Accountability and Grace, Justice and Mercy

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An interview with Chief Academic Officer and Professor of Psychology Alexis Abernethy by Chief of Spiritual Formation and Integration Brad Strawn

Brad Strawn: We live in a world that is becoming increasingly conscious of issues of justice, equity, and inclusion. With that growing awareness, many are calling for individuals and groups to be held responsible for acts of injustice, particularly as they relate to racism. How might Christians, in particular, understand the need for accountability?

Alexis Abernethy: Central to our Christian journey is an ongoing process of self-examination of the extent to which we are being a faithful witness of Jesus Christ. This self-examination includes a continuous commitment to confession to God and repentance. The Scriptures remind us that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, KJV). Some Christians view our increased focus on justice, equity, and inclusion as consistent with God’s redemptive work in the world. Some Christians may want to engage in this redemptive work in ways that more fully reflect Christian principles, but the general focus on addressing injustice, inequity, and racism is very consistent with God’s Word.

One of the challenges of this season for some individuals may be varied perspectives on the redemptive work of God. First, for some this redemptive work through Jesus Christ has always included love, grace, mercy, and justice: a prominent commitment of many Black churches. For others, justice has been less of a focus. Second, injustice as well chronicled in the Old Testament, in particular, has never been solely an individual problem or sin. Kingdoms have been unjust across generations. This can be understood as a result of not only individual sin but also corporate sin. Ephesians 6:10–18 highlights one way of understanding and counteracting these forces in spiritual terms. The key verse 12 illustrates this: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (KJV). This passage names evil as present and highlights the importance of truth, peace, faith, prayer, and the Word of God in addressing evil.

BS: Today, some seem to have a stark either/or approach to accountability—what some might call “cancel culture” in some cases. There is a strong sentiment of polarization and “othering” that comes into play. Why do you think this mentality has grown in our culture?

AA: We need to remember that, due to privilege and power dynamics, some voices are heard and responded to more readily than others. In particular, marginalized voices tend to be unheard or ignored. Early efforts to highlight marginalization were a response to prevalent tendencies to ignore discrimination, mistreatment, and racism. Many individuals and groups in power have generally sought to avoid responsibility and accountability for harm. Current efforts are attempts to address this long-standing injustice. Inclusion “exists when traditionally marginalized individuals and groups feel a sense of belonging and are empowered” to shape and redefine culture.

I recently gave a talk sponsored by the Division 36 Social Justice Task Force of the American Psychological Association, Unprecedented Times: Opportunities for Change in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality to Foster Common Ground. I noted that the challenge with polarization is that it focuses on either/or, in/out rather than seeing our common connections as human beings—our common desire to be heard, to be understood, to be needed, and for our experience to matter. Polarization has always been present, but it has intensified as some have found benefits to promoting division. Polarization thrives as we distance ourselves and create an “other” of people whom we view as different. This “othering” impedes understanding and promotes judgment, intolerance, and scapegoating. An individual may have committed an act or engaged in a pattern of behavior for which the person should be called to account. A response that denigrates or dehumanizes this person would be problematic, whereas encouraging accountability and an individual’s taking responsibility for his or her actions would be fully consistent with a Christian ethic. 

BS: You remind us above that the redemptive work of Christ always included love, grace, and mercy, along with justice. God holds people accountable for their actions while being gracious, forgiving, and reconciling. What does it look like for grace to be held with accountability? Is there a both/and way we ought to approach this?

AA: God’s commitment to justice is evident throughout the Scriptures as well as his redemptive posture of love, mercy, and forgiveness. He calls us to account, but his promptings often fall on deaf ears. Even as he is patient and gracious, there comes a time when judgment comes—the cumulative consequences of sin are faced. Our ability to receive his loving gift of grace in Jesus Christ, though freely given, depends on our confession and repentance. Our confession is critical to restored relationships. We need to lament together as we mourn the harm, lost lives, and stolen futures. We may need to ask ourselves, When was the last time that I confessed a sin that I committed against my brother or sister? When was the last time that I repented? Do I understand how organizations and groups that I am a member of, or identified with, may have committed acts that have harmed and marginalized others? Will I be able to respond with righteous indignation and also with empathy, compassion, and humility?

My commitment to following Christ and my ethical standard as a psychologist require me not only to not condone injustice but also to seek to address injustice and “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [my] God” (Micah 6:8b). This passage offers critical insight in not only what needs to be done but how it needs to be done. In movements toward justice, the exercise of mercy and humility are critical. Walking in mercy and humility does not mean a reduced commitment to justice, but it illumines how we might engage in acts of and movements toward justice, change, and transformation in higher education.

Alexis Abernethy thumbnail

Alexis D. Abernethy is professor of psychology in the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. In 2021, she was named Fuller’s chief academic officer. Prior to that she served as the chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her primary research interest is the intersection of spirituality and health. Published widely in academic journals, she edited the book Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation.

