A couple of years ago I was on a panel interviewing new ministers for a local church, and as part of that process we asked candidates what they felt was the greatest question currently facing the church. You can probably guess the answers, but the whole process got me thinking about that one question. And after all that time, I think I’ve got an answer:
It’s not just relevant to the church, of course. The question of who belongs where is something that informs everything at a fractious time such as this, although it’s normally framed in a more negative sense – who doesn’t belong?
We try and convince ourselves that our communities, our politics, our institutions, our very hearts are inclusive and open, but the reality on the ground is often very different. We have dark urges pushing us to declare some of us on the inside while others – the Other – remain outside the gates. Because, after all, some of us just belong, and therefore deserve all the perks and privileges that entails. Others don’t quite belong – they look like us, but there’s something about them that means they don’t fit in. And to accommodate them is just too expensive or too difficult or too resource intensive. And bad things keep happened to them, but it always seems to be their fault, so what are we supposed to do about that?
There are others, of course, we’d rather shun, that needs to be ostracised for the good of the whole. They live among us, but we wish they were just a little more like us. Some of them will never really be like us though, and while we’re benevolent, we’re not foolish. So we decide they belong fractionally less than the rest of us – say two-fifths? Because civilisation belongs to those with the wherewithal to win, right?
Some of us are just too different, or just too in the way. So we try to concentrate them in one place, where we can keep an eye on them. Others are just a drain on resources, so we go with the deportation option. They get to live, but somewhere else.
Others we just herd into ovens, or in front of bullets, or at the business end of a machete. And the generations after us will say “Never again!”, but there’s always someone who doesn’t belong…
Terrible, terrible things are wrought as a result of that question. And the reason that it’s the most important question facing the church, and our societies, is that too many of us gleefully act as cheerleaders and enablers of policies and attitudes that ultimately treat other people as less than human, as less worthy of justice and dignity, of happiness and opportunity, as less worthy of their very lives.
We don’t ask the question enough, we don’t ask it seriously, we make assumptions and in those assumptions are born both nightmares and apathy. And if our churches are rooted in the love of God and the grace of a man who stood between mobs and demons and those who allegedly didn’t belong, then our answer to this question needs to be as compassionate and as expansive and as merciful and as loving as the Spirit will empower us to be.