Faith & Worship: Snake handling and costly grace

Published 8:00 am Thursday, September 13, 2018

There is a story about an anthropologist who was researching primitive churches in the South.  

One evening, he happened to attend the “Church of God with Signs.” He arrived early to get a seat on the front pew. 

Finally, the service began and, after the preacher delivered a fiery prayer, an older man made his way to the pulpit area carrying a large box. He opened the box and pulled out a 6-foot diamond back rattlesnake, at which point the anthropologist leaned over to the person sitting next to him and asked, “Is there a back door?”  

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The person responded “no.” At which point, the anthropologist said, “Where do you think they would like one?”

Snake handling has long been outlawed in every state except West Virginia. 

The reasons are obvious. Just recently, it was reported that a 7-year-old boy died as a result of a snake bite he had received at one of these services.

A few snake handlers carry on the tradition in the privacy of their homes in order to evade the law. 

For those who practice it, snake handling is believed to be a sign of true faith or salvation. An English psychologist who actually did research on  snake handing arrived at the conclusion that it provided the practitioners with a direct way of confronting their fears.

I, for one, am thankful that snake handling never became a sacrament of the church. It does, however, provide an indirect analogy to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, called “costly grace.”  

Bonhoeffer contrasts costly grace with cheap grace. Costly grace is when we confront and overcome our fears (not of handling snakes, but rather when our faith leads us into situations that could result in suffering and/or death).  Cheap grace is when our “faith” demands nothing more of us than to sit in a pew on Sunday morning, sing a few hymns, recite a few prayers and listen to a sermon. 

Costly grace reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:  

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.  Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

We don’t need to handle snakes to prove our faith or confront our fears. Our deeds of kindness and acts of compassion are proof of our faith or, as Mother Teresa once put it, “Faith in action is love — love in action is service.”

The Rev. Ernest Mills, Thermal Belt Unitarian Universalists Fellowship