IS an action, the act of lovingly choosing love.

    What a wicked doctrine. I can find more sympathy for a Dylan Roof created by circumstances than I can find for the idea that believing in Christ is the only meaningful way to create a loving heart.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, what you see in such religious doctrine isn’t morality, but a viral-like protection mechanism that has taken over morality for it’s own ends. In other words: BELIEF in the doctrine itself has been pushed front and center as the standard of goodness.

      The concept of “memes” may still be controversial, but if ever there were examples in support of the idea, this type of co-opting of morality by the religious meme for it’s own ends in order to propagate, has to be exhibit “A.”

      • Posted January 23, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. This is why in many religions/denominations apostasy is the one unforgivable sin.

        (And the rationalization for sola fide is laughable: so that a theist isn’t tempted to boast about good deeds? If you’ve done some good deeds I say boast away! And as if theists don’t boast about having “great faith” while chastising those of “little faith.)

    • steve oberski
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Jeffery Dahmer converted to xtianity while in prision.

      He was baptized by Wisconsin minister Roy Ratcliff who is convinced that Dahmers conversion was sincere.

      So now Dahmer is now sitting by the right hand of god enjoying an eternity of bliss, unlike many of his victims, most of who were gay and were murdered by Dahmer just after engaging in sex with him and are suffering eternal torment in hell.

      Go figure.

  2. busterggi
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    God never makes mistakes so making Roof was deliberate, all part of the plan doncha know?

  3. GBJames
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    sub

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I can not comprehend that author’s delusional and wrong headed thinking. It produces more clueless victims.

    • yiamcross
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      The joy of religion.

      • jeffery
        Posted January 23, 2017 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        When you start out with an incoherent, deluded, inconsistent belief system, it takes some mighty big “mental gymnastics” to try to explain and defend it; kinda like Kellyanne Conway’s job!

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    If I were more conventionally religious, I would say I am better than Dylan Roof, but due to grace not due to what is inherent in my nature.

    Since my good upbringing, excellent teaching, excellent support group of friends are a sort of secular form of “grace”, I’ll stick by that.

  6. yiamcross
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I tbought denying Jesus as saviour son of god or whatever was a sin which could never be forgiven? Hard to keep track when so many contradictory alternatives are available from the one true and infallible book of god.

    • Sshort
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Nah. You can you can forget about jeebus and blaspheme and fornicate and whompass and such all ever saturday night, just as long as ya git on your knees sunday mornin and say i’m sorry to tha big man. Then you’re right as rain.

      It’s the Holy Spirit ya caint blaspheme against (Mark 3:28). Un-freakin forgivable. No matter what. You’re gonna burn and burn ever and always and nuthin no one does can ever save you.

      I just don’t know how you actually go about blaspheme-ing against His Spookiness. Do ya say he’s too transparent? “I can see through you, Holy Spirit!”

      Uh oh…

      • yiamcross
        Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        I thought they were the same thing, blaspheme one, blaspheme all? Or if not then is the holy spirit above or below god in the hierarchy or do they all have an equal vote? Maybe that’s why there are 3, no hung juries? You’d think an all powerful omnipotent god could make things a little clearer, wouldn’t you?

        • Sshort
          Posted January 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          No hung juries…. finally, the trinity has a semblance of a rationale. Not sure what your present line of employ is, but ya might be able to whip that thing into a theologian or apologist track.

          Just don’t tell Jerry.

      • Posted January 23, 2017 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Not sure about other denominations, but in the Mormon church (in which I was raised) they use the phrase “deny the holy spirit”, which they interpret to mean denying the truth that the HS has revealed to you, ie, that all the Mormon baloney is true.

      • Posted January 24, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Apparently a Catholic bishop won’t even tell you these days how to do that or otherwise to guarantee your excommunication. Local CFI members and the like were trying to do that, because Catholics count *everyone* otherwise that has been baptized into their thing. (And since they control a family of school boards with public money here in Ontario, that’s a *big deal* in practical terms as well.)

  7. Kevin
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Dylan Roof is no more sinful than the sun. Walton is haplessly constrained to to his faith to explain existence with his faith.

