The early church faced quite a dilemma. The apostles believed that Jesus had come to renew Judaism. They therefore required any non-Jewish followers to convert to Judaism and abide by all the Jewish precepts, dietary laws, and traditions. They didn’t count on God and the Spirit inspiring Paul to reach out to the Gentiles, those shunned “others” who had been harshly judged and excluded for centuries, yet who clearly accepted and were formed by the message of Jesus. Once it became clear what was happening with the Gentiles, the leadership of the Jewish disciples had to make the tough choice of whether this faith was one of inclusion or exclusion. They had to decide who “belonged,” and especially what standards or requirements must be maintained by followers in order to be true to Jesus.
After much discussion and many meetings, the leadership (headed by Peter and James) decided for inclusion. Gentiles did not need to become Jews. They did not need to be circumcised. They were not required to follow all the dietary restrictions of Judaism. They were accepted just as they were, and could be baptized and fully incorporated into the community of believers. Other than professing to follow Jesus and live his teachings in community, the single required standard for all believers was care for the poor.
With this decision, the doors were opened. All were welcome, without exception. No one was excluded, dismissed, or prevented from full membership in the community, no matter their heritage, nationality, or upbringing.
That kind of inclusive welcome is certainly rare in our world today. So many faith traditions are defined not so much by who is welcome but by who is “out”, with boundaries largely based on human-made laws, standards, requirements, and restrictions. We have not yet achieved the vision Jesus dreamed of – that all may be one. In fact, sometimes it seems that we are farther from it than ever.
Unfortunately, this situation is mirrored in the rest of society as well. Political parties marginalize or exclude anyone who doesn’t toe the line on every aspect of official party policy, and members refuse to collaborate or even have conversations with someone who holds another party affiliation. In our public and private discussions, they too often immediately devolve into who is “right” and who is “wrong”, with no common ground or grey area allowed. Some people are committed to separating the races, preferring areas and even countries dedicated to protecting and welcoming only one race.
I could go on with examples. It seems that societal life in our world is increasingly dependent on excluding those deemed “other”, while building a supposedly comfortable and safe cocoon filled solely with those who are alike in every way possible.
Is this what Jesus preached? Is this how Jesus lived? How can anyone profess to be Christian if they are committed to exclusion, denigration, labeling, closed-mindedness, and oppression? This applies especially when those getting cast aside are the poor, the refugee, or those living on the margins of society – the very ones that Jesus reached out to in love. Jesus prayed that God’s will be done on this earth just as it is in heaven. We pray that too, at every Mass and whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But if we only give it lip service, ignoring and excluding our brothers and sisters of other countries, races, faiths, and cultures, then we are like white-washed tombs.
I don’t know the answers on a national or global scale. I do know that change often bubbles up from the bottom. So what can each of us do to be faithful followers of Jesus? How can we fund, work for, and be part of organizations fighting for rights and social justice for all people? How can we reach out to those we encounter every day in a welcoming, inclusive, love-filled way? Can we vote for candidates who truly uphold Gospel principles in their lives and their policies, and who are willing to work with others for the common good?
The leaders of the early Church led the way to inclusion. Can we follow that example, in the name of Jesus? Perhaps if we can join together to call out what is happening and stop the condemnation, judgement, and exclusion, then God’s kingdom can actually come. Perhaps we can get closer to Jesus’ vision and the reign of God on earth.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.