An interview with Chief Academic Officer and Professor of Psychology Alexis Abernethy by Chief of Spiritual Formation and Integration Brad Strawn

Brad Strawn: We live in a world that is becoming increasingly conscious of issues of justice, equity, and inclusion. With that growing awareness, many are calling for individuals and groups to be held responsible for acts of injustice, particularly as they relate to racism. How might Christians, in particular, understand the need for accountability?

Alexis Abernethy: Central to our Christian journey is an ongoing process of self-examination of the extent to which we are being a faithful witness of Jesus Christ. This self-examination includes a continuous commitment to confession to God and repentance. The Scriptures remind us that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, KJV). Some Christians view our increased focus on justice, equity, and inclusion as consistent with God’s redemptive work in the world. Some Christians may want to engage in this redemptive work in ways that more fully reflect Christian principles, but the general focus on addressing injustice, inequity, and racism is very consistent with God’s Word.

One of the challenges of this season for some individuals may be varied perspectives on the redemptive work of God. First, for some this redemptive work through Jesus Christ has always included love, grace, mercy, and justice: a prominent commitment of many Black churches. For others, justice has been less of a focus. Second, injustice as well chronicled in the Old Testament, in particular, has never been solely an individual problem or sin. Kingdoms have been unjust across generations. This can be understood as a result of not only individual sin but also corporate sin. Ephesians 6:10–18 highlights one way of understanding and counteracting these forces in spiritual terms. The key verse 12 illustrates this: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (KJV). This passage names evil as present and highlights the importance of truth, peace, faith, prayer, and the Word of God in addressing evil.

BS: Today, some seem to have a stark either/or approach to accountability—what some might call “cancel culture” in some cases. There is a strong sentiment of polarization and “othering” that comes into play. Why do you think this mentality has grown in our culture?

AA: We need to remember that, due to privilege and power dynamics, some voices are heard and responded to more readily than others. In particular, marginalized voices tend to be unheard or ignored. Early efforts to highlight marginalization were a response to prevalent tendencies to ignore discrimination, mistreatment, and racism. Many individuals and groups in power have generally sought to avoid responsibility and accountability for harm. Current efforts are attempts to address this long-standing injustice. Inclusion “exists when traditionally marginalized individuals and groups feel a sense of belonging and are empowered” to shape and redefine culture.

I recently gave a talk sponsored by the Division 36 Social Justice Task Force of the American Psychological Association, Unprecedented Times: Opportunities for Change in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality to Foster Common Ground. I noted that the challenge with polarization is that it focuses on either/or, in/out rather than seeing our common connections as human beings—our common desire to be heard, to be understood, to be needed, and for our experience to matter. Polarization has always been present, but it has intensified as some have found benefits to promoting division. Polarization thrives as we distance ourselves and create an “other” of people whom we view as different. This “othering” impedes understanding and promotes judgment, intolerance, and scapegoating. An individual may have committed an act or engaged in a pattern of behavior for which the person should be called to account. A response that denigrates or dehumanizes this person would be problematic, whereas encouraging accountability and an individual’s taking responsibility for his or her actions would be fully consistent with a Christian ethic. 

BS: You remind us above that the redemptive work of Christ always included love, grace, and mercy, along with justice. God holds people accountable for their actions while being gracious, forgiving, and reconciling. What does it look like for grace to be held with accountability? Is there a both/and way we ought to approach this?

AA: God’s commitment to justice is evident throughout the Scriptures as well as his redemptive posture of love, mercy, and forgiveness. He calls us to account, but his promptings often fall on deaf ears. Even as he is patient and gracious, there comes a time when judgment comes—the cumulative consequences of sin are faced. Our ability to receive his loving gift of grace in Jesus Christ, though freely given, depends on our confession and repentance. Our confession is critical to restored relationships. We need to lament together as we mourn the harm, lost lives, and stolen futures. We may need to ask ourselves, When was the last time that I confessed a sin that I committed against my brother or sister? When was the last time that I repented? Do I understand how organizations and groups that I am a member of, or identified with, may have committed acts that have harmed and marginalized others? Will I be able to respond with righteous indignation and also with empathy, compassion, and humility?

My commitment to following Christ and my ethical standard as a psychologist require me not only to not condone injustice but also to seek to address injustice and “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [my] God” (Micah 6:8b). This passage offers critical insight in not only what needs to be done but how it needs to be done. In movements toward justice, the exercise of mercy and humility are critical. Walking in mercy and humility does not mean a reduced commitment to justice, but it illumines how we might engage in acts of and movements toward justice, change, and transformation in higher education.

Written By

Alexis D. Abernethy is professor of psychology in the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. In 2021, she was named Fuller’s chief academic officer. Prior to that she served as the chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her primary research interest is the intersection of spirituality and health. Published widely in academic journals, she edited the book Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation.

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