Cheap grace: Rep. Todd Akin is so very, very sorry

AP In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 photograph, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and his wife Lulli, talk with reporters while … Continued


In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 photograph, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and his wife Lulli, talk with reporters while attending the Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo.

Rep. Todd Akin, running as the GOP candidate for Senate in Missouri, has now confessed on Mike Huckabee’s radio show that he is sorry, so very sorry for his remarks in an interview that aired Sunday where he said “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy.

What exactly did Akin confess to doing wrong? Well, for one thing, he said he was sorry for using “the wrong word.” He should have said “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.” And yes, he acknowledged on the radio show, women do get pregnant from “forcible rape,” though he never explained the reason for his earlier remarks.

Sorry doesn’t get it done when what you really mean is ‘please make this controversy go away.’

I teach a class on forgiveness at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Akin’s statements illustrate one of the biggest misunderstandings about forgiveness. Just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the profound moral transaction we call forgiveness.

Akin, in seeking forgiveness, needs to confess exactly what he did wrong, and let those whom he has offended (in this case, rape victims everywhere) know that he seeks their forgiveness. That is not the end of it. Akin then needs to make concrete amends, and then not do it again.

The vague ‘sorry’ Akin put out there on the Huckabee radio show doesn’t come anywhere near the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. In fact, what he did was pretty much what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called engaging in “cheap grace.” This is the idea that saying you’re sorry and asking for forgiveness is a spiritual (and political!) “get out of jail free” card.

In 1937, Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was ultimately hanged by the Nazis for resisting Hitler, published a book called “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer wrote that we need to follow the teachings of Jesus in this world, but this is a costly decision. You can’t just talk the talk of grace, or claim Christ has “paid the price” for our sins, and then go along your merry way, continuing to perpetrate injustices. That’s “cheap grace.” You have to change the way you act as well as the way you speak.

Todd Akin should know this, in fact, because he attended seminary and has a masters of divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary , the flagship seminary of the theologically very conservative Presbyterian Church in America, founded in 1973. But as Sarah Posner o points out, Akin’s statement on “legitimate rape” has “theological roots” in the beliefs of his denomination. Thus, his statement about “legitimate rape” is part of his theological conviction regarding abortion, not a “mistake.” The attacks on a woman’s right to choose, as Posner points out, have long included the lie that women cannot get pregnant from rape.

In fact, last year Akin co-sponsored a bill, along with much of the House GOP, that would have redefined rape as “forcible rape,” i.e. “[r]ape is only really rape if it involves force.”

The language of “forcible rape” is what Akin substituted when he said “sorry” on the Huckabee radio program for his “legitimate rape” comments that raised such a firestorm of protest. It is clear from the context of the GOP’s plan, which was fortunately revised, that they are synonyms.

Theologically and politically, saying “I’m sorry” has become a form of “cheap grace” in our American public life. And in the case of Akin, it seems very cheap indeed.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

  • ChicagoJim

    Any person who uses the adjective legitimate or forcible to describe rape clearly has a truly perverted understanding of rape.

    I saw a headline that said the Todd Akin comment “could” flip the Senate race. Heck, it “should” flip the Senate race! I don’t want a member of the Senate of the United States of America making a comment that so wantonly displayed a total lack of judgement. If he is a representative of the type of men and women that we have in the Senate and House of Representatives, then it really is time for the revolution that, according the to the Constitution of the United States of America, we citizens are obliged to fight.

  • WmarkW

    How is the concept of “legitimate rape” different from “rape rape,” the concept Whoopi Goldberg used to excuse Roman Polanski?

    They’re efforts to distinquish forcible rape from the kind in which the victim is technically an accomplice. (Which is not to say either Akin or Goldberg are right about the facts they were asserting.)

  • gridirondude

    Please, mister akin, name the physician(s) who told you rape rarely results in pregnancy. I am a physician, and I want to submit their names to have their licenses cancelled. If their are actually physicians who said this (and I think you were lying to support your narrow minded stance) they are as idiotic as you.
    How can Missourians possibly vote for such a pinhead?

  • itsthedax

    Why should he apologize? Mr. Akin is a Republican member of the House of Representatives, expressing conservative Republican views. He was just stating his beliefs.

    The morons who voted him into the House are the ones that should be apologizing to the rest of us.

  • drray-yup

    Akin owes it to himself to learn more about human physiology. There is no way one so ignorant about how the human body works should be in a position to decide anything about healthcare or hygiene, or the work of any of the governmental departments that require knowledge of such things, such as Health and Human Services, Defense, the Navy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Agriculture.