    I have news for you Walton: your very faith prescribed your God to be an a**hole. Work it out. Sky Daddy does not love uniformly. The contradiction leaves an intellectual burning sensation that will never go away until you abandon delusion.

  8. Claudia Baker
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    “…and Catholics aren’t on board with it-as you know from having to confess your sins.”

    Very true, you have to go to ‘confession’ (considered one of the sacraments), to have your sins forgiven, but let’s say, you are dying and there is no priest around, and you have led a very sinful life. All you have to do is say an “Act of Contrition” and, as long as you really MEAN that you’re sorry, (and god will know the truth!), you will be forgiven and go to heaven. Even if you have committed murder! Problem solved.

    If you’re a little kid, however, and don’t actually have any sins, you have to go to Confession once a month and confess anyway. I used to make stuff up, so the priest would have something to absolve.

    It’s all so crazy. Even as a kid, I remember thinking “say, what?”.

    • eric
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      It all makes perfect sense, if you consider it not as theology but as a materially-minded organization bent on recruitment and social control.

      “Let’s see, we need to tell them they need to obey our rules and give us money to get the reward.”

      “Well, what about the poor? We should tell them that they need to do their best with whatever they’ve got, and they’ll get the reward.”

      “But what if someone is a latecomer? Or hasn’t been obeying our rules? We also need to tell everyone that it’s never too late – they can always start obeying our rules now and giving us money now, and they’ll still get the reward. Even if they’re 99 and about to die, they can still leave us their money and get the reward.”

      “After all, it’s not like ‘giving the reward’ actually costs us anything…”

  9. Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    So…

    …salvation is through faith, not acts.

    But does it not take an act of faith to accept Jesus into one’s heart?

    So, is that, like, the exception that proofs the pudding?

    There’s clearly some sort of folly that distinguishes between your inner monologue addressed to yourself putting meaning to your actions and your inner monologue addressed to Jesus putting meaning to your actions. And Jesus is simultaneously always tuned into that monologue but only hears you when you think his name.

    Methinks sincerely prayerful Christians haven’t paid much thought to their own thinking.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • BobTerrace
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      But does it not take an act of faith to accept Jesus into one’s heart?

      No, its like a bowel movement; it arrives when its ready. Praise the lord and pass the TP!

    • eric
      Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      The RCC isn’t making a philosophical speech-act claim that needs to be refuted on technical grounds, they’re just saying you need to do good deeds for the community in addition to believing the faithy stuff. The correct reply (IMO) is “well I’m glad you’re telling people to do good deeds, but this doesn’t really do anything in terms of showing the existence of God.”

      • Posted January 24, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        One summer I volunteered as a computer expert (of a minor character) at a local non-profit restaurant (think food kitchen but with dignity). One of the other volunteers had recently gone through AA and was very keen on Jesus. I had to tell him that I was very glad he was sober, but to knock it off with the Jesus stuff. He was nice enough otherwise as a person to realize what he had done, but for a moment it was clear he hadn’t distinguished the two. (Yet another volunteer told me that although she was religious she found our colleague annoying too but was wondering how to raise the subject. Sometimes being blunt does help. :))

  10. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I am glad.

  11. Posted January 23, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    You are right, Jerry, about the fact that “sola fide” is a Protestant (specifically Lutheran) concept and not a Catholic one, but I’m not persuaded that Walton’s comments translate to the doctrine of being saved by “faith alone.” He writes:

    “There is nothing that I can do for God to love me any more or any less. There is nothing that I could say to compromise God’s desire to be close to me, to know me and for me to be close and know Him. And that is the same for Dylann Roof.”

    What he is saying here is that that God does not stop loving the sinner and starts loving him again when he repents. This is consistent with Catholic teaching—as well with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Similarly, when he says that “it is not my actions that save or condemn me, but the condition of my heart,” and “Jesus cries out that His murderers to be forgiven; not for them to be killed,” he seems to be suggestion that forgiveness is always possible if one repents—i.e., if the “condition of his heart” changes. This is what makes the grace of God “scandalous”—that anyone, even Hitler, can be forgiven; traditionally, the only sin not capable of forgiveness is suicide, because repentance for it is not possible.

