Does Jesus exclude?

In the last few months, I have become increasingly involved in diversity and inclusion work within the Quaker community. Although challenging and emotionally demanding, this work is bringing lots of really important questions to the fore. One cluster of questions that has emerged is: Is Christianity by its very nature exclusive? Is a universalist Quakerism (which emphasises the commonalities between all religious paths) inherently more inclusive than a distinctively Christian Quakerism? When Jesus says ‘I am the Way’, is that not an exclusive statement?

Over its long history, the Christian church (including the Quaker community) has certainly proved itself to be painfully and sinfully exclusive in many ways, but in response to whether the heart of the Christian message is exclusive, I think the answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

No, because Jesus’ good news is the way of radical inclusion, and the church does not have a monopoly on this way of life.

Jesus’ ministry is one of radical inclusion. Jesus spent a lot of time in intimate company with those on the margins – women, children, the disabled, the ritually unclean, foreigners, etc. His message was one of reversal – the first will be last and the last will be first (Mk 10:31). The people with the least power in society are those that God gives the most honoured place to at the table (Lk 14:12-13). Jesus includes all the people that the rich and powerful want to exclude.

‘Christianity is not a notion but a way’. These words from ‘Advices and Queries’ No.2 remind us that Christianity is not intellectually assenting to certain statements about Jesus. Christianity is about a way of life. When the writer of John’s gospel says that Jesus is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14:6), he is not saying ‘and unless you believe x y and z you’ll burn forever’. He is saying that in Jesus we see what a truly human life looks like. A life obedient to the God who is Love, a life lived free of deception, even to the point of persecution and death, is a life fully lived. The Christian tradition says that we are empowered to live this Way now by the Spirit of Christ, and this Spirit is not confined by the boundaries of the church. Where ever people live in obedience to the promptings of Love and Truth, the Spirit of Christ is at work. The early Quaker Robert Barclay described these people as the ‘church invisible’. You can be a Christian without believing non-Christians are excluded from the Way that Jesus embodies.

Yes, because in order for there to be justice for the marginalised, certain behaviours and attitudes must be excluded.

The gospel is divisive. Creating an inclusive community isn’t easy. Jesus said ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt 10:34). In the book of Revelation, Jesus is represented as having a sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth (Rev 1:16). The message that Jesus brings, the life he lived, is one of peace and justice, but this is an incredibly divisive message. It threatens the power and privilege of those at the top of the pile. In order for every valley to be lifted up, every mountain and hill must be made low (Isa 40:4). In order for the lowly to be lifted up, the powerful must be brought down from their thrones (Lk 1:52). Jesus was executed by the Imperial powers for the trouble his ministry caused. The early Quakers suffered imprisonment and death for their message of spiritual equality. The message of radical inclusion, whether spoken in words or actions, is incredibly divisive. The powerful must learn to let go of their power, and many won’t let go without a fight.

There is no justice without judgment. The way of inclusivity is the way of humility, and to be truly humble we need to see ourselves as God sees us, as both a deeply loved part of God’s good creation, and as people infected by and colluding with a fractured and sinful world. To see rightly means to submit ourselves to God’s judgement, to the sword of Jesus’ mouth. In order for there to be justice for all, all must face the wrongs they’ve been party to and attempt to make things right. The ‘Day of Judgement’ is often thought of as something that happens after death, but there is a tradition within Christianity (which Quakers share) of the ‘Day of Judgement’ being an inward experience available to us now. When we are faced with the fire of God’s Love, illuminating our darkness and burning away our impurities, it is a painful experience: ‘But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refinerโ€™s fire…’ (Mal 3:2). This is not about separating sheep from goats, arbitrarily consigning some to eternal conscious torment in Hell. This is about a process we all need to go through in order to shed our delusions and enter the Kingdom of God.