  • Kingofkings1

    Professor, you analyzed this topic brilliantly and suggested the next steps to take for recovery for Mr Akin. However, I have a feeling Mr Akin is going to enjoy an increase in donations and popularity form his base that holds similar views, as was shown by recent remarks and actions of Ms Bachmann

  • Neutrino

    I don’t understand why he is apologizing. Is it because he made some people angry with his beliefs? Is he going to change his beliefs or change the way he talks about them? I want him to stay in the race so we can see how he handles this.

  • lightnin001

    Why should Akin quit? His comments, while stupid on two levels, are nothing compared to McCaskill’s votes for Partial-Birth Abortion, which are far worse offenses! Who is calling for HER to quit? What leftie has denounced HER for it? Boils down to stupid vs far worse. Elect stupid! AND, has McCaskill ever voted AGAINST the Born-Alive Infant Protection act, which protects babies that survive abortion attempts from being killed or left to die, as OBAMA has? That ought to be punished with hard-time in prison!

  • persiflage

    Akin’s stupid, oppressive extremism is more or less the republican mean, and will probably save the nation from being swarmed by republicans in the halls of Congress – and in the Whitehouse. Not that they don’t have plenty of supporters………..

  • DavidJ9

    Akin is sorry that people who were going to be offended by his ignorant misogyny were able to hear the lies he was spewing, but he still wants to tell women what to do with their uterus.

    Akin is another reactionary who calls himself Christian yet rejects what Jesus taught.

  • DavidJ9

    He won’t change his beliefs. Anyone who says nonsensical things like he did isn’t interested in learning why he is wrong in trying to oppress women further.

  • Secular1

    drray-yup, wrote:

    “God resides in a place outside the universe? In that case, equally likely is the possibility that this universe is actually some extra dimensional physics grad student’s thesis and religions get started whenever he/she/it makes observations or collects data clumsily enough that we manage to notice. ”

    And I responded

    Drra-yup, whatever your pseudonym means, I cannot fathom it, what covenant are you talking about in your utter rubbish comment. This servile reverence to those stupid tomes is revolting, to me. First of all is there any body on this blog or on this planet who can explain to me the following:

    If this sky daddy started out bringing about this universe –

    1) Where was this dumb place Garden of Eden?
    2) How come suddenly when Abraham comes on the scene, we start talking about all these other peoples like Sabians, Egyptians, and scores of others also suddenly appear?
    3) How come there is no narration off how these people cam about and how theye spread about?
    4) Are all these people also begotten from Adam & Eve?
    5) If so what was the special merit of Abraham that this sky daddy of your played preferences for this pond scum’s progenies?
    6) No why did this sky daddy tell them hebrews not go whorng with the dogs of these other people, as though those dogs exist.
    7) If those other dogs existed during biblical time (3000 BC) whatever, happened to those dogs?
    8) If those dogs still exist then your dog is really no necessarily everones dog, is he now?

    Can all the folks like “the bump”, “SinVA’, “AgentM….”, et al throw some light on these question. Inquiring mind wants to know. Once I understand tha, perhaps I will understand this sacrificing his son baloney. Come on guys here is your chance to yet make a theist out of me. Are you folks up to the challenge? Or are you going to just fold and ignore. What will it be. i guess we will find out soon.

    I wanted all to see, so it is not buried as teh 10the response somewhere below.

  • desertlady1

    He’s only saying he’s sorry because he got caught. And, I, as a woman, do not accept this lame “apology”.

  • edbyronadams

    Isn’t Christianity based on the “Get out of Jail Free” card?

  • hrobert02

    “Theologically and politically, saying “I’m sorry” has become a form of “cheap grace” in our American public life.” Amen to that. One Repub after another has done it.

    Also, ever wonder what one letter difference can make:
    “GOP’s plan” vs. “GOD’s plan” They really think both are the same.

  • Patriot265

    Gee, maybe IF that sentiment wasn’t at the very top of the GOP agenda, it could be overlooked.
    Just the fact that the republican party’s vice presidential nominee, has been “rewording” definitions of rape with this Neanderthal, as a priority issue for the past several years, should put it front and center, in today’s descussions.
    Only when republicans slip up and tell the truth, about their actual agenda, do Americans see the loathsome core of the party.
    Pandering to the ignorant is their central strategy.

  • Jeff Kletman

    Rome is burning to the ground and all anybody wan’ts to talk about is Todd Akin . Who cares . The guy is a nut . When we have 10% unemployment is anyone going to care what some congressman said ? To make that the big issue when the economy is in such terrible shape is crazy .