Thursday, June 2, 2016

Exclusion and Embrace

A few posts ago I was sharing some of the themes that are, or have become, prominent on Points of Inflection - among them, faith-based commitment to creation care, support for the LGBTQ community, and dealing with cancer which has recurred since my treatment in 2014.  Though these seem quite a disjointed collection of ideas, I believe that as I live through them and their implications, I'm going to find connections and intersections.  In talking friends recently, I've come to feel that one important connection is this question: where exactly is the boundary of the beloved community?

In 1996, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf published Exclusion and Embrace, a book arising from his experience in the civil war in former Yugoslavia.  Quoting the back cover blurb,
Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. In light of this, Christians must learn that salvation comes, not only as we are reconciled to God, and not only as we "learn to live with one another", but as we take the dangerous and costly step of opening ourselves to the other, of enfolding him or her in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God.
Evangelical Christians have typically read Scripture as mandating the exclusion of LGBTQ people from the community, understanding their identities as a matter of "choice" to disobey sex and gender roles spelled out in the Bible.  But this understanding is fraying, both on the organizational level with the very public demise of "ex-gay" ministries like Exodus International, and more fundamentally on the personal level as believers hear and relate to the stories of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends and family members - people they have known and loved, often for years.  These personal stories don't fit with the exclusion narrative (Isaiah 49:15) and the discomfort this produces is creative, moving us towards a stance of compassion and embrace.  It will take a while, but I have faith that love will win out here.

What has this all to do with sustainability and creation care questions though?  I think that the same key question is posed to us: who is within our circle of concern, who is part of the community we see enfolded by God's love?  In this case, though, we must apply the question to future generations, to people who are yet to be born (though they are still present to God - is this part of the meaning of 1 Cor 1:28?).  If we live our prosperous lives in a way which we know (with reasonable confidence) will deprive future generations of the ability to prosper in the same way, are we not excluding them?  What, in this case, would it mean to embrace them?

Of course there is a big difference between between these two examples.  My heart can be softened by my personal encounter with my LGBTQ family member; but where is the opportunity for a personal encounter with someone from the future? Do we need a time traveler? Perhaps we are extrapolating from our love for our own children and grandchildren, or (with greater theological audacity) perhaps the Christian community, "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11) should somehow see the distinction of present and future collapsed in the Communion of saints? This is often posed as a question of "intergenerational justice", and I understand this formulation, but I'm trying to suggest that there is something more intimate than justice involved here as well.  Ultimately, the question is one of love.  How wide is the beloved community? Where are its borders in time - as well as in space?


byron smith said...

Thanks John - I think the idea of intergenerational love, not just intergenerational justice, is an important one. As is the idea of expansing our circle of neighbourliness.

Two thoughts:

1. Might there be something in YHWH's love extending for a thousand generations (Ex 20.6: Ps 105.8)? This is a picture in which the faithful community is invited to conceive of God as having a relationship not just with their children and grandchildren but with those extending (at least symbolically) into the distant mists of future time, well beyond anything imaginable.

2. The expansion of neighbourliness that ecological crises demand/invite us to make extends I believe in at least three directions. One is temporally into future generations, as you have outlined. A second is more familiar but no less challenging: spatially. In general, those harmed first and most by global ecological change are the global poor (esp women, children and others at the margins of societies). This was a powerful theme in the papal encyclical Laudato Si'. A third direction that I've found has been more contentious and challenging for many Christians is for our compassion and care to extend beyond the boundaries not just of our generation or our nation/class but beyond the boundaries of our species. Our more-than-human neighbours are also at the brunt of ecological change without having (knowingly) contributed to it.

John Roe said...

(This comment is actually from my friend Sylvia Neely, who asked me to post it on her behalf.)

I really liked your latest blog entry. Your comments on inclusion remind me of what I am learning in my work with Citizens' Climate Lobby. It has been transformative. They insist that the way to make change in the political arena is to enter into relationship with people who may not agree with us and to create a safe space in which we can talk about the scary things that we would rather avoid (like climate change). Every meeting with a member of Congress is to be approached with the intention of expressing admiration for something, respect, and appreciation for something they have done. If you have not done so, you might like to look at the website.

I also appreciated your remark about "intergenerational justice," an impossibly awkward term. I don't believe I have ever used it. I'm sure you have noticed that James Hansen frames his talk about solving climate change in terms of his grandchildren, a real relationship. But I have always been uncomfortable about using such terms because I do not have children. Indeed, because of overpopulation it would be a good thing to find a way to frame these discussions that do not depend on blood relationships. We need to encourage people not to have children but to think in terms of larger relationships, as you were pointing out in your blog.

I am reminded of something Pastor Bonnie said during a recent sermon on John 17:20-26. Jesus is praying for his disciples as he sends them out into the world after he will no longer be in the world with them. But the first line seems to show that he is praying for all those who will believe in him down through the ages, not just those alive at the time: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." This is a prayer for unity, but not for homogeneity (that is the lesson of Pentecost).