We (or at least I) live in a culture that tends to be very suspicious of groups that show any hint of exclusivity. There’s good reason for this: the history of the human race is replete with groups of people who declare themselves to be unique, then declare themselves to be superior, then start attempting to wipe out anyone outside their group. Events like that of Charlottesville last month remind us that this tendency is alive and well today. Groups of people declaring themselves unique and superior inevitably leads to violence and hatred.
So it might seem counter-intuitive for me to suggest that groups can contribute to a more inclusive society by establishing clear, overt boundary markers. But I think this is true.
This morning I was reading Exodus 12:43-49, about who was allowed to eat the passover meal:
And Jehovah said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no son of a foreigner shall eat of it. And every man’s servant that is bought with silver, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat of it. A lodger and a hireling shall not eat of it…. And when a sojourner shall sojourn with you, and does the Passover to Jehovah, every male of his shall be circumcised, and then let him come near to do it; and he shall be as a native of the land; and no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native, and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst.
For anyone to eat of the passover, they had to be willing to commit to circumcision, the marker that declared their intention to become part of the people of Israel, to follow the law of Moses.
Now, here’s the important point – a lodger and a hireling were not allowed to eat of it, but this does not mean a lodger or hireling were supposed to be mistreated. There were strict laws about treating these people well. But a lodger was a temporary resident. A sojourner was someone who had expressly declared a willingness to join the people, and he was to be treated no differently from the native-born.
What does this have to do with the church? A lot, I think. We can have an aversion to treating anyone at all as “inside” or “outside.” This largely comes from a good motivation: to recognize truth in every religion and goodness in every individual. But the problem is that without any kind of boundary markers, it’s hard to invite anyone to join something, even if it’s something they want to be a part of.The reality is that there will always be groups and cliques even if they don’t have formal boundaries. And without formal boundaries, the informal boundary tends to be, “You can be in the group if we feel like you fit in.” The group becomes only for the native-born – there’s no place for the sojourner, no avenue to entry for someone coming in from outside.
In New Church theology, the church (i.e. the people of God) in general exists anywhere that people seek to follow one God and live in charity according to whatever religion they have known. But the church exists specifically where people worship the Lord Jesus Christ as the one God and seek to live by His commandments. And there are boundary markers, doorways, for that specific church: baptism and Holy Supper.
We have less foundational boundary markers as well: confirmation, membership in an organization, membership in a congregation, etc. All of these can be very good things. But for them to be good things, they have to mean something.
And this is where the challenge is. If we are going to do our job as a church, then when a sojourner comes to us and says, “I want to join,” or “I want to be baptized,” or “I want to learn more,” we cannot treat them as still “outside the group.” We are called to embrace them as fully as we embrace the people we’ve grown up with. “There shall be one law for the native, and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst” (Exodus 12:49).
And what about those who are still outside the group? We are called not to love them any less. The Lord calls us even to love our enemy! And the church begins to die as soon as we start to believe that we are superior to anyone outside our own circle. Just as we are to think of ourselves individually as the least and as servants, we’re called to think humbly of our own people.
But that does not negate the value of establishing and paying attention to clear boundaries. Boundaries, formal or informal, will always exist. We can rely on the informal boundaries of blood and comfort; or we can push through the discomfort to rely on Divinely ordained boundaