On The Other Side of the FenceExclusion. I’m becoming increasingly aware that it’s something most of us tend to do pretty much all the time.

Of course, we don’t call it exclusion, and so we don’t recognise it as such. But in reality, it’s very often lurking not far beneath the surface.

Think about it. Every time we label a person or group, we are effectively practising exclusion. In applying a label, we are basically saying, “You belong to that category, which means you don’t belong to my category”. When I label someone, I create distance and separation between myself and one who is other than me.

Now, I’m not talking about simply categorising people for the sake of order. As human beings, I believe we’re hardwired to seek and create order, and part of that involves creating and organising categories. But you and I both know that there’s a very fine line (so fine, in fact, that it’s almost invisible) between applying a label to someone for the sake of understanding and ordering the world and using that label, however subtly, to diminish and denigrate.

We do this so habitually that we’re not aware of it. Political labels, class labels, labels based on where people live, how they dress, how they talk, what they believe… you name it, we label it. And in labelling others in this way, we often implicitly condemn them to the super-category of less than me.

In other words, much of our labelling of others is really a way of telling ourselves and the world that we are better than them. The New Testament has a word that it uses very often to refer to this tendency: self-righteousness.

I’d like to offer a couple of observations about all this habitual exclusion that we practice.

First, when it comes right down to it, most of the distinctions on which we base our exclusion and separation are fairly tenuous in the grand scheme of things. Yes, we may have different social and political views, we may live in different places and enjoy different types of activities, the colour of our skin may be different… but the bottom line is that we are all of us very, very similar. Certainly we have far more in common than that which genuinely separates us; we are much more alike than we are different. And yet, as cracked, damaged human beings, we choose to ignore the multitude of similarities that unite us and focus instead on the differences, inflating them into huge chasms of separation.

To put it another way, we mostly exclude and divide not because of any genuine need to do so but because of our broken nature. Exclusion is a product of our sinfulness, which is to say our brokenness and sickness. A world without the sickness of sin would be a world without exclusion.

Which brings me to my second observation: very rarely did Jesus exclude anyone. As he ushered in the grace-filled kingdom of God, he practiced radical inclusion. Those whom society excluded seemed to be the very ones who were drawn to Jesus: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, the uneducated, and so on. And, while many churches today impose strict rules about who is and is not allowed to take communion, Jesus freely shared his last meal with the one he knew was about to betray him. I’d say that’s some fairly radical inclusion right there.

In fact, there was only really one group that Jesus addressed with the language of exclusion: the religious elite. These were the ones who were the universally recognised masters in understanding and obeying holiness codes that defined how you had to look, speak and behave in order to measure up to God’s standards. And Jesus reserved his harshest words for them, calling them a brood of vipers and likening them to whitewashed tombs full of rotting corpses. They were also the subject of many parables in which those who represented them ended up being cast into outer darkness.

To me, the conclusion seems clear: as far as Jesus is concerned, the only ones who are excluded from the kingdom are those who themselves draw lines that define who’s in and who’s out. It seems that, as soon as you draw a line or set up a category that defines who is “in”, in Jesus’ eyes you find yourself on the wrong side of that line.

One final thought: in telling the religious elite they were “out” of the kingdom, I don’t think Jesus was warning them that God was going to throw them into hell, whether literal or figurative. I think he was simply pointing out that behaving in an exclusionary way puts you outside the kingdom, because the kingdom is by nature inclusive.

The kingdom of God is not some other-worldly place we get to go to after we die as long as we’ve prayed the right prayer and been faithful in our church attendance. It’s something we choose to participate in and experience here and now. And one of the ways we participate in it is by setting aside our tendency towards exclusion and othering and asking Jesus, by his Spirit, to help us be those who embody the kind of radical inclusion he practised.

The kingdom is open to all comers. We can either include ourselves in by following Jesus’ way of embracing and including others. Or we can insist on continuing to divide and exclude. And in so doing, we exclude ourselves out of the kingdom.

[ Image: Brian Auer ]