True inclusion requires repentance.ย When we are shown our darkness, we have the opportunity to be brought to new life. We have the chance to turn around, to change direction, to repent. Change, even change for the better, always involves loss, the letting go of something. A truly inclusive community, paradoxically, cannot include everyone just as they are. Everyone needs to be open to change. Separation and division comes from rigidity, and unwillingness to leave things behind. A community cannot be truly inclusive of LGBT+ people, if those who dismiss and denigrate LGBT+ people are not required to let go of their prejudice. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man still expects Lazarus to serve him after death. The rich man cannot let go of his own power, and so is excluded from community with Lazarus. His refusal to change is the great chasm between them.[1]

Lazarus and the rich man, taken by Nick Thompson.

In C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’, where he imagines the inhabitants of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven, he writes that ‘You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind… A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.’[2] In this story, the travellers on the bus are free to stay in Heaven, but there are things they must first let go of, particularly their pride and their need to control others. The book of Revelation closes with a vision of the renewed community, the ‘New Jerusalem’, stating that: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood’ (Rev 22:14-15). This is a community from which some are excluded, but it is because they will not let go of evil. They self-exclude. The gates of the city are never shut (Rev. 21:25), so they are free to enter at anytime, but first they must lay down that which endangers the safety and wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants.

A Christian approach to inclusion is one that does not separate mercy and judgement. A truly inclusive community is both compassionate and just. The Way of Jesus is one of radical inclusion – it is open to everyone – but no-one can follow that Way and remain the same, especially the people with the most to lose.

[1] I first came across this interpretation in William R. Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), viii.

18 thoughts on “Does Jesus exclude?”

  1. I have spent many years wondering about how God balances justice and mercy. I still have no idea, but am glad it is not my job. I come down more often on mercy while some friends stress justice.

    1. I wonder if God “balances” things, Elizabeth. If God is unconditional and unlimited Love then balancing mercy and justice is a misnomer since God “is” mercy and justice. And since the Kingdom of God or The Way “is’ God, and that God/the Light is within us all then it is we who, with the help of compassionate for ourselves and others, can spread The Way’s justice, mercy, and peace. So it may not be a question of ‘balancing”. The more we are in The Way the more perfect we will be, and so will carry mercy, love, justice, peace and compassion through to others. So I think it is really not a question of balancing at all but of being alert (Mk. 13) to the Kingdom-Way within. That is the key. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth.

  2. I can’t accept that the Gospels are divisive or require us to be constantly judging ourselves and others. See in particular Matt 7:1-2. Also, it’s too strong to say true inclusion requires repentance. Doesn’t it just require toleration? You have a neo-Marxist conception of society in which there are always winners and losers, I prefer the Quaker liberal tradition which teaches that there is moral growth through our learning to rub along with each other.

    1. Although the gospel is one of unity – in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free etc. – the New Testament records the gospel as being divisive in terms of its reception, from Stephen’s stoning to the rioting Ephesian silversmiths.
      I don’t believe that the gospel requires us to be constantly judging ourselves and others. The experience of judgement I described is of being judged by God/Christ.
      I think repentance is an important part of entering the Kingdom (Mark 1:15 for example). The restoration of right relationship – which I think is a significant aspect the Kingdom of God – requires the asking and giving of forgiveness.
      From my own experience, repentance is a much more powerful than toleration (I don’t want homophobes to tolerate me, I want them to repent of their homophobia).
      I don’t know what neo-Marxism is, but surely the fact that we live in an increasingly unequal society is undeniable – with the wealthiest getting wealthier and more people using food banks. And like you, I also believe that we grow morally through learning to rub along with each other. I don’t see how that is incompatible with acknowledging inequality in society.

      1. ‘I don’t want homophobes to tolerate me, I want them to repent of their homophobia’. Yes, repentance and forgiveness is at the heart of right community with God and with one another. Sometimes it is through toleration and rubbing alongside others that people are eventually changed and repent, but there must be change. In all of us. Thank you for this blog, Mark. It’s important. I wanted you to write something similar for IC in fact but now I will just have to share it instead!

  3. I wonder if God forgives? I don’t think so because if God is indeed Love, and if Love is unconditional and unlimited then God can only love and nothing else. It is we who need to take responsibility for our actions and thoughts. By doing so we can call on Love to support us. This Love will always be supportive because we are a part of Love and Love can only love. Therefore, it is we who forgive ourselves with Love’s “help” and the best way of enacting repentance (a turning round) is to accept one has done wrong and make reparation with the person one has offended. I discuss more of this in my book, “What Love Can Do?” I hope this helps. Thank you for your post, Mark.

    1. Thanks for reading and engaging with the post Gerard. I don’t think I agree with you. Couldn’t you say that forgiveness is love in action? Jesus instructs his followers to ask God for forgiveness, and himself asks God to forgive others. I’d also say that it’s not only our broken relationships with each other that need repair, but our relationship with God. Maybe saying that God has already forgiven us and it is we who need to recognise and accept that forgiveness might be a way of us moving towards agreement? Not that there’s anything wrong with us holding different opinions! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Forgiveness is certainly love in action. And when we distance from Love (the word “sin”, I think, is moribund) this does not mean that God has distanced from us. Love can only love. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, surely, it is up to us to recognise our wrong-doing and repair our relationship with those we have damaged or whatever. In doing so we enrich our relationship with God. So, we cannot have a broken relationship with God—that’s impossible because of the nature of unconditional Love–only one, from point of view, that needs wholeness and unity (what salvation actually means). This is one way, actually, of saying what you did in your sixth sentence. I enjoyed your article. Thanks, Mark.

  5. Thank you for this! Really interesting and thought provoking… here are a few thoughts you provoked!
    1) Jesus saying, ‘I am the Way’: Instead of Jesus issuing a new rule book in his name, it is God God’s-self, ‘God with us’, who is the way – it’s about relationship. This is very challenging.
    2) You write about change and letting go. This reminds me of a delightful illustration in a children’s book by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen where the camel approaches the small ‘needle’ gate with lovely big packages on his back. To get through the small ‘needle’ gate, all the bulky packages have to be removed from the camel. It is able to go through the gate, but not with all its baggage.
    3) Re: ‘including means excluding’ – the church I work with has had to become clearer about what are effectively our ‘terms and conditions’ of inclusion, because otherwise our ‘all are welcome’ could just create opportunity for exclusive zealots to run amok. So ‘HOW’ you are welcome and included is important for churches who want to create a safe inclusive space. Queries are now clearly to be directed to our ministry team. Hopefully this will make our ‘all are welcome’ clearer and safer.
    thanks for a thought-provoking article ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Ruth. The balancing inclusion/exclusion thing makes me think of the New Jerusalem where the gates are never shut, but it still has walls. A truly welcoming community needs boundaries, it needs to protect as well as embrace.

      1. how beautifully put… I suspect I will find myself quoting you in that wording… thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Iโ€™m afraid I find this conversation to be somewhat exclusive. I am a Quaker but not a christian, and while the story of Jesus has many admirable examples of love and inclusivity, I believe that our actions are more important than our beliefs. By acting on Quaker testimonies, rather than just talking about them, we prove our commitment to the values we espouse. What does it matter whether I believe in God or Jesus ? What matters is whether I live according to ideals, some, but not all of which are held to be christian. Many world religions and organisations have ideals like love, peace and equal regard for all. We share such values as quakers, we do not own them.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tom, and for reading my blog. I completely agree that we should live our testimony, and that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on values like peace and justice. I want to work with others who share those values to build a better world, whatever their faith. I don’t believe you have to be a Christian to be a Quaker, and I’m sorry if that’s what you took from this post.

      I wrote this in response to the very objection you raise. Is a Christian perspective inherently more exclusive than a Universalist or nontheist perspective? In this post I set out how I think Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive. A truly inclusive Society of Friends is one where we can all share our most deeply held truths. For me, the Jesus story is the key to my understanding of the world. I know lots of other people think differently, and I want to hear what those people think. I don’t believe being a Christian compromises my work on diversity and inclusion, or that talking about my Christian faith is automatically exclusive.

  7. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject Mark, it is one that bothers me when in the company of some Christians. Coming from a Christian background, I rejoice in Jesus’ challenge to those who would exclude (from his Jewish culture and faith). When he insisted ‘Love thy neighbour’ Jesus pointed out that this always means even those who are unlike us. This is often hard for us, a lesson in letting go of some of our assumptions and prejudices. This is what I understand to ‘being born again’, and is something I accept I will need to do over and over again.

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