The ultimate abuse? Exclusivity

Be Different
Be Different
Today I am looking at an area of abuse which many Christians have so internalized that they no longer see it as a problem. This particular abuse is found in the capacity of some Christians to be supremely confident in what they believe and in what they interpret as being God’s will. From this position they are ready and able to denigrate and attack other Christians who do not agree with them. The logic runs along these lines. My interpretation of Scripture and what I believe is the only correct and valid way of being a true Christian. Therefore if you do not agree with me, you must be resisted and opposed on every occasion. Your beliefs are dangerous since they pose a threat to vulnerable people who might be led astray by what you are saying. Taken to its extreme, exclusivity in belief gives some Christian the right to threaten and even destroy others because they, the opposition, believe and teach things that have the potential to send people to hell.

In our Western societies, exclusive beliefs do not, happily, result in Christians killing each other. Civil society, the laws and the courts insist that no belief system is permitted to allow religious people to fight or kill each other because of their claim alone to have the ultimate truth. But we do see this kind of behaviour in other parts of the world which operate with other religious systems. Sunni and Shias battle it out, with each claiming with great fervency that they possess the correct interpretation of their Prophet’s teaching. Holding the truth of their faith is for many indeed a matter of life and death. Having ‘the’ truth while excluding those of other persuasions will from time to time justify the killing of others who are not in their ‘tribe’.

In the next few days Anglican leaders are gathering to discuss the question of truth and unity in the Communion. In that debate we will no doubt hear more of the hard edged arguments from the conservative faction based mainly in Africa, South America and parts of Australia. The conservative Archbishops claim that they know and uphold the will of God in the issue over whether gays can marry. Because they are certain that, according to God’s revealed will, this is impossible, they feel they have to uphold this teaching because it affects the fate of millions of souls after death. It is for them a heaven/hell issue. If it were not, then perhaps they could seek a formula to enable them to live together with those who think differently. But the nature of their understanding of Scripture means that compromise is not permitted. The hard edge of excluding those who do not agree with them is for them the proper orthodox face of Christianity.

The liberal thinkers among us, who long for some kind of theological compromise to be possible in the Anglican Communion, are aware of many historical factors that have created this impasse. This is not the time however to rehearse how we have arrived at this place where an irresistible force is confronting an immovable object. What we can do in this post is to reflect how Jesus dealt with divisions and disputes that were going on around him. In his day there were many debates about how much of the observance of the law was mandatory to be a Jew in good standing. Jesus himself was criticised for allowing his disciples to break the strict interpretation of the Sabbath regulations in extracting grains from the ripening wheat as they crossed a field. There were well over 600 commands extracted from the Jewish Law Books and these were believed to be compulsory for a law-abiding Jew. As we know, it was only possible for wealthy unemployed Pharisees to even attempt this daunting task of obeying every law. Jesus in his discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees seems to have taken a fairly relaxed attitude over the matter of keeping the Law in every detail. We have no reason to doubt the tradition that has Jesus quoting the Deuteronomy summary that the Law is summed up in two commands, the love of God and of neighbour. It also makes historical sense of the events leading up to the crucifixion to suggest that it was important for the Jewish establishment to crush a teacher who tolerated a radical reinterpretation of the Law. This interpretation had resulted in Jesus feeling able to eat and drink with those the Law excluded, the tax gatherers and sinners.

One interpretation of the crucifixion is to say that Jesus is the friend of those who defy the human tendency to exclude and create divisions in the name of ‘truth’. Jesus was killed because he sought peace (shalom), forgiveness and reconciliation between humankind and God and the breaking down of every kind of human barrier. Reconciliation and peace are lived experiences and they do not readily translate well into words. This repeats a theme that I often spell out in these posts, that the search for truth goes far beyond correct words and formulae. God is never to be reduced to a series of propositions or statements.

What do we ask of those Christians who exclude and even hate others for not agreeing with their hard and exclusive understandings of Scripture? What we ask of them is not to change their minds, but simply to allow those who disagree with them the right and the space to exist. We ask from them the capacity to imagine that God is not confined to a single version of truth but allows people in different times and places to encounter him in a variety of ways. Thanks to the (liberal) laws of the West, Christians are allowed to live in peace with other Christians. The unacceptable face of hate and exclusion nevertheless still lurks just below the surface. The logic of John Calvin, whose theocracy in Geneva allowed Michael Servetus to be burnt at the stake so as to preserve Christian truth, is still to be found in some of our churches today. People are no longer killed, but some of the venom that used to inspire such killing is still to be found, regrettably, in the tone of the discussions like those among the Anglican bishops gathering in Britain this month. What divides us is the readiness of some Christians always to exclude those who do not agree with their version of truth and understanding of faith. Excluding others has become a mark of their version of orthodoxy. That surely is not the way of Jesus.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

9 thoughts on “The ultimate abuse? Exclusivity

  1. It happens both ways, Stephen.

    I have found Liberal Christians persecuting Conservative Christians and Homosexuals persecuting Christians. In these scenarios, I think the thing to do in a free society is to live and let live, each entitled to their own view and neither should have to suffer persecution or forced to change their minds.

    I am entitled to uphold what I believe and so do you – this is easier said than done as conflict is very likely to arise in the process.