    In short, “sola fide” contends that “there is nothing I can do for God to forgive me,” which is a totally different concept from Walton’s “there is nothing I can do for God to love me any more or less.” As a pantheist, I don’t endorse either concept, but as a former Jesuit I think I have a fairly solid understanding of both.

  12. deadweasel
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “And the only medication that cures this ailment is the love of Jesus.”

    Can we see the clinical trial data?

  13. keith cook +/-
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    IMO This is a patch up job Walton is a little mystified by god’s ways. Allowing a group of innocents to be wasted in service as it were, in HIS house.
    How do you squirm out of that one?
    Not easily and to carry it on seems like a little bit self serving.
    It is not about those who died it’s about how to feel much better about the whole horrifying act.
    This may have benefits as in, we can now get on with our lives, all well and good, unfortunately all based on a supernatural false premise an addled act of faith just to absolve and reconcile an uncomfortable act of god.

  14. CJColucci
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    if you’re a Christian who really believes that people can choose how to behave, the only kind of God that makes sense is one who rewards people for their acts and not their belief in Jesus.

    Well, there’s the problem. Who says it has to make sense? But even orthodox Catholics would agree that we are all, even the best of us, such dreadful sinners that on our merits none of us deserves anything better than damnation. That doesn’t mean that I’m not “better” in some meaningful sense than Dylan Roof, just that both of us have passed the threshold for eternal damnation, and my betterness isn’t going to be good enough to get me out of Hell. Whether it helps at all, and, if so, how much, once God grants his unaccountable grace, is what divides Catholics and Protestants as I’ve always understood it.

    • eric
      Posted January 24, 2017 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      The reformation started out as an objection to the perceived corruption and venality of the RCC organization. Thus sola fides and sola scriptura have their roots in rejecting the notion that a human priesthood is needed to mediate between the believer and God. I don’t need the Pope or some officially recognized priest to grant me confession, God does that himself. I only need my faith (sola fides). And I don’t need the Pope or the church to tell me what the bible means, I can read it myself (sola scriptura).

      So AIUI (and I’m not an expert, I could be wrong about this), sola fides didn’t start out as a deep theological claim that good deeds don’t matter to the salvation of the soul. The ‘alone’ meant ‘without the intercession of a catholic priest’. Though it very quickly turned into the ‘without good deeds’ interpretation used today.

  15. Siggy in CR
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    “I have to say that if you’re a Christian who really believes that people can choose how to behave, the only kind of God that makes sense is one who rewards people for their acts and not their belief in Jesus. After all, think of the millions of people who reject Jesus simply because they weren’t exposed to Christianity: both before Christianity was founded and those who live in countries dominated by other faiths. Are they doomed for a circumstance that they didn’t choose, or because of when they were born?”
    That was the idea that created the first crack in my faith as a child.

  16. Andrea Kenner
    Posted January 24, 2017 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Neil Carter is another one of my favorite bloggers. Carter is an atheist who was raised in and still lives in the Deep South. In his blog Godless in Dixie, he has been writing a lot recently about how evangelical Christianity warps the self-image of its adherents. Here’s one example. I hope I can get this link to work. How the bible views humanity.

    • Anthony Paul
      Posted January 24, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I wonder how sincere all this self-deprecation is. It makes for a convenient pose so you can disarm the criticisms of others while pushing your own agenda, and this can work for you whether it’s completely conscious and intentional or self-deception. Certainly, it never seems to have stopped the big-name Calvinists and Puritans from telling everyone else how to live and from punishing those who didn’t cooperate. At the level of ordinary folk without a soapbox, it may be a psychological comfort to admit what you already fear or suspect about yourself just before you prop yourself back up again with the reassurance of the True Faith.

      • Posted January 24, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        In many cases I suspect a little from column A, a little from column B. There are hucksters and conmen who take advantage, of course, but I don’t think they’d succeed if everyone was really like them.

  17. peepuk
    Posted January 24, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I think he’s right, he is no better than Dylan Roof.


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