4. Changing our View of God: God and Inclusion
I must apologize for the way these blogs are beginning to grow. I will try to be more concise in future. There is a pattern to what I am arguing in each of these blogs so if you have read the previous blogs, you will probably be able fill in the detail yourself! I have argued that we have been redefining our view of God and that this is to be seen in several key areas. Today we come to ‘God and Inclusion’. I want to follow the same pattern of argument as in previous blogs: examining where we were, why we changed, where we have ended up, and what there is about where we are that suggests we may be in the wrong place.
God and Inclusion
When I became a Christian some were in and some were out. There were people who were not readily welcomed into the church. My own church background in England meant the exclusion of certain groups of people. Certainly homosexuals (we hadn’t got round to seeing this as a happy condition then and so we did not use the word gay). But whole other groups were absent as well. You didn’t get too many working class people. The church was predominantly white. And your family life had to be of a particular kind. There were not that many single mothers, divorcees, or people who were living together.
As a young curate conducting weddings, it was still common for some people to lie to me about their addresses when coming for to make a booking. They pretended they lived at separate addresses when they knew that you knew that really they shared a house or flat. The assumption was that the Church would disapprove, and more often than not, it still did.
It wasn’t that we disapproved of blacks and working class people as such, we simply just did not have the experience, language, or inclination to reach out to those different to ourselves. Gays, divorcees, and single mothers were more of a problem. We usually coped by saying that you must love the sinner, but hate the sin, but in reality it was rather hard to distinguish the two. How do love someone whose lifestyle is part of whom they are?
Not only was the church exclusive by intention or otherwise, we were judgemental. We had opinions about people and how they behaved. We thought we should have. God had, after all, given the ten commandments and, presumably, he gave them because he expected them to be kept. We could get away with this attitude while society shared our fundamental values which for many years, in the UK at least, it did. But then things began to change.
It is normal to date this change to the sixties. But for most people the sixties were no big deal. You had to have money if you wanted free love. However, it is true to say that seeds were sown that came to harvest, I would say, in the late seventies and eighties. I certainly noticed attitudes changing as I worked in a College for most of the eighties and early nineties.
Homosexuals became gay, living together became both common and acceptable, divorce became a valid choice, supported by legislation, for those in unhappy marriages, tackling poverty became a subject of political concern, and multi-culturalism became both a fact of life and government policy. Society changed radically.
What were we to do? Some were quite clear. We must stand by traditional Christian teaching and uphold moral standards. Others of us were not so sure. We were horrified to discover the damage that some of our Christian teaching had inflicted on people. We felt the pain that many had suffered because they were single mothers or gay or divorced. We were ashamed that they felt the Church had turned its back on them. Was it any wonder that they now turned their backs on us?
And then there was an increased awareness of the poverty that many were living with especially in the inner cities and the prejudice many of other races experienced inside the Church as well as out. We were challenged to reach out in love, and we all know that love is all you need.
But how were we to do this without betraying our Christian standards. With the poor and the blacks it was relatively easy. We just needed to change our attitudes. We discovered that in the Bible, God was often on the side of the poor and oppressed. Jesus himself said he had come to bring good news for the poor so that was alright then. And in the Bible, we were encouraged not to make distinctions on the grounds of race and colour. It took a little time to unlearn old habits, but we tried hard and we meant well.
It was a little harder when it came to gays, sex outside marriage, and divorce. For not only did Christian tradition teach one particular view of morality, the Bible seemed to be rather clear as well. Then we made another amazing discovery. Jesus had welcomed and accepted everyone. He was a friend of sinners, of tax-collectors and thieves, and defended his friendship when criticised by the upholders of traditional morality - the Pharisees. What is more, he specifically told his followers not to judge others.
Not only that, Jesus taught that we must forgive people their sin. Indeed, failure to do so was even a greater sin. And he gave us example after example in his own ministry: from the way he dealt with the woman caught in adultery to the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Son.
The message was clear. We were to welcome people regardless of who they were and what they had done, without making judgements about them and always being willing to forgive them if that’s what they asked. God’s love was unconditional and so should ours be.
Once we started befriending sinners, we discovered that we rather liked them. They were not horrible people after all, but often very nice people, normal people, people just like us. We realized that we had been somewhat hypocritical because we had focused on certain behaviours which we had classed as sinful and had then excluded people because of them, but we had accepted other behaviours, even though they were equally sinful: anger, discrimination, gossip, hypocrisy, for example.
And then came the obvious question. What if those we now welcomed weren’t sinners after all? What if homosexuality, sex outside marriage, and divorce were ok? That would remove a whole lot of problems. So we started asking whether these were acceptable life choices. And that’s roughly where I think we are in the Church. We want to welcome all people equally without question. We want to show people the love of God who welcomes and loves all unconditionally. We know there are still issues, but it’s not for us to judge (unless, of course, someone is sexist or racist that would be going too far!)
And all this has the advantage of fitting very well with the popular culture in which we live. For, in popular culture, people should always be allowed to make their own lifestyle choices. One in which friends are ‘always there for you’. And where the ideal is to love someone ‘just as they are’. Our message is, of course, that this is just what God is like and what God does. He truly is a Benevolent God. He doesn’t condemn, he understands. He feels for us.
For some of us, it was wonderful to discover that God was like this. Our experience of both God and other Christians had left us wondering whether really God was very nice. We believed in him, but we did not always like him. We tried to obey him and serve him, but we were always more than a little afraid of letting him down and of what the consequences would be if we failed.
And we didn’t always want to be telling people off for behaviour that we didn’t think should exclude them from coming to church in the first place. Indeed, many of the so-called sinners seemed an awful lot nicer than the so-called saints. So, of course, we embraced the idea of the Benevolent God. We ourselves needed him as much as anyone.
A Benevolent God and an inclusive Church; people left to seek the truth for themselves, to discover for themselves what is right for them in the context of a loving, caring, supportive community. It’s an attractive proposition.
So why isn’t it attracting anyone?
Theoretically, people should be flocking to churches that believe and teach this. But they are not. If anything they are, if not exactly flocking, then at least visiting churches and groups that are far more exclusive.
And the behaviours we went from condemning to condoning seem to be at least part of the cause of social meltdown. Visit the centre of any city at night and you will find crime, drugs, prostitution, drunkenness, and young people addicted to a lifestyle, which will one day hasten their death. I mean visit them, don’t just look at the statistics, see for yourself. The norm in western society is now broken homes, teenage pregnancies, sexual disease at epidemic levels, and depression and suicide amongst people whose lives haven’t even begun. This is not to condemn. This is reality. And the Benevolent God can only sit by and watch.
And maybe the best thing for us to say to a teenager, full of drink and drugs, lying in a pool of their own vomit, after a night of clubbing is not God loves you just as you are.