All have seen

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God:
sing joyfully to God, all the earth. – Psalm 98:3

Monday, May 2, 2011

Inclusion Gone Wrong: A Case Study

In my last post, I discussed the dangers inherent in the inclusion / exclusion paradigm when it is elevated to the level of one of the dominant features of church discourse.

Allow me here to give a "real life" situation I've seen where "inclusion/exclusion" has been the predominant paradigm of thinking within the church. Situation is real; names & other info has been changed to protect the identity of those involved. Call this, as it were, a bit of "field work."

Sam is an Episcopalian, is involved in local church leadership, comes from a church whose church life and theology is closely bound with the National Church. Sam knows a lot about liturgical colors, about civil rights, about poverty issues, and is quite vocal, but he really doesn't know very much at all about Scripture or theology. But Sam loves talking about the sacred, and believes firmly in the sacred, and in helping people. Sam likes Spong, but finds it difficult to say why other than that Spong helps him think. But Sam is very dedicated to the church, and incredibly eager to help. Sam is very liberal in politics. Sam is respected since he's so vocal in supporting the rights of the oppressed, and in defending social justice issues against the attacks of right-wingers which he's read about in the papers. If you want to know how to help convince your neighbors that gun control is a good idea, Sam is a very good person to go to, with statistics, voting records, and a lot of helpful information about what some of those wacko right-wingers are up to.

Joe is a non-denominational type Christian, and has quite a substantial knowledge of the Bible and of church doctrine; much of this through self-study. Joe has been hurt in the church, and tends to be skeptical of churches and clergy in general. Joe often makes comments at gatherings about scripture and theology which overly critical and not terribly helpful, sometimes "cherry-picking" Scripture to make a point. Joe doesn't know that much about civil rights or poverty issues. Joe doesn't believe that partnered gay people should be clergy, but doesn't believe in gay-bashing, either. Joe is very conservative in some specific points of theology, similar to some more conservative Baptists.

At an official church gathering where scripture and theology are discussed, Sam makes some remarks which are rather revealing of how little Sam knows about either Scripture or theology. Sam tends to think that if he feels something about Scripture or theology, there's no point in his not saying it at such a gathering. In other Episcopal church settings, people have been interested enough in what Sam says about the sacred. But often enough, in this setting, Sam says things which reveal that Sam doesn't know much about Scripture or theology. But Sam doesn't think it's relevant whether he has the "book knowledge" or not, and that his personal faith validates what he says, and that it's not all that important if he's, e.g., talking about what the Bible says about Adam and Eve, and it turns out he's made a mistake, that this is should be normal for any Christian, since Christians shouldn't be "obsessive" about Scripture or doctrine.

Joe, who has a very great knowledge of Scripture and substantial knowledge of theology, but is a bit persnickety, is somewhat jealous of Sam. There Sam is in the meeting, designated as a "church leader," and then saying rubbish things about both Scripture and theology ... things which are simply, factually, wrong, irrespective of what one believes. Joe appreciates that they are from different denominations and wants to "witness" to some degree ... to help show the people from this different church, that there is a different way to believe in Jesus ... that the way that he believes in Jesus makes sense, and rational sense at that - that these are really things which reason tells us any Christian should believe. He's in "apologetics mode," let us say. Joe makes a few remarks that aren't helpful; people in the group make Joe very much aware that they don't appreciate his remarks. But Joe thinks that some of the remarks were helpful, and that the group was rather deaf to them.

After the group discussion, Joe goes to Sam's office and confronts Sam. Joe tells Sam: "If you want to call yourself a church leader ... you should at least have a basic knowledge of the Bible. And if you don't ... when there are church discussions of the Bible, you should at least just make sure you aren't saying anything that might be untrue. Like when you said the Bible says Adam and Eve never had sex when they were in the garden of Eden: that's not true, it never says that. You can always look it up first if you're not sure."

Sam says: "I can't believe what you are saying. You are saying that you are a better Christian than I am. I'm not sure if you belong in this group, this group might not be right for you." Sam talks to other church leaders about the possibility of asking Joe not to return to the discussion group.

