A central theme in our faith narrative affirms that God’s love is wider than any particular group. This message has strong roots in the writings of the Old Testament prophets and was fundamental to Jesus’s words and actions. Jesus’s preaching reached out across countless borders and barriers, affirming that God’s loving care and concern embraced a great diversity of people who had previously been considered to be “on the margins” or even firmly excluded from God’s favor. As followers of Jesus, we are invited, we are challenged and instructed to share the news that God yearns for all people to know that they are welcome in the embrace of God’s love, and to do that without fear; God accompanies us in that undertaking.
It is no secret that this faith-based vision of inclusiveness faces serious challenges in our country today. In many ways, our world is being defined in terms of a series of separations between “us” and “them.” This process of “otherizing” has many overlapping dimensions, involving skin color, religion, national origin, and what might imprecisely be called “culture” or “ethnicity.” In each of these dimensions, there is a rumbling across our country asserting that “we” are threatened, are under siege, by “them.” We are told that “we” must be afraid, and must do whatever it takes to keep ourselves safe from “them.”
The disconnect between these two visions is stark. How is it that our faith calls us to live, in the face of this divide?
I recently read a report about a conference that took place last month in Montreat, North Carolina. The theme of that conference, drawing in college students from across the country, concerned the ways in which “God gave an ancient people a holy nudge towards diversity,” asking that they “consider how God is similarly nudging God’s people today.” One of the main speakers at the conference, Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, explored those ideas in some powerful preaching. Tracing a biblical theme that runs from the tower of Babel through to the Pentecost experience, he argued that scripture affirms that God calls on the church to “embrace a radically diverse population.” Speaking to the more than 1,000 college students gathered there, he told them: “If we’re going to be the radically diverse population we strive toward, you’re going to have to be alert, break out of the bubble, and yes, in the best possible way, you’re going to have to find a way to disrupt the status quo.”
In his concluding comments, Rev. Roberts charged his hearers with two assignments. He said that, if they are serious about building a space where radical diversity can take place, they must find a way to engage with someone who has a different perspective. They must also be alert to what is happening in the world. Along side these two good ideas, I would add a third, reflecting my own experiences. There are many dimensions of this process of “otherizing,” many different sets of peoples described as “them,” with the warning that each needs to be feared and kept at bay. Seeking to keeping each of these on my radar screen quickly becomes overwhelming. I have found it important for me to choose one that is closest to my concerns, digging deeper into the theological, practical and legal dimensions of it, then finding ways to engage in public discourse and action, seeking to move the world in good directions. In my case, that has led me to a focus on the “otherizing” of Muslims. While rejecting and condemning terrorism in all of its dimensions, I must also condemn Islamophobia, standing with Muslims to challenge personal acts and words that denigrate them as individuals as well as legal acts that deny them their rights as citizens and residents in our country. I choose to focus on this area of concern not because I believe it is more important or more threatening than others but because it has not received the attention it requires as the latest addition to the long list of enemies to be brought under control.
How will you seek to find a balance between Jesus’s call for an inclusive view of God’s love for all, on the one hand, and the voices in this world that call for us to beware of those who are not “us,” on the other? No easy answers, to be sure, but important choices facing each of us. May God give us wisdom.
A fuller report on Rev. Roberts’ presentations can be found at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/February-25/