Phrases such as “there but for the grace of God go I” can be useful in reminding us that any of us weak and frail human beings can end up in a very unenviable state. If we look at it a certain way it can also help to remind us that we should not look down on less fortunate people, or even people who have made bad choices in their lives, as if they were inherently worth less because are still very much like us. Looking at it from this perspective, it can seem to be a useful and reasonable phrase, but sadly it has a dark undertone.
By saying things like “there but for the grace of God go I”, we are saying not only that God loves and blesses us, but that he is punishing people by letting horrible things happen to them, or even by causing horrible things to happen to them.
The idea that God’s grace is what keeps bad things from happening to us falls apart even further when we consider the exceptional people who suffer terribly and the horrible people who thrive. Although many of the worst examples of humanity are eventually brought low, there are also numerous examples of people guilty of the worst crimes imaginable who have died rich, old and unpunished for their deeds.
Where but for the grace of God then? To the best fate a mortal being can hope for? But even this usage is not the greatest irony available.
The greatest irony of the phrase lies in its likely origin. In 1555 Bishop John Bradford (of the Church of England) was in prison awaiting execution on trumped-up charges brought under the new Catholic Queen Mary Tudor. While in prison, he supposedly saw a group of prisoners being led out to be executed and said “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” Soon after he was burned at the stake.
Nearly five centuries on, perhaps it is time to choose a new phrase. It could be something as simple and true as “that could be me”, or perhaps we could look to a much older statement, made about 2,500 years ago by Siddhārtha Gautama (more commonly known as Buddha).
“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”
- Siddhārtha Gautama
This is a much more profound statement encompassing not only the man hanging from the gallows and the little girl begging in the street, but the dog beaten for running away from her abuser and the calf that is led from his mother’s womb straight to the killing floor to become veal.
If we do not feel compassion for every one of these then we are lost. Morality is not about feeling smug and superior when Fortuna smiles upon us, it is about seeing the right and wrong side of every action and striving to come down on the right side as often as possible.
So no matter which phrases we choose to use, let us always remember that whether or not we believe in intervening supernatural forces, we all have both the ability to see ourselves in not only every human being, but in every living thing, and the responsibility to think and act compassionately toward all of them.