  2. It is a problem – totally agree. Intolerance goes deep. Sometimes I even find it among liberals;

    “the only thing I can’t tolerate is intolerance”

    I think in all of us (liberal or conservative) intolerance can often mark a sort of a philosophical “comfort blanket”. We can find self-worth – or self-belief in defending our view as right. Why else would we get so het up about it?

  3. I am confused as to the mechanics (If it can be rendered that way) of what we call ‘Grace’? So attitudes to homosexuals will always be held in tension as far as I am concerned. The ‘law’ of God is blurred and I have to say confused. Accepting the Old Testament as equal to the New and reading them both as, “The Word of God,” is fraught with difficulty, Jesus did not seem to hold the view of a fundamentalist when he said, “You have heard it said” so I do not see how we can resolve this issue. The question of spiritual pride and its relation to certainties that project absolutism on to its adherence is another vexed issue. Will the Love of God eventually resolve this? Not all of the above relates to Stephens blog but, I think it needs to be considered.

    Sometimes I feel that anthropology has more to offer here?

    Peace to all Chris

    1. Approximately I think it goes like this. You may believe that anyone who finds they are gay must be celibate. So you would “hate” the sin of having sex when they shouldn’t. Just as you might hate the sin of sexual incontinence in a heterosexual. But you (I mean, one, anyone) should not hate the person. They are a fallible human being like me and you. We sin too. And then of course you must leave room for grace. Just remembering we might be wrong. We might change our minds. So might other people.

  4. EA, there is a difference between ‘hating’ and ‘disagreeing with’, whether it be an activity or someone. Let me make it quite clear: I don’t hate homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers, etc or for that matter, what they choose to engage in. I am merely for upholding what I believe is a biblical position and those who do not agree are absolutely free to disagree with me, but please do not persecute me! There are a lot of thought police about!

    I am also a fallible human being. Aren’t we all immortals?

    1. I totally agree with you. Some people feel very strongly about it though. I was trying to suggest an explanation for Chris, possibly not very well.

  5. Dear Anonymous,
    (The Anonymous who replied to EnglishAthena, more than one Anon its confusing)
    Please believe that I am genuinely interested in what you describe as the ‘biblical position’? I hope you can understand that after my years of experience in movements like ‘Shepherding,’ I am genuinely interested as to how people hold to the view of ‘Verbal Inspiration,’ if that is your view?
    I think this blog can accommodate us discussing this?
    It also has a link to Stephen’s questioning the African Bishops, and how they perceive things, for example, what (Exactly) would Jesus say to us about the homosexual issue?
    Personally, I think that homosexual activity is something hard to accept, I cannot see how a Christian minister can put a blessing on such a thing?
    But I hold that in the tension of the fact that Hitler killed thousands of homosexuals, and they walked into the execution chamber hand in hand?
    Can we talk more on this?
    Peace Chris

  6. I’ve changed my views over the years, simply because I’ve thought more about it, and I hadn’t really thought about it at all before. I don’t know if this helps, Chris. I had gay friends as far back as university, and I certainly wouldn’t hold with prejudice against them, and I personally never saw any. But then, most would have been in the closet from fear, which is not a happy situation for them. At the time, no one was supposed to have sex outside of marriage. The rules in university halls of residence were very strict. And if a girl got pregnant it was a huge scandal. It seemed clear to me that gays were supposed to be celibate, but so was just about everyone else anyway! I also thought it was just a few people. Now how that makes a difference I’m not sure! But I didn’t think about it much partly because of that. And I do think it’s quite healthy not to think too much about other people’s sex lives. What made me think was the Jeffrey John affair. The guy was and remains celibate. So there should have been no problem and no issue at all with his sexuality. The church behaved shockingly badly, as did the newspapers. He and his mother, of all people, were hounded. There’s no way that is right. I didn’t want to be on the same side as the people who could do that.
    Now, coming at it from a different angle, how do we treat people who live together, and even have babies together, but are not married? Nothing like as badly as some people treat gays. I’m not saying we should! But we are not consistent. And anyway, what we think people should or should not do is one thing, and what we do about it if they do, is another. So we may disapprove of two blokes getting married, but we can’t treat them badly, or throw them out of the church. Some people would do that to an unmarried hetero couple, too! But we shouldn’t.
    Now, another different angle. Homosexuality in Biblical times was often with children. And it was often “just for fun”, not a steady relationship. Really, that is totally different. Small wonder Paul preached against that.
    So, I’m not quite sure I would be ready for the gay couple in the parsonage. But actually, I know an awful lot of gays with partners in the church these days. Because they don’t have to hide so much. They talk about it too much is my problem, now. Some people have sent a letter to the Archbishops. Ok, fine. When is there going to be a letter about the church’s institutionalised prejudice against women? All male choirs because of an unreasonable prejudice against the sound of women’s and girl’s voices? The way the church is still ordaining men who don’t believe in the ordination of women?
    Off the hobby horse, woman.
    I find I don’t really care very much about the sex, but I think that love is very much what God is all about. And intimacy, very much so. Does that help at all? Can you live and let live a bit, and see how it pans out? I’m sure you’re always pleasant to the gays you know, so I don’t have to say no prejudice. If we just don’t do the nasty things, and keep reasonably calm about the stuff we’re not sure about, and keep praying, it will become clearer with time. I haven’t finished thinking about this yet.

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