Inclusivity and religion, inclusivity and Christianity. I know those two words in today’s world seem to reside side by side. We know in our heart one cannot not have one without the other. However, what we experience with inclusivity and religion and/or Christianity, in this day and age, are often diametrically opposed ideas. Creeds and belief systems of every sort compete for the souls of humankind, and often the competition results in building high fences and excluding those of other creeds.
It’s almost as if this were corporate businesses competing in the same marketplace, with only a certain number of consumers to convince our product is the best. If it were not so serious, it would be hysterically funny to study the vast number of denominations and how they came into existence. Most of what we know as Baptist today came about because of issues around how people were to be baptized, dunked, sprinkled or half-drowned. Our beloved Anglicans came about over a fight around divorce. The list is endless. So, it is a little odd to see such bickering and backbiting in a “church” which styles its philosophy after Jesus the Christ. If there is one thing which characterized the ministry of Jesus on earth, it was his inclusive approach for those who were seeking, not just for those who agreed with him. The examples of Christ’s inclusivity are myriad. There is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, whose people were so despised by the Jews of the day for their ways of worship and ancestry. There is the story of the tax collector, shunned from his society because of his overbearing collections and swindling. There is the story of the Roman centurion, a symbol of the foreign domination of Israel. Who can forget the story of the adulterous woman, unclean and despised in her own society because of her act. Finally, but certainly not least, is the story of the woman with the issue of blood, seen much like the adulterous woman, but with no control over her situation. All of these, although they were excluded from their own society, were ministered to or healed by Jesus. Of course it only takes a few seconds to apply the proper words of those excluded today to see the example is still the same. Yet what has not changed is the ministry of Jesus as one that reached primarily to the outcasts of society. I get into trouble with my colleagues when I point out that we look at whom Jesus condemned: the Pharisees and other “in-crowd” folk. The Gospels make it fairly clear that the Pharisees thought themselves above other folk, and exclusion of lower classes was part of their religious practice. One of my favorite stories comes from Jesus simply making an observation about who was blessed and who might have a problem:
“He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'” Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Luke 18:9-14
Jesus saved some of his strongest words for the likes of these, calling them vipers and white-washed sepulchers, implying a pretty outer image but an inner death. Today it does not seem that much has changed. We are willing to point out the speck in other’s eyes while ignoring our own. We quickly jump to the injustices committed by followers of other religions and ignore the ones done in the name of our own. The message of the institution has become one of conformity, not transformation. The message has become more of exclusivity rather than inclusion. Until we can overcome this narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness the institutional church will become more and more irrelevant to the people for whom it is supposed to exist. We cannot continue to see ourselves a superior to one another. To continue on that path is to shut out the beauty of the diversity of God’s creation. Perhaps even more distressing, however, is the fact that we practice exclusion in our churches in so many other ways, all those isms’s come to mind. People of different ethnic backgrounds still tend to group together at churches, and there is very little mixing. Many mainline churches refuse to acknowledge female ministers. The poor and/or homeless are often made to feel unwelcome because they lack the proper attire for church or cannot give to the latest building fund. Those of minority sexual orientation (GLBTQI in straight churches, straight in GLBTQI churches) are made to feel uncomfortable there, if not by doctrine, then by social interaction. Our churches, rather than leading us toward God, keep pushing us further and further away. They have become a place to have our ignorance (and prejudices) upheld and reinforced, rather than challenged and changed. The price we pay for this is incalculable. Without differing viewpoints provided by different backgrounds and experiences, our beliefs and view of the world can become dangerously skewed. We lose the ability to make well-informed decisions on outreach, because we have no idea what the people “out there” need. In fact, we reject any notion of God’s creation having a free will with the unique ability to think and choose. Instead we fall into a circle of self-congratulatory ego-boosting, rather than truth seeking. We become Christians or people of faith in word(s) only, not in deed. How can we make EVERYONE welcome in our churches and communities? Well, for openers, seeing each and every person as a unique creation of no less than God. In truth, God loves us greatly in every way, and does not focus on our shortcomings; rather, the Creator wishes us improvement for our own sake. We might be able to realize that we are so much more alike than different — and that the differences only add good contrast, not discord, to our “big picture.” I think the mindset change would bring about other action changes — truly becoming involved in our communities, conversing with — not proselytizing — followers of other creeds, making sure we welcome everyone into our midst. All of this must be proactive — we must work toward it, or nothing will ever happen. That work begins with our own personal outlook.
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, where Whosoever Founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew was ordained, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994.