Costly Signaling, Cheap Grace, and Loving Our Enemies after an Election

(Post adapted from a lesson in the Newburgh Ward priesthood meeting on Sunday, November 8, 2020)

In the aftermath of last week’s election, I have had two books on my mind. Two very different books from two very different parts of my life, but their central messages have come together for me in the aftermath of a national election that has stirred more emotions in me than I thought could be stirred. In such moments, I usually turn to books. It’s how I roll.

The first book is the classic, if highly specialized monograph The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems by William A. Searcy and Stephen Nowicki. This is the book that introduced me to the concept of “costly signaling” in evolutionary biology (something that proved very important to my own book on a related topic about ten years ago).

To simplify the concept aggressively, the biological idea of costly signaling goes like this: organisms send each other signals all the time–things like “I want to mate with you, and I will provide good genetic stock for your offspring,” “I am stronger than you, so stay away from my mate,” “I am not going to attack you, so you can trust me,” “I can run really fast, so you should probably eat another gazelle and not waste so much energy running after me,” “there is a lion nearby, so just run away and let me guard the food”–that sort of thing. Sometimes these signals are reliable, and sometimes they are not. Because there are evolutionary advantages to believing reliable signals, and not believing deceptive signals, organisms have evolved ways to distinguish between the two. Many organisms are more likely to accept a signal as reliable if the organism making the signal incurs some kind of cost when doing so.

This is just a fancy way of saying that “talk is cheap” is a principle of biology. We see it all over nature: male birds prove the honesty of their mating intentions by building nests for their intended mates, gorillas show their dominance over other gorillas by beating on their own chests, gazelles demonstrate their fitness in front of predators by expending energy to jump up and down for no particular reason. If an animal expends energy or accepts risk to send a message, other organisms are more likely to perceive that message as reliable.

It works for humans too. Think about the last time you received a hand-written thank you note, compared to a quick email to a hundred different people. The hand-written note conveys gratitude more reliably because we know that it took more time and effort to create. The expenditure of resources makes the message more reliable, since we know that the sender had to forego other priorities to create the message. Or think of the difference we perceive when politicians vote against their own party or their own interests. When Mitt Romney became the only Republican to vote to impeach Donald Trump last year, he got more attention than any of the 48 Democrats who voted the same way because people understood that his vote came at a higher cost.

Costly signaling is a concept that explains a lot about one aspect of the human experience. Another such concept is the notion of “cheap grace,” which comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic theological work, The Cost of DiscipleshipBonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian during the Nazi era who opposed Hitler–and was even part of a plan to assassinate him–and paid the ultimate price. He knew something about costly signaling. And he knew a lot about grace, which he defines in this spectacular passage near the beginning of the book:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Bonhoeffer is offering us a strong theology of grace that rejects the excesses of antinomianism, or the belief that, once one is “saved,” it does not matter what one does because salvation is by grace. Such an idea, Bonhoeffer insists, fundamentally misunderstands what grace means. Grace is the ability to change, not an excuse to avoid changing. 

And we can’t just say it. Bonhoeffer sees grace is as the result of a costly signal to God. All of us can have the Kingdom of God, and the only requirement is that we want the Kingdom of God more than any other thing in the world. Giving up those things that are not the Kingdom of God is not something that we have to do to qualify of God’s grace; eliminating those things that are not the Kingdom of God is what “the Kingdom of God” means. The costly signal is a constitutive act of creation.

All of this was running through my mind over the weekend as I listened to President-Elect Biden call for national unity after the election.

It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans. The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season — a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.

What impressed me was not the message itself, which was absolutely traditional and expected. Winners of presidential contests always say that it is time to heal and put aside our differences and work together as Americans. Losers, too, traditionally say the same thing. Biden was just reading the script.

What surprised me was how quickly the reactions came from both sides to reject the President-elect’s plea: “we don’t have to,” “where was the unity four years ago,” “now is not the time to forget the past,” “your vision is incompatible with our vision,” “some people don’t deserve empathy,” “we must, in fact, be enemies.”

I don’t want to refute any of these responses or diminish the very real feelings behind them. I have already written about Biden’s plea as a purely secular, pragmatic call for forward movement. But it also resonated with the non-secular, non-public, spiritual side of my mind. Latter-day Saints and other people of faith should perk up a bit when someone says, “love your enemies,” as it is something that is not an inconsiderable part of our religious world view.

The Catholic writer and radical activist Dorothy Day summed up the governing principle of the Kingdom of God quite nicely when she said, “‘I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” But here’s the thing: it is easy to say, “I love my enemies,” or to love them in theory, or to create a definition of love that does not require us to change anything about ourselves. But that is not what the Kingdom requires. Love has to be a costly signal or it is not love–and the whole idea behind that “love your enemies” bit is that your enemies, by definition, are people who you cannot love unless you change.  


  1. This is timely for me. (But I’m still keeping my phone turned off during business hours today because I am working out how to be compassionate towards a critic.)

  2. I think Biden is taking the proper approach here, given his position and his responsibilities.

    That being said, Jesus helped the oppressed without playing footsies with the oppressors. It’s easy and rewarding to kiss up to the powerful. It’s harder and less rewarding, as far as the world is concerned, to help the oppressed.

