As the afterglow of Pope Francis’ visit to the US continues to fade, some people seem to emerge from it more quickly than others. One who seems to have let go rather quickly of the gentler tone that the Pope seems to be trying to set is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, whose diocese encompasses the northern part of that state.
In a letter written to the clergy of his diocese, he makes clear that persons whose lives or sympathies don’t conform to the teaching of the Roman Church are to be excluded from Communion and the church’s sacramental life. His letter reads, in part, “The Church will continue to cherish and welcome her members and invite them to participate in her life to the degree that their personal situation permits them honestly to do so. Catholics must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion or the other sacraments. Non-Catholics and any Catholic who publicly rejects Church teaching or discipline, either by public statements or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the Sacraments.”
These instructions embody what I would call a theology of exclusion. Such theologies are rooted in the idea that it in order to truly be a part of the church and participate fully in its life, one’s life must fit into an outline or mold shaped by church teaching. Those whose lives don’t fit the mold are to be excluded. As a rule, those who would defend such theologies of exclusion argue that excluding people who don’t conform is a disciplinary act, that will ultimately force them to conform (and, it is made clear that ultimately, salvation depends on that conformity). And, of course, they have their scriptural warrant at hand: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17) and “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11), to name just a couple. Paul, in advancing his own theology of exclusion, believes that being denied full participation in the community can result in a change of behavior. And, in the absence of that change, will protect the community from being contaminated.
So powerful is this impulse to exclude those who don’t conform that someone dared to put it in the mouth of Jesus: “‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17). But if we look carefully, there is plenty of reason to doubt that Jesus ever said such a thing. In the first place, this passage uses the word ‘church’, which would not have been a word that Jesus would have used, because it refers to something that developed later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. More importantly, however, is what this passage says at its end: that if the person refuses to be corrected, then they are to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” The implication is that they are to be excluded. But the funny thing is, Jesus did not treat Gentiles and tax-collectors in that way. Indeed, the person whose name is on this Gospel (Matthew) was himself a tax-collector!
In fact, Jesus made people like Gentiles and tax-collectors the very center of his ministry. Jesus deliberately spent a great deal of his time among those people whom the culture and religion of the time had classified as “excluded”. He stood among them and he assured them that while they might have been excluded by their community, they were still included in the love, care, and forgiveness of God. So, from the point of view of the “big picture Jesus” that the gospels present to us, to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax-collector really means that we must work very hard to include them, despite the ways in which they might make us uncomfortable.
Indeed, when we see Jesus on the cross, we see him being made a victim of exclusion. His teaching and enactment of the kingdom of God was so threatening to the powerful of his time that they decided to exclude him permanently — and make him an example to others who would dare to challenge the established order of things. The resurrection teaches us that God will include those whom we exclude.
Ultimately, every Christian theology of exclusion can trace its roots back to the Garden of Eden story in the book of Genesis, where God is depicted as excluding Adam and Eve from paradise because they broke the rules. It is a sacred story — a metaphorical story — that imagines God responding to human non-conformity with exclusion and punishment. I don’t believe this story really tells us anything about God, but it does tell us a lot about the human perception of God: that God is like us, responding to those who don’t conform to the status quo by casting them out. In Jesus, God is seeking to overcome this human misperception by showing us the depth of God’s inclusive love.
When the churches and their leaders resort to a theology of exclusion to defend what they consider divine truth, they are deluding themselves. What they are really doing is refusing to see Christ in those who disagree with their official teaching. They are refusing to entertain the possibility that the Spirit is moving in ways they might not expect, and that God can and does speak through unofficial channels. And, they are acknowledging (without intending to) that their truth is so fragile that it might fall apart in the face of any contrary point of view. And truth that is that fragile needs to fall apart, so that something stronger can take its place.
Of course, exclusion never accomplishes its intended goal. People who are excluded don’t give up their point of view, they don’t change their minds. They just leave, giving up on a church that is no longer able to say to them, “God loves you.”