Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Problematizing the Language of Inclusion and Exclusion as a Singular Hermeneutic for Christian Community

I remember the first time I found myself refused Holy Communion because of being a gay man. It was a deeply painful experience and I lost faith in the Church that day. That faith has recovered only as my faith in Jesus Christ has deepened, my love of the Community even in brokenness and sin has emerged with an honesty that does not brook romantic notions of Church communal life while nevertheless insisting that we can be better, and my sense of self before God has grown even in the face of sometimes mean and unexamined behavior by fellow Christians.

In recent times, the language of inclusion and exclusion has largely been attached to queer persons and our place within the life of the Body of Christ. There are gains and losses with this language.

A central gain is that this language raises awareness within the Body of Christ that not all is well with us, that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, that we too are deeply shaped by racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and the like, all of us. And we treat one another in ways we would never wish to be treated ourselves if we were the other both by commission and by omission.

In contrast to this, this language implicitly recognizes that we are quick to point fingers at the world, to claim “counter-cultural” status—a term by the way that I utterly despise because it allows us to fail to note our own cultural shapings and often produces a cultural claim that is the mirror image rather than one more shaped to Jesus Christ and his life for and to us.

We as Church are slow to note how we are ourselves very worldly-shaped and very cultural, claiming a superiority, justification by place and position and traits and accidents of birth, rather than our shared drowning in the watery grave and regenerative womb of Holy Baptism, our being united with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in new birth, our being made able to stand before God in Christ Jesus apart from any work of our own. That we, any of us, could claim a priority of voice for Christ’s Community because of our bio-socio-cultural status is worthy of challenge. Even our counter-cultures often look more like the culture of another time than truly a culture concerned with being shaped by the Other, Jesus Christ, and engaged with our own cultural shapings and changing realities in constructive-critical ways so that we might all excel in the mind of Christ, being love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. And to these, let me add single-heartedness or chastity, persistence and diligence, wisdom and courage, generosity and justice, and most importantly, humility—close-to-earth-ed-ness—remembering that without God we are but dust, that our only true standing place is acknowledging our utter need before Infinite and Eternal God Who is Risen, that we share together the vulnerability of all finite creatures—just like everyone else.

And there are losses.

Increasingly, this language functions at a very low level as an all-encompassing hermeneutic or lens by which to interpret all matters.

This language may even be used for any and every situation in which someone feels her or him self wronged or left out or not on the inside no matter what the situation is or why or intent and often without engaging with the other person about whom such a claim is made that she or he is exclusive. Use of this language in this way ends up trivializing real and painful harm to persons in the community often associated with identity traits such as skin color, culture, class, and so forth.

Indeed, such trivializing ends up overturning the very ethical concern this language originally hoped to name and redress, namely the real and painful harm done to persons because of race, gender, ethnicity, and more. In other words, true communal ethical or ascetical theological concerns of the Body of Christ, Christ’s Community in our care for one another are compared with any and every matter of concern.

Use of this language alone as a singular interpreter of Christ’s Community finally does not allow for questioning or making of any claims about communal ethics or ascetical theology at all. It ends up precisely negating the possibility of making any such claims because no other hermeneutic or claim can stand alongside it when pushed to its final end.

The extreme claim by some is that it allows for an “anything goes” mentality. An example might be that a person in the community is bedding another’s spouse. The personal and communal damage of such behavior is enormous. To suggest this is not okay, however, could be claimed to be exclusive—and I have witnessed this happen. But this “anything goes” works both from the “right” and from the “left”. What of the person who is a Neo-Nazi and makes no bones about it. Or the landlord who actively oppresses her or his tenants and shows up on Sunday expecting to be praised and admired and unchallenged. To be truly inclusive in this low-level understanding of this language dialectic would not allow for me to claim that racism and anti-Semiticism and sharkery and adultery are not okay. And that makes me exclusive on both counts where this dialectic becomes the singularly driving interpretive framework. Or if we do make such claims in the name of inclusion we automatically put into question using this as the singular interpretive framework by which we challenge ourselves and the community. And to then jump to claiming that the other person is being exclusive without further ado is to instantiate a framework that is inoperable on its own alone. Better to get specific about the communal ethical or ascetical theological claim regarding sexual conduct, racializing, and the like.