  3. Stephen Hardy says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve missed you and I’m very glad to see that you are posting again. I wish I had read this yesterday before our lesson/discussion

  4. Geoff-Aus says:

    The majority have chosen love over hate. It would be incredible if the christians are the ones who refuse to love, and continue to hate, because they believe in conspiracy theories, about gadianton robbers, etc.

  5. Kristine N says:

    Huh. I thought you’d be going in a different direction.

    In a normal political process, when the loser graciously concedes and their administration begins the process of transferring information and resources to the incoming administration, that is the costly signal, perhaps not of repentance (since differing political opinions aren’t a sin), but of acceptance of the democratic process. Under those circumstances it’s completely reasonable to extend a hand of forgiveness and fellowship.

    The moment we are experiencing now is quite different. Tr*mp and at least some of his supporters are attempting to subvert the results of the election. I don’t think they’ll succeed (fingers crossed) but even if they fail, offering them forgiveness when they have not offered repentance seems like cheap grace to me. I have no desire to punish any of them, but I do think it’s entirely appropriate to pull away for a breath, to let them experience their anguish before attempting reconciliation.

  6. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Michael, for the post. I wonder, though, what Bonheoffer would have said of Hitler in light of your last two paragraphs. (Is it still an instantiation of Godwin’s Law if the OP mentioned Hitler first?) To put a point on it: it is difficult for me to conceive of murdering someone I love. Do you know if he addressed this conundrum; if he didn’t, do you have thoughts about it?

  7. There are two different requirements for dealing with adversaries during and after an election. Both are necessary, but they exist in different spheres that don’t overlap very much. It’s useful to keep them distinct in our minds as we work through a time like this.

    One requirement is civility. This is the lesser requirement. Civility relies on the ritual ways of speaking and acting that make civic society possible. In the context of the OP, civility is what the winner does when he gives the familiar “time to unite” speech. Civility is what the loser does when acknowledging defeat gracefully. When we are civil we follow the norms of politeness. Only by following these norms can we disagree safely; safe disagreement means vigorous debate that doesn’t put the system of law and liberty in jeopardy. We can be civil to each other without even liking each other.

    The other requirement is love. Where civility exists primarily in the civic sphere, love exists primarily in the personal sphere. (By “personal” I don’t mean “individual.” I mean the things that are crucial in our dearest personal relationships.) Love is what God requires of us. Love is what makes Zion possible.

    It’s always important to aspire to loving our adversaries. But in politics it’s usually enough—and it’s hard enough—simply to be civil to each other. We can only get to the part about love if we master the part about civility first.

  8. JustAThought says:

    I’m not sure who saw fit to remove my comment or why it was done but the fact is that the Trump Administration has stonewalled the Biden transition team.

    This is beyond a matter of grace or dignity and becomes a national security issue. The impact of this deliberate failure to ensure a smooth transition can NOT be erased by removing posts.

  9. Not a Cougar says:

    Kristine, the idea that we should require Trump voters to “repent” for their votes torpedoes any attempt at reconciliation. I don’t think you can necessarily impose the concept of salvation and grace onto the winners and losers of a partisan election and attempts to do so will cause nothing but ill will on both sides. I’m confident we don’t know all the specific reasons ten of millions of people cast votes for Trump. Assuming then that they did so for secretly evil reasons or arguing that even voting for Trump is a sin (as at least one writer at BCC would argue) is a really bad start toward reconciliation.

  10. Kristine N says:

    Not a Cougar, did you read my post? I said explicitly that the binary isn’t forgiveness/repentance because differing political opinions are not sins. I was pointing out that the grace and forgiveness we’re talking about here are NOT linked to sinfulness.

  11. Not a Cougar says:

    Kristine, indeed I did. You said the following:

    “I don’t think they’ll succeed (fingers crossed) but even if they fail, offering them forgiveness when they have not offered repentance seems like cheap grace to me. I have no desire to punish any of them, but I do think it’s entirely appropriate to pull away for a breath, to let them experience their anguish before attempting reconciliation.”

    I understand your point in your first paragraph about reconciliation not being tied to sinfulness, but you undercut that point by suggesting that Trump voters nevertheless need to “repent.” Perhaps this “repentance” you reference is merely that they shouldn’t be using lawful means to contest votes in states where the vote is close, but I didn’t read it that way. I very much doubt Trump will be successful in any of his challenges, and, even if he is, from what I have read, there aren’t enough disputed ballots to upend the conclusions in the contested states (meaning many of his challenged will be summarily dismissed).

    However, your suggestion about challenging the vote total then begs the question as to whether Gore supporters had need of “repentance” for supporting their their candidate’s challenge to Bush’s win in Florida in 2000? I personally don’t see any problem with a candidate exhausting all lawful methods to ensure a legitimate election. How is this different fundamentally different, or does it merely matter whether you find the challenger repugnant?

  12. Kristine N says:

    Thank you, NAC, for clarifying that you are, indeed, purposefully misreading me.

    Have a lovely day.

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