Monday, July 25, 2011

In or Out?

Several years ago the Episcopal Church, in their triennial convention, voted to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops, and to permit bishops in states where same-sex unions are legal to bless those unions.  More recently the Lutherans (ELCA) and Presbyterians (PCUSA) have followed their example, in each case extending the ordained ministry to include non-celibate lesbian and gay clergy.  Predictably, these actions have evoked flurries of news articles and opinion columns, both supporting and opposing the moves toward full inclusion of homosexually oriented persons into the life of the church.
The “homosexual issue” is a fairly recent source of contention and anguish within religious bodies.  But it is simply the latest manifestation of a far deeper question that has been with us for millennia.  In its most concise statement, that question is, “Who is in and who is out?”  Records of humanity’s attempts to make this determination are as old as the oldest portions of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  In the books of Deuteronomy and Judges we read that the Israelites, as they occupied the land of Canaan, understood God to require them to purge the land of its current inhabitants.  “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.” (Deut. 7:1-2a)  “When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword.  The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand – all the people of Ai.”  (Judges 8:24-25)  Similar stories of ethnic cleansing are repeated in subsequent chapters.  They represent a very black and white world-view.  Anyone who is not an Israelite is “out” and subject to extermination.
Tragically, the concept that God requires slaughter of the “out group” still prevails today in too many conflicts.  There are counterbalancing scriptures, however.  The beautiful story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the grandmother of King David, argues against the decree in Deuteronomy 23:3 that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  It is clear as one reads the narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures that tensions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of various ethnic groups continued for centuries.
The early Christian church struggled with issues of inclusion.  Questions of who was allowed “in” as a Christian frequently stemmed from how much of Jewish law applied to non-Jewish converts.  In Acts 10 we read how Peter saw a vision in which a voice from heaven invited him to kill and eat creatures whose consumption was prohibited by dietary laws.  Peter protested, “‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’” This was a difficult concept for Peter to grasp.  He knew the scriptures and what God required.  Was this a new revelation, or a temptation from an evil spirit?
When three men arrived asking him to travel to Caesarea to speak with a Roman centurion, Peter acted upon the new insight contained in the vision.  Speaking with the crowd gathered to meet him, he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”  A thousand years of religious teaching and practice were set aside in order to welcome into the Christian community Gentiles who had been in the “out group.”
Paul summarized the ideal of radical inclusivity in his letter to the Galatians.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:27-28)  Unfortunately, the church has not always lived up to this ideal.  Repeatedly divisions occur based on rank and status, on race and gender, and on a myriad of other distinctions whereby one group within the baptized seeks to exercise power and privilege over others.
Most of the historic African American denominations in the US were founded because Blacks were refused positions of authority in predominantly White churches.  Today it is still something of a rarity to find a Black pastor serving a primarily White congregation, or vice versa.  And large sectors of Christendom still refuse ordination to women.  It is very difficult to persuade the “in group” to share any of its power and privilege.  As George Orwell wryly observed in his allegory “Animal Farm,” “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
Thus it is not surprising that the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches’ recent moves toward full inclusion of homosexual persons in all aspects of church life have evoked vehement opposition.  Like Peter, denominational leaders have had a vision that contradicts traditional church teaching, and like Peter, they have answered a call in a way which to many others appears unlawful.  Opening to the leading of God’s Spirit is frequently a risky and contentious business.  May all who do so find comfort and blessing as they live into the ideal which Paul articulated so many centuries ago.

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