Walk the World Like the Pardon of God


Walking the World Like the Pardon of God
Brian Zahnd

G.K. Chesterton suggested that Saint Francis of Assisi “walked the world like the pardon of God.” It’s an apt summary of the saint’s life. In his wonderful and unique way Saint Francis embodied the grace of God as he walked the hills of Umbria barefoot in his patched brown habit and simple rope belt preaching to birds and bishops. His life was a kind of performance art protest against the pervasive sins of thirteenth century Italy — pride, avarice, corruption, and violence.

Yet sinners were drawn to Francis. How else do we explain that within Francis’ lifetime forty thousand people joined his rigorous order of radical Christianity emphasizing poverty, simplicity and humility? Like Jesus, Francis could uncompromisingly denounce systemic sin, while extending genuine compassion to the people caught in its pernicious web. To be a prophetic witness against systems of sin and a preacher of God’s pardon for sinners at the same time is the peculiar grace Francis excelled at and the church is called to.

Two years before his death Francis retreated to the secluded hermitage at La Verna in the mountains of Tuscany for a protracted season of prayer. While there he experienced a mystical vision that resulted in his stigmata — the reproduction of the wounds of Christ in his own body. Francis bore these painful wounds until his death in 1226. Admittedly, this is a mysterious phenomenon, but I am willing to view it as Francis’ final dramatic testament to how the church is to be present in the world. Along with being a prophetic witness against the principalities and powers, and bearing joyful witness to the pardon of God, the church is called to participate in the sufferings of Christ.

The only Christian theodicy which I find credible is the confession that God does not exempt himself from the horror of human suffering, but is fully baptized into it. God in Christ joins us in a solidarity of suffering, and somehow by his wounds we are healed. Christ saves us from sin and death only by hurling himself into the abyss. The ultimate imitation of Christ is to patiently absorb sin and offer pardon in the name of love. This is grace.

If I were to pick a single moment that most clearly demonstrates who Jesus is and how he reveals the nature of God to us, it would be the moment of crucifixion when Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) This is grace demonstrated as a love supreme. It’s an unprecedented act — a plea for the pardon of his murderers. But, perhaps even more significantly, pardon is offered with a contemplative recognition that his persecutors are themselves enslaved in systems of sin that prevent them from having any real understanding of their crime or how to find their way out of it. This is the amazing grace of God that came to full expression in the life of Jesus.

When grace is pierced, it bleeds pardon. When grace is crucified, it doesn’t condemn. Crucified grace is even cognizant of how nearly impossible it is for sinful persecutors to act otherwise. Those who seek to imitate this kind of grace will eventually be wounded themselves — they will endure a stigmata upon their soul. They will help complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. (see Colossians 1:24) This is what it means to be Christlike in the fullest sense. Before we are the church triumphant, we are the church stigmatized, and we are to bear our stigma with grace.

“As it is written:
‘For your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
-Romans 8:36, 37

We are “more than conquerors,” not by winning the petty games of the rat race and wearing the tin badge of “success,” but by imitating the slaughtered Lamb who sits at the right hand of God. We lessen the sin of the world by joining the Lamb of God in bearing sin and pardoning sinners.

But as the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around.

It was never the rank and file sinners who gnashed their teeth at Jesus, but those for whom the present arrangement of systemic sin was advantageous. Jesus condemned the systemic sin that preserved the status quo for the Herodians and Sadducees, but showed compassion to publicans and prostitutes. This is grace.

But the church, courting the favor of the powerful, has forgotten this kind of grace. We coddle the mighty whose ire we fear and condemn the sin of the weak who pose no threat. We enthusiastically endorse the systems of greed that run Wall Street while condemning personal greed in the life of the individual working for the minimum wage. We will gladly preach a sermon against the sin of personal greed, but we dare not offer a prophetic critique of the golden calf of unfettered capitalism. Jesus and Saint Francis and Dorothy Day did the opposite. They shamed the principalities and powers, but offered pardon to the people. This is the grace of God the church is called to embody.

May we seek to walk the world like the pardon of God.


(The artwork is Saint Francis by Cimabue c. 1288)