After all, in all three cases, I am willing to make faithful pastorally informed communal ethical or ascetical theological claims. And to do so is not to cast that person out the door, but it is to challenge them, and in some cases, yes, it might mean the possibility of excommunication if there is failure of amendment of life and the community is increasingly harmed by unchecked behavior. Whether I like it or not, this is the charitable interpretation of my own experience of excommunication even if I must finally disagree with the assessment and must assert in kind that in actuality the Church is very culturally-shaped in relation to queer persons so that it is not clear to me if it is possible for the Church at this time to make an equitable examination of our persons and lives in light of Christ's mind. That bullying (and worse), for example, is a regular feature of Churchly and worldly treatment of queer persons should give all Christians pause that perhaps something is off. But that is not nearly as interesting as what a committed pair does between the sheets.

The framework of much inclusion/exclusion however makes communal correction at all nearly impossible. And when dealing with matters of racism or adultery, communal correction, preferably conversational-conflictual in style is vitally necessary to make change to how it is we are with one another.

Further, this language dialectic also allows the user of the language to claim instant personal and moral unchallengeability no matter what and in such a way that any shade of distinctions is lost. A circle emerges in which to ask any questions of a person claiming to be excluded is to make oneself into an excluder also. With this, the language tends to assume willful malice or willful obliviousness on the part of the other and is not available to alternative input much less conversational engagement and awareness raising. Worst of all, it can shut down conversations or development of awareness about painful and hard matters we face as fellow God’s-beloveds at precisely the point when conversation even conflictual conversation and awareness raising are most necessary and vital to begin to rip away masks that tell us as Church that all is well with us and that we actually treat one another as we would wish to be treated if we were in the other’s shoes.

But finally, and not unrelated to this unchallengeability, indeed coupled precisely with it, this language actually becomes a language that holds persons in a place of victimization and allegiance to a noblesse oblige benevolence mentality toward the harmed on the part of those who think of themselves as including.

There is a failure to recognize that in Christ’s Body, it is God who includes all of us through Holy Baptism. The challenge to the ways we treat one another in community, that is our communal ethics or ascetical theology or lack thereof, thus, flows first and foremost from and in God’s embrace of each of us as beloved in Jesus Christ and God’s embrace of us to become more like Jesus Christ. In other words, to be included by God is also to be being changed more into an image of Christ. And that comes with communal ethical or ascetical theological claims to excelling in the mind of Christ as growth in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. And to these, let me add single-heartedness or chastity, persistence and diligence, wisdom and courage, generosity and justice, and most importantly, humility—close-to-earth-ed-ness—remembering that without God we are but dust, that our only true standing place is acknowledging our utter need before Infinite and Eternal God Who is Risen, that we share together the vulnerability of all finite creatures—just like everyone else. We can disagree about those patterned gospel responses that increase us in these character markers or ways of being, certainly, but we cannot set aside that these have claim on us at all for the sake of including as a singular interpretive framework.

As theologian, James Alison, reminds us, to be baptized is to be on the inside of God’s life. And if I am on the inside of God’s life, I am a responsible. To be on the inside, to a responsible, means that I can speak face to face to my fellow baptized, and challenge her or him and the community if necessary because I am held by God's indissoluable bond. And they can do the same with me. It means that I can refuse to place myself in a grateful subservient position to others simply for being allowed through the door. It means that I am free to offer my gifts irrespective of whether or not they are welcome or received or wanted. It means that I am a full participant in God’s own life through Christ in the Spirit. And it means in turn that I am a full participant in the life of this world, so I can stand in solidarity with others rather than think of myself as their defender or think of them as recipients of my charitable excess, so that I can take responsibility for those moments when I do not treat a fellow beloved of God as I would wish to be treated if I were her or him.