What does it mean to be ‘inclusive’ like Jesus?

exclusion and embraceAccording to one telling of the gospel narrative, Jesus came to end exclusion and preach the inclusive kingdom of God.  Certainly that’s part of what he came to do and arguably the feature of his ministry most appealing to our contemporary culture’s moral sensibilities. In Jesus, the outcasts of society have hope. Those long marginalized, kicked to the curb (figuratively and literally) can look up to see Jesus extending a hand, inviting them back into the community of the truly human as objects of dignity and divine affection.

Of course, issues of inclusion and exclusion are at the heart of our society’s most contested social issues. Whether it’s the dynamics underlying much of the racial tensions built up and released in our cities, or the heated theological discourse on sexuality, we need to come to grips with the realities of inclusion and exclusion. Which is why I decided to recently revisit Miroslav Volf’s justly famous meditation on the subject Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It’s a fascinating theological account of the issues of forgiveness, truth, justice, and, yes, exclusions that gains a particular poignancy set in the context of his wrestling with the exclusionary violence that destroyed his own home in the Balkans.

Nuancing Inclusion. Right off the bat, though, I was struck by his nuancing of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion or, rather, ministry against exclusion. In some accounts of Jesus’ ministry of radical inclusion, his invitation was to all and sundry, with no requirements, no prohibitions except those who sin by way of exclusion. Exclusion is the aboriginal sin and any construction of binaries, ins and outs, wicked or righteous, sinner and virtuous is simply ruled out by the gracious kingdom of God. To follow Jesus is simply rolling back boundaries, deconstructing binaries, and flattening every moral and social hill before the coming of our inclusive God.

According to Volf, though, it’s not that simple. While it’s true that much of Jesus’ work included transgressing “social boundaries that excluded the outcasts, demonstrating that these boundaries themselves were evil, sinful, and outside of God’s will” (72), he goes on to say:

“it would be a mistake…to conclude from Jesus’ compassion toward those who transgressed social boundaries that his mission was merely to demask the mechanisms that created “sinners” by falsely ascribing sinfulness to those who were considered socially unacceptable. He was no prophet of “inclusion”…, for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was a bringer of “grace”, who not only scandalously included “anyone” in the fellowship of “open commensality”, but made the “intolerant” demand of repentance and the “condescending” offer of forgiveness (Mark 1:15; 2:15-17). The mission of Jesus consisted not simply of re-naming the behavior that was falsely labeled “sinful” but also in re-making the people who have actually sinned and suffered distortion. The double strategy of re-naming and re-making, rooted in the commitment to both the outcast and the sinner, to the victim and the perpetrator, is the proper background against which an adequate notion of sin as exclusion can emerge. (72-73)

This duality in Jesus’ method of ending exclusion or practicing inclusion is so important for us to grasp, if we’re going to think clearly about how to follow Jesus and what the call to be an inclusive Church really means. So what does Volf have to say about these two halves of Jesus’ ministry?

Renaming. First, he tackles re-naming. When Jesus declares all foods clean (Mark. 7:14-23), or heals the woman with the flow of blood (Mark. 5:25-34), or points to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God, Jesus ends certain boundaries that divide people into the categories of clean and unclean. As Volf states it, “by the simple act of re-naming Jesus offset the stark binary logic that regulates so much of social life: society is divided into X (superior in-group) and non-X (inferior out-group)” (73). In this, Jesus upsets a false system of exclusion that divided people whom he now set on the same plane and brings into the mutual community of the clean.

The bit that I think is missing from Volf’s analysis here, is the further dual dimension this work of renaming can be split into. Jesus’ ministry of renaming often worked at both the level of correction as well as that of covenantal dispensation. Some of Jesus’ acts of renaming were aimed at correcting distortions within the Rabbinic or Pharisaic halakhah that had slowly emerged over time, and had aggravated the exclusion inherent in the ceremonial law of Torah (which inevitably still happens in nearly every church situation). Others, though, were Jesus’ declaration that because of the New Covenant, that which was ritually unclean before no longer is unclean because these distinctions (between Jew and Greek, Kosher, etc), have served their purpose in pointing to Christ and are now to be dispensed with. Jesus renames the distinction, not as evil, but rather as covenantally-irrelevant (Acts 10:5).

Remaking. But what about re-making? “In addition to removing the label “unclean” placed on the things that were clean, Jesus made clean things out of truly unclean things” (73). Jesus cast out unclean, sinful, tormenting spirits that held people captive and drove them to behaviors that excluded them from community (Mark. 5:1-20). But he also dealt with “people caught in the snares of wrongdoing”:

…people who, like tax-collectors, harm others in order to benefit themselves, people who, like prostitutes, debase themselves in order to prosper or just survive, people who, like most of us, are bend on losing their own souls in order to gain a bit of the world–such people were forgiven and transformed (Mark 2:15-17). (73)

In other words, Jesus ended their exclusion through the kind of grace that acknowledges there is something about the person, a condition, a habit, a disposition and behavior that is self-excluding and needs regeneration and forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is an including act that inherently contains within it an act of condemnation of the reality being forgiven. What’s important to see here, though, is that he doesn’t rename evil as good or indifferent, but instead tackles it head-on, by destroying its root in the human heart.