Now, Joe is a difficult case, is often the situation with people who have been hurt in the church. People aren't always hurt by the church when the church is "too strict" or "too fundamentalist" etc. etc. - there are thousands of ways people can be hurt in the church, and one of the ways is when they suspect that the church is not doing its job properly in teaching people about God. They may come to the situation with wrong ideas about "the right way to teach people about God" - but they can nonetheless feel profoundly let down by the church, and even moreso when they come into conflict with church leaders in disputes about teaching. They can come to feel that the church is throwing everyone under the bus, is misleading people, is leading people away from God more than it is filling its mission of helping people in matters of faith.

Joe certainly isn't ready to be a church leader, and he may also not be cut out for the role he feels he has, of visiting church discussion groups where he knows it's likely that a theology will be presented with which he's in profound disagreement.

But now let's look at Sam. Sam's been brought up in the Episcopal Church as leaning toward the National Church - so Sam is thinking mostly with the paradigm "inclusion / exclusion" - "We have to be tolerant. But in order to do so, we can't be too tolerant of people who are intolerant."

So when he thinks about what Joe has said - he thinks:
1) Joe has accused me of something. The thing he accused me of, has to do with faith, since it has to do with the Bible.
2) So essentially then, when it comes to the question, "Am I a Christian or not, or am I a good Christian or not," Joe is telling me I'm not a very good Christian, and that he's a better Christian.
3) But this is wrong and intolerant. Nobody should have the right to tell anybody else that they're a better Christian, that's hypocritical too.
4) Since Joe is intolerant, he's hurting me and he'll probably also hurt other people, so he shouldn't be a part of this group.

Now: we all have room for improvement, as do both Sam and Joe. But in this case, Sam immediately jumped to "the big issue" - something closer to an "ultimate issue" - of "Is Sam saying I'm not a Christian or I'm not a good Christian"?

This comes from a very impoverished way of thinking about theology and ethical problems. From thinking in terms of "In or Out?" Sam's not asking himself, "did I make a mistake," or "Is there a way I can improve?" - it's straight to the biggie: "Am I in or am I out, and to what degree am I in or out?"

It's because at the top of Sam's mind is always: "How can we make people feel welcomed, feel like they're a part of us, feel that we're all one body of Christ?" Usually, this goes well, since in the Episcopal Church, a lot of questions are framed like this, trying to figure out how people can be made to feel more this way. But when the predominant mode of thinking is challenged, and something appears on the radar which is "outside" this mode of thinking - it appears as dangerous, and the immediate reaction for Sam is to simply subject it to his own litmus test: "What does this say about me being in or out?" Obviously, it's not very positive or encouraging about him being "in" - so it must mean he's more "out." And obviously, that's not the right answer.

And since this was a dangerously wrong answer, it probably means that Joe has got to go, that Joe is dangerous and hurtful.

I'd suggest: any congregation would find it a challenge in fielding Joe's questions, and dealing with Joe's attitude. However, a church leader with a wider spectrum of values and theological thought could also think: "What ways here could I improve in my leadership?" And maybe: "If I'm not sure about whether something's in the Bible or not, I could look it up before I say it's there."

Sam isn't so wrong in thinking that Joe is potentially dangerous and hurtful. He is. But so am I; and for that matter, so is Sam and all of the rest of us. Especially in church settings - churches are remarkable in their ability to inflict serious wounds. People trust them and expose themselves to vulnerabilities they don't have in other aspects of life.

Joe emerges from the situation even more skeptical of churches, especially "liberal" ones, and even more unhelpful in his attitude and behavior than he was before.

If Sam's church had dealt with issues of inclusion and exclusion - but did not deal with these in a manner as if they were practically the only issue of the church, the very definition of love and the gospel - Sam would have had a broader range of values and theological principles in order to evaluate this situation. He wouldn't have reached so quickly for that big question, "does this mean I'm in or I'm out?" Sam might have found some common ground with Joe in order to celebrate the many things they share in being followers of Christ.

And we wouldn't have this rather ironic situation where, because of the rather "fundamentalist" character of Sam's belief in "inclusion" - it lead to its direct opposite - the unnecessary exclusion of a person whose beliefs encompass more than simple inclusion alone.

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