When I think of central Amsterdam, of the stone-cold narrow red light district streets blocked for reconstruction, of the smell of hemp and tourist food, of the saggy-fleshed women tapping on the glass, my mind flies past all that, finds a side street with a waving sign, finds a run-down hostel where, twice, I burrowed into an overworn chair and perused the shelves for Philip Yancey. Consequently, when I think of Amsterdam, I have a strong temptation to think of grace.

Grace is startling in such a place.

It is different than the glassy-eyed freedom-from-taboo held out by the women tapping on the windows, those who themselves are captives, many of them in the most literal sense of the word. Freedom from taboo is the life’s blood of Amsterdam, and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the modern West as a whole. It is a tempting substitute. It, like Grace, offers acceptance, a smile, fraternity… At least until it becomes uncomfortable. Let’s be honest: complete freedom from taboo is impossible except in a caveman anarchy, and when everything is open and intimate, well, nothing is.

But when Grace is withheld, the temptation is to turn to one of two things: order, or disorder. Asceticism, or hedonism. A rule for everything, or barking in the spirit. The first book I ever read by Yancey was What’s So Amazing About Grace?:

“Author Stephan Brown notes that a veterinarian can learn a lot about a dog owner he has never met just by observing the dog. What does the world learn about God by watching us his followers on earth? Trace the roots of grace, or charis in Greek, and you will find a verb that means ‘I rejoice, I am glad.’ In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of church. They think of holier-than-thous. They think of church as a place to go after you have cleaned up your act, not before. They think of morality, not grace. ‘Church!’ said the prostitute, ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.'”

One review I read countered Yancey’s tale: “Did Yancey never stop to think that maybe the church is supposed to make that prostitute feel bad?”

No, the church is not “supposed to make” anyone “feel bad.” Churches like this have confused their role. On the one hand they claim that God is the author of all, that he has written conscience and the stars to point to him, that political action is outside the scope of Jesus’ message, that it is against God and God alone that one sins, that God is love, that it is by grace one earns anything. On the other, they silently or not-so-silently weed out the untouchables who are too afraid or too compromised or too honest or too far away to openly condemn all the right sins. The same review notes with more than a hint of disgust: “Yancey is more impressed that they can say the words ‘Jesus loves me’ than he is disturbed by their sin.” But is this really a problem? Since when is it the church’s, or anyone’s, primary job to be “disturbed by sin,” particularly if it is outside the church? Frankly, I think this sums up the average evangelical’s attitude rather nicely (or at least the outsider’s perception of it): the middle-class white guy shaking his head at the drunk on the street/girl with the short skirt/punk with the tattoo — shaking his head not because he’s caught up in a fatherly moment of regret, but out of righteous and necessary outrage.

But he doesn’t know that in so doing he is blaspheming the God who ate so openly with such people, with the whores and tax collectors, with the unrepentant as well as the angels. It is the sick who need a doctor. It is the prodigals who are met when they were still a long way off.

It is the merciful who shall obtain mercy.