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Inclusion: breaking barriers, building shalom

11/27/2022 By: Steve Thomas

Inclusion: breaking barriers, building shalom

This piece comes from the upcoming book, Living that Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith. 

In the classic story Animal Farm, barnyard animals revolt and set out to establish a better social order than what they had under the farmer. After the revolution, they create commandments to reorder their life: No human is above them. No one calls another "Master." All animals are equal and included in their life together. But in the course of time, pigs take charge and arrange things to their benefit. With their power, pigs reduce the commandments from seven to one: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Certain animals regarded as "lower animals" are not allowed to partake of the prosperity of Animal Farm. In their second- class position outside the house, those animals watch pigs inside enjoying what they are denied.

George Orwell told this "fairy story" based on his observations of human behavior in social orders. He drives home the point that no matter what a group or constitution may say, "some are more equal than others." Societies may claim otherwise even while treating some as less equal and deserving while giving power, privilege, and goods to others.

Wherever the animal farm or human group may be, some people tend to be treated as second-class citizens, denied certain benefits and excluded from opportunities others have. This social exclusion is based on skin color, religious beliefs, income, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, intellectual ability, political opinions, and appearance. It ranges from exclusion on the playground to being marginalized in other areas of life where certain individuals are not allowed to fully participate in the economic, social, and political life of their society.

This also happened in the time of Jesus. The Gospels describe Jesus modeling the way of loving inclusion for all people as God's beloved children in his responses to the following types of social exclusion:

  • Class-based exclusion—when Jesus called working-class fisherman as his disciples and future church leaders
  • Gender-based exclusion—when Jesus developed close relationships with women and drew them into his circle of disciples
  • Ethnic-based exclusion—when Jesus extended healing to the Syrophoenician's daughter and the centurion's servant
  • "Purity"-based exclusion—when Jesus made physical contact with individuals considered unclean
  • Conduct-based exclusion—when Jesus let prostitutes in and became known as a "friend of sinners"
  • Age-based exclusion—when Jesus called to himself children who were kept aside
  • Party-based exclusion—when Jesus invited both Matthew as a tax collector (supporting Rome) and Peter as a Zealot (resisting Rome) into his circle

Jesus's interactions with two socially excluded outsiders—a Samaritan woman and a Syrophoenician woman—are especially interesting. When Jesus relates to the Samaritan woman at the well, he crosses boundaries between men and women, Jews and Samaritans, religious and sinners. The woman is surprised by his inclusive actions (Jn 4:1–30). By contrast, Jesus appears to mistreat the Syrophoenician woman based on her ethnic identity. To his surprise, she confronts his exclusive healing.

He then extends God's healing to her daughter as requested (Mk 7:24–30). This Syrophoenician woman had something to teach Jesus!

Having observed Jesus's response to outsiders, Paul proclaimed that Jesus had broken down dividing walls to create in himself one new humanity in place of two (Eph 2:14–15). Based on both our common identity as God's children and what God had accomplished in Christ, Paul wrote that there are no longer distinctions like Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28). Extending the way of his brother Jesus, James confronted class-based distinctions practiced even in Christian community (Jas 2:1–6).

Unlike the banquet at the end of Animal Farm, where only pigs feed at the table while other animals watch outside, the great banquet Jesus describes includes the poor, blind, lame, and people off the street (Lk 14:15–24). No one is more equal than others. Everyone belongs and fully participates in the community. All are inside together and enjoy God's abundant life. This is God's shalom.

Living that Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith serves as a men's guide for conversation and reflection and includes 70 topics, like inclusion, for use by individuals or groups. Look for the book's release from Herald Press in January, 2023.


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