It’s important, at this point, to note that this is the more fundamental dimension of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion. Many suffer under regimes of unjust exclusion on the basis of gender, socio-economics, race, stigma attached to mental disorder, and so we praise God that Jesus offers hope and gives us a mandate proclaim that the social divisions are relativized in Christ (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11). But the reality is that not everyone was, or is, in a situation that needs to be renamed. That said, we all have fallen short of the glory of God, excluded ourselves from communion with God, and so stand in need of Jesus’ work of remaking or reconciling us to through the blood of his cross. Everybody, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, stands in need of Christ’s remaking work in our lives. Indeed, one of the main ways that Jesus, Paul, and the apostles undermine systems of exclusion based on false social categorizations, is on the basis of that shared new name that is the sign of a shared new heart, as we move from being “in Adam” together to being “in Christ” together.

Two Kinds of Inclusion. I took the time to outline this, because I think a failure to appreciate or apply the distinction between renaming and remaking in the Church’s call to practice inclusion is at the heart of so many of our hottest disputes. While I’d like to address, in a future post, issues more closely related to race and diversity in the Church, obviously, this comes up on the sexuality question.

All too often, progressives on the issue set this up as a debate between those who understand Jesus’ radical message of inclusion and those who simply want to hold onto the old, excluding binaries like the Pharisees and the Judaizers; we’re given a choice between those who want to exclude and those who want to include. And how fun is it to play Jesus v. the Pharisees, right? With Volf’s categories in place, we can see that the more appropriate question, though, is which method of inclusion applies in this situation? Where progressives see a situation of renaming akin to the Gentiles, the Church has traditionally seen inclusion requiring a kind of remaking (which, connected to sexuality, needs careful parsing–don’t read certain psychological programs into my use of the term). Still, according to the historic position, to rename, in this case, would be to call evil good.

This is is where the irony comes in. Traditionalists are often accused of being gatekeepers seeking to exclude people from the kingdom of God. But if they’re right here, and treating sexual behavior as another one of those old, sinful categories to be renamed is a mistake, ultimately the danger is that many will not be called to repent from the kinds of behaviors that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets say lead to their self-exclusion from the kingdom of God. It’s precisely out of conservatives’ drive to include, that they’re opposed to the wrong sort of inclusion. It’s precisely because they hate the idea of anybody being excluded from the kingdom of God, that they insist we not offer up inclusion on false premises.

In the end, it’s like two people explaining to a visitor how to get into a building. One says they must enter the main gate while the other tells them to enter through a side-door, which is much closer, because they fear the gate is too far away and difficult to enter. Initially, the second person seems to be making it easier to get in while the first is imposing the harsher standard–that is until you find out there is no side-door. The second person’s efforts at inclusion are well-meaning, but ultimately they function as another way of keeping the visitor out.

 Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “What does it mean to be ‘inclusive’ like Jesus?

  1. I like this and especially the analogy of the ‘main gate ‘ and a ‘side door’. The ‘well-meaning’ guides are actually keeping themselves and their followers out of the Kingdom. Even if they are invited into ‘traditionalist’ churches and given a friendly welcome, they still won’t be able to enter the Kingdom via ‘ a side door’. Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.

  2. This is a good engagement of Volf and a reasonable pushback to those of us who get a little testy about “you gatekeeper types” I think it also helps clarify some of the issues at stake. It’s not so much that you don’t WANT to include, say, LGBT people in the church; it’s that you and I might disagree about whether heterosexuality or lifelong celibacy is a requirement for discipleship. I see that as a heavy load placed on people’s back, keeping them out of the kingdom unnecessarily. You (perhaps – correct me if I’m wrong) see it as part of what it means to be Christian. I like the door analogy, but in that analogy, I think it’s really important that we make the door Christ and nothing else – not the Reformed church, not heterosexuality, not purity, not works of righteousness, not perfect theology. If a person meets Jesus through Word or Sacrament, and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I think it’s important that we not stand in the door….especially given are shared status as sinners.

  3. Pingback: Morning coffee 2015-05-04 – Intersection and inclusion | Mangy Dog
  4. Great post! I’ve been reading Volf over the past year, and have struggled with applying it to our present social problems. Your post is instructive in that way.

    That said, I’m still in two minds about whether the gender and sexuality issue at hand requires renaming or remaking. On one hand, my mainstream protestant reading of the bible tells me it is a clear remaking, but as I look around and see the state of exclusion from the church, the behaviours of many Christians, the struggles faced by the oppressed sectors of society, I have to question whether we’re on the right path in this. I refer also to Transsexual issues, which to me are more striking than homosexuality.

    Perhaps what is essential now is the ‘will to embrace’, which precedes justice and truth seeking?

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