True religion doesn’t call us to tolerate or accept others in their difference from us, but to need them for God to complete His work in us.
One of the constant tensions you see throughout the records of how humans have encountered and attempted to make sense of God is that of how we define those who are ‘in’ and those who are not.
I’ve posted my thoughts previously about how we see a wild and free God seemingly restrained by religion across the pages of the Old Testament, as the ‘chosen people’ create systems to keep themselves pure for that same God, and yet at the same time exclude those who can’t match those standards. The problem is that at the same time that they are called out by God from amongst the tribes and nations, they are explicitly commanded to be a ‘light unto the nations’. Within their DNA God intends them to be inclusive, to call others to follow. They are not to be like other nations, with parochial gods and obscure religious systems. They are to be the people who show what the one true God is all about, who participate in God’s grand design to put everything back together once again.
We can, of course, find room to argue that the religious systems that grow around this new way of understanding God are about setting a standard for those who wish to follow. After all, the Ten Commandments and the ‘hedge’ of laws that emerge to protect them say as much about the God the ‘chosen’ worship as about those who follow. This God is about purity, about ritual sacrificial observation – but also about justice and doing the right things as well as believing the right thing. The laws make clear who can and who can’t be part of the ‘chosen’. As we follow the journey of the ‘chosen’, they are castigated and abandoned when they in turn abandon God and turn to idolatry. It’s clear – there is a required standard to be ‘in’. Miss it, and you’re out.
The problem is that this seems to go against what Jesus talks about when he tells his followers about Sheep and Goats (my pupils love this one!). Here, Jesus is explaining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Radically, Jesus suggests that sticking to the religious rules is not enough any more. He says the new ‘in’ is a willingness to look after the ‘other’ – without questioning why they may be ‘other’ in the first place. Tie this into what he says about ritual purity observation (white washed tombs) and food laws (straining gnats) and we soon see this version of the story of all stories is very different. No longer are we be to defined by racial identity, or by strict observance of a set of rules – instead it is about how we live out this life of faith we are called to as the ‘chosen people’ of God.
There is much to explore here – what of Jesus’ teaching that the ‘way is narrow’ and that many will struggle to follow his teachings – well, bear in mind that the majority of his audience were religiously literate. Jesus is talking to those who view themselves as ‘in’ but who seem to have missed the point entirely of what it means to be ‘chosen’. Jesus talks about the weight placed on humanity by the religious leaders, comparing it to the lightness of his ‘yoke’.
When we open up the boundaries of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ life becomes messy. We experience challenges in deciding how to live out faith, moving away from simple obedience to a set of rules to allowing our belief system to percolate through every aspect of our identity and life. But what we gain is an incredible diversity which perhaps more faithfully reflects the God we’re called to follow. If all humans are image bearers (the image of God is present in all creation), then surely all humans are needed to get a fuller understanding of who God is. We hear different voices, we are challenged…we are evangelised as much as we evangelise others. We learn to healthily disagree.
I recognise the problems we may have with this. We can’t surmise this in a statement of faith (hence an approach that advocates the use of ‘values’ to tie us together in community), or develop a membership. Yes, there are basic values which reflect what we know of God – particularly how we love each other and love God – so as stated previously, no room for misogyny, homophobia, ageism, racism and so on – this is not what how God identifies us, so why would we identify each other with such discriminatory categories? All are equal in the eyes of God. So must they be in our eyes, no matter what.
We may never be comfortable with who is ‘in’ – but surely that’s the point. When we are with those who are just like us, we will never get a real understanding of the beautiful diversity of humanity, and, as I argue above, a true understanding of God. Jesus modelled for us a radical inclusivity, one which the Church has always struggled to live up to, but one worth striving towards.