Concluding reflections from Latin America
"Grace, the cross and hope" is the topic for a continent-wide community study in Latin America. It raises a challenge to reflect on grace in the midst of a world that has been tainted by "disgrace". There are so many who are poor, there is such a need for justice on earth. The realities of suffering, pain and desperation, affecting the lives of our people, are knocking at our door. Can we really talk of God's grace when we are affected by such penury?
Listening to our churches and taking the pulse of Latin America, we, theologians and biblical scholars from different denominations and with different theological viewpoints, have become convinced that our people seek an understanding of the grace of God, are longing for the merciful, loving attitude of God, as father and mother, open to all God's children and inviting us to have a life full of trust and hope.
There are not many terms that are equally central to biblical thought as is the word "grace". Following St Augustine and the 16th-century reformers, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth emphasized the importance of the relationship between grace and gratitude (charis/eucharistia), by insisting that grace should be the central principle of our theology and gratitude the driving force of our ethics. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms that we need to know three truths: how great our sins and misery are, how great God's grace is in delivering us, and how grateful we are to be for God's grace.
Everything, from creation (Gen. 1:31), through the building of a nation with a mission to bless all nations, culminating in the incarnation of the Son of God (John 1:14), is Clear evidence of God's grace, generosity and favour towards the whole of creation (Ps. 104).
The Bible does not ignore the magnitude of human sin, and the cross that demonstrates the tragedy does not allow for any false optimism. This dark reality, which led to the rise of a whole sacrificial and priestly system, is confronted with the gratuity of God's action. In the words of the apostle Paul, "... where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom. 5:20).
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus aligned himself with the prophetic tradition of announcing the jubilee, freedom and the year of the Lord's favour (Luke 4:18-21). Forgiveness, abundant life, the new beginning of human history were all there in the life and ministry of Jesus. His love for the poor, the sick, children, sinners, prostitutes and the lonely was an integral part of his proclamation in Nazareth. God's divine, free grace with new life in Christ responds to a history of human rebellion against God. Jesus does not require merit in those he calls; on the contrary, it is to those who are "weary and carrying heavy burdens" that he promises rest and health. His own death on the cross, the supreme manifestation of sin - human, individual and structural - is transformed by the grace of God into a reaffirmation of his saving mission in and through the ultimate sacrifice.
The apostle Paul discovered the meaning of God's freely-given grace through his experience on the road to Damascus. He felt accepted through no merit of his own. In the letter to Philemon, in which the runaway slave is returned to his master, Philemon is encouraged to receive him as a brother. There is no longer a relationship of purchase and property, no longer an obligation by law or through force: there is an acceptance of brotherhood, of fraternity, of the new reality that God has brought in Jesus Christ.
In today's world, there is a growing sense that everything is a commodity, that everything has a price, that there is no such thing as a free lunch; the overall culture, which keeps us all captive, is based on one distinction: whether we produce or we consume. It is important to go back to Paul's idea that everything is free in God's relationship with the nations, that everything is love in God's relationship with creation.
The Latin American theological commission (CTL), which comes together under the auspices of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), has in recent years articulated its thinking on the topic "Grace, the cross and hope" in the following points:
God's grace and love, freely given, are the way into Christian life. The understanding of the unconditional availability of God, who accepts us as we are, affects our relationship with the culture around us and the whole ecosystem: nothing is outside the purpose of God's love. Nothing can be outside the realm of those who feel part of that resolve. We are free so that we can free others; we are loved so that we can love others.
To experience grace is to experience rest and repose in God. The church is called to celebrate God's good provision. This is why celebration is part of its daily life. Celebration expresses the irrepressible joy of those who know that, no matter what happens in the world, God has the last word. The affection, the fraternal support, of those in the faith community is a sign of the movement of the love of God as we are accepted and rehabilitated. Celebration and praise correspond to the knowledge that God's love is freely given to each one of us. Churches are therefore not communities of law or discipline, but rather communities of celebration, rejoicing, joy and hope.
In our region and in the world, the force of the economic system that marginalizes large sectors is anti-grace, is dis-grace. Faced with a dehumanizing market, political schemes with no credibility, a judicial system that favours the powerful, systemic corruption, a loss of values breaking up our families, communities and societies..., "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance" (2 Cor. 9:8). God's gift of grace means that the hope of life is poured out through the cross. Grace, in a Latin American context, means dealing with the realities of life, the cross, but with a sense of hope. Grace is God's gift in the face of a loss of hope. Our churches are communities of the Spirit, where we have learned to live God's grace in Christ.
It is not easy to act as God wants, to live in accordance with kingdom values. It seems that grace is seen in two extremes today: either experienced as whimsical moods, limited to private feelings, or recited as a definitive catechism, with a concern for orthodoxy. Neither of these extremes is faithful to the Spirit of the gospel. In today's society every man and woman has to fight to "be somebody", to be worthy. This logic is so different and contrary to that of grace! In exclusive societies, recognition of human dignity is selective.
It is important to link grace and human dignity; both refer to God, and both refer to the human being. Human dignity and divine grace are inseparable because it is not possible to experience God's grace without human dignity. Where there is no human dignity, there is an absence of God's grace; where there is human dignity, in some way God's grace and God's glory are present.
We feel that God's grace, as a blessing from on high, is walking around our streets and cities, running through our fields and towns, knocking on the doors of our homes and communities, reaching into our lives and renewing our motivation and spirituality. We can say without doubt that we are living in the "kairos of grace": may grace abound.
Rev. Israel Batista, from Cuba, is general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI). He writes on behalf of the Latin American Theological Commission.