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 refiner’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. 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.
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.’ 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.
 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).
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), viii.