Inclusivity and Religion


by: Stephen Cooper


Inclusivity and religion, in this day and age, are often diametrically opposed ideas. Creeds and belief systems of every sort and type 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 we were businesses competing in the same marketplace, with only a certain number of consumers to convince that our product is the best.

Throughout my upbringing, I have heard that followers of other religions-be they Buddhist, Muslim or Jewish-were, at best, misguided and, at worst, on their way to hell. I even have heard lengthy sermons on the mistakes of other denominations within the Christian church (Catholic against Protestant, of course) and between denominations which lie close to each other in belief (Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist, for example). We seem to try to convince ourselves that our belief system is the best, and therefore no one else can have the truth - we are the sole possessors.

It's strange to see such bickering and backbiting in a church which styles its philosophy after Jesus the Christ. If there is one thing that 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: The Samaritan woman at the well, whose people were despised by the Jews of the day for their ways of worship and ancestry; the tax collector, shunned from his society because of his overbearing collections and swindling; the Roman centurion, a symbol of the foreign domination of Israel; the adulterous woman, unclean and despised in her own society because of her act; 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. One could say that the ministry of Christ was one that reached primarily to the pariahs of his society.

What's more telling is looking 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 and parcel of their religious practice. Jesus had strong words for these people, calling them vipers and whitewashed sepulchres, implying a pretty outer image but an inner death. The only Pharisees he spoke to in a rather civil manner (or, more accurately, that it is recorded he spoke to) were those who came to him in honest curiosity and seeking - in other words, those whose minds had opened up enough to not be so exclusionary in their religion. These Jesus answered truthfully and with great insight.

How Pharisaical the church is today! 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 Christ has become one of conformity, not transformation. How wrong this is.

The church will never reach a world as diverse as ours, will never be truly understood, will never grow outside the restrictions of a simple human organization unless we can overcome this narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness. We need to have our true nature revealed to the world in order to shine the love of Christ and God. We cannot lock our own hearts from those people who are outside. If we lock them out, we not only keep others out, but ourselves in. We can never effectively minister in such a situation.

Our churches are rife with religious exclusivity, true. Perhaps even more distressing, however, is the fact that we practice exclusion in our churches in so many other ways. Folk of different ethnic background 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 (GLBTQ in straight churches, straight in GLBTQ churches) are made to feel uncomfortable there, if not by doctrine, then by social interaction. Our churches have become the last bastion of social homogeneity, the last place on earth we can go and not have to see anyone who is different from us. They have become a place to have our beliefs (and prejudices) upheld and reinforced, rather than challenged and strengthened. What do we lose from such exclusivity? The price 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. We fall into a circle of self-congratulatory ego boosting, rather than seeking out the truth. We become Christians in word only, not in deed.

I have seen many examples of such a tragedy in my own life. The one that sticks out in my mind the most involves the relocation of my old church. The church had outgrown its facilities, and this necessitated a move. This was natural and normal. When the discussion around the move began, however, a disturbing trend arose. It was said people didn't want to park off church grounds "because of the neighborhood," and that people were avoiding our church for that same reason. Understand-this church was 99.9 percent white, while the neighborhood around it was low-income black. Perhaps the reasons given would not have disturbed me that much - after all, there was a lot of police activity in the neighborhood, so people might be afraid - had our church put forth ANY TYPE of ministry idea for that neighborhood in the 21 years I had attended. Any ministry idea mentioned was always dismissed because it was thought that white people reaching out to black people would be ineffective. What the folk at my church failed to see was that attitude, not skin color, affects the outcome of ministry. The Spirit of God assures results, not the agreement of culture.

When my church did decide to reach out to communities different from itself (through backyard Bible clubs, not one of which was in that neighborhood directly behind the church), the ministry went well, for the people involved were committed to loving and serving that community well. The ministries did, however, peter out after a year and a half or so. Why? Because the volunteers who served those communities were so small in number that they often had to hold a class for 40 kids by themselves, and no one would volunteer to serve as a sub or, even, as a helper. What could have been a fantastic church ministry was relegated to the ministry of a very few, who wore out under the constant strain. This, again, is not an uncommon problem in our churches.

How can we overcome what seems to be our natural human inclination to be around those like us? How can we make EVERYONE welcome in our churches and communities? I believe our biggest step toward such a lofty goal is to learn to see ourselves as God sees us. I fear that many Christians often obtain what I call "the pride of humility." We often think ourselves better than the people around us because we realize just how far short we fall from the grace of God. Therefore, we have the superiority of knowing the truth about God and ourselves.

In truth, God loves us greatly in every way, and does not focus on our shortcomings; rather, he wishes us improvement for our own sake. If we could see that the love of God does not depend on our own action or inaction, but rather our existence, we might be able to transfer that love to others around us. 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 this change in mindset 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 and making sure our environment is just as welcoming so they come in the first place. All of this must be proactive - we must work toward it, or nothing will ever happen. That work begins with our own personal outlook.

Copyright © 2001 by the author
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