A Theology of Inclusion

A Theology of Inclusion

capt cook displaced Aborigines

 

The concept of diversity and inclusion includes acceptance and respect.  It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These differences can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other commitments. We aim at understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual. Honouring diversity reflects the multiple conflicts and commitments that emerge as kingdom people seek to be faithful to the teachings and life of Jesus.

The Bible’s message emphasizes God’s mercy and God’s movement to bring healing out of brokenness to all who trust in God. The Bible portrays God’s welcome of people made vulnerable by social prejudice and exclusiveness as central to God’s merciful movement toward human beings.

The central message of the Bible may be summarized in this way: God created the world in love and means for all creation to be whole. In the face of human rejection of this love, brokenness comes to characterize life on earth. God grieves at creation’s pain and brokenness. God’s justice finds expression in God’s process of making whole that which is broken. God’s “right-making” love (or restorative justice) works especially through communities that know and share God’s love.

Hospitality. Throughout, the Bible’s call for God’s people to form communities of healing finds expression in the high priority placed on the virtue of hospitality. This is the first theme that points toward a benefit of the doubt for inclusiveness. A faith community’s hospitality expresses its faithfulness to God. Practically, in biblical times, human life in a largely harsh, unforgiving physical world was fragile. Desert people need each other; they rely on hospitality from others for their survival. Even more, hospitality takes on a profoundly spiritual dimension—our relationship with God is determined by our willingness to live hospitably. Faith communities that refuse hospitality cut themselves off from their life source.

At its core, holiness includes hospitality toward the vulnerable people in the community—the poor, the alien, the labourer, the deaf, the blind. Elsewhere we also read of the widow, the orphan, the daughter.

Jesus made a point of showing welcome specifically toward those considered “unclean” (that is, outside the circle of approved religiosity). And this was not simply because he had a soft spot in his heart for strays. Jesus portrayed salvation itself as directly tied to such welcome.  When pushed as to whom the neighbour actually is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This story packs an amazing punch when we realize that the kind of hospitality illustrated here is risky, unconditional, and counter to any kind of boundary line that seeks to separate faithful insiders from outsiders—remember, the Samaritans were the worst of sinners to Jerusalem-centred Jews.

One other place Jesus directly connects salvation with hospitality. Matthew 25 tells a parable about the separation of those who inherit the kingdom and those who are excluded from the kingdom. What is the criterion? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35–36). When did we do these things for you?  “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,  you did it to me” (25:40).

As portrayed in Matthew 25, Hospitality matters.

The Bible teaches from start to finish that the authenticity of the communities that have professed their faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, may be seen most clearly in the quality of their hospitality. By definition, this hospitality is tested most tellingly in relation to vulnerable people, the people who most need it, we could even say, the people the communities have the most difficulty welcoming.  Inhospitable communities separate themselves from God—and reap the consequences.

When applied to the question of whether the restrictive or the inclusive view should be the church’s starting point, the theme of hospitality points clearly toward placing the burden of proof on those holding restrictive views.

Jesus’ model. Along with hospitality, the second biblical theme that supports a generally inclusive stance arises from focusing more directly on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He models welcome. Almost everyone affirms that Jesus taught and practiced love. Certainly, Jesus’ portrayal of love stands at the centre of his message. We need to look at what Jesus actually did, however, in order to appropriate his message about love. We might discover Jesus’ love may be more distinctive than we have thought.

Jesus consistently showed deep-seated and at times costly kindness and respect to particular men, women, and children. Jesus was not so much a general humanitarian. He did not make big plans for large-scale projects. Mostly, Jesus cared for specific people. He cared for Matthew the tax collector. He cared for the woman at the well. Jesus modeled for us the practice of simply accepting other actual people. He treated individuals with respect. He listened to others, was interested in them, shared food with them.

Jesus’ love for particular people, however, most certainly had social consequences. He loved particular people, in all their real-life social aspects, as a political strategy. We may call this strategy the “politics of compassion.” Politics in this sense, may be defined, following John Howard Yoder, as “the structuring of relationships among persons in groups.”

Jesus and his followers formed a social organization that stood in sharp contrast to the relatively rigid social boundaries of their culture. They rejected boundaries between righteous and outcast, men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Jesus’ politics of compassion was founded on a profound understanding of God’s mercy. God, as represented in Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32), does not discriminate but loves all people. God is our model: “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Jesus opened participation in this community to all who chose to be part of it—all they had to do was “repent” (turn toward God) and “believe the good news” (trust that God’s mercy is for them). This constituted Jesus’ fundamental message (Mark 1:15). In the ministry that embodied his proclamation, Jesus made unmistakably clear the openness of his community for all who wanted their lives transformed by his mercy.

One clear expression of this openness may be found in Matthew’s gospel. A repeated verse in both 4:23 and 9:35 sets off a discrete section: Jesus travelled throughout Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” This section of Matthew shows that the “good news of the kingdom” includes both Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, 5:1–7:29) and Jesus’ healing. A partial list of the recipients of healing shows the incredible openness of this kingdom Jesus proclaimed: demoniacs, epileptics, a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two Gentile demoniacs, tax collectors, sinners, and the daughter of a synagogue leader.

Jesus mostly healed outsiders, people considered unclean or contaminants by the established religion. Jesus offered them mercy just as they were. He was not simply a knee-jerk reformer, however. He willingly brought healing to anyone who turned to him, including even a synagogue leader. Jesus’ politics of compassion included all who responded.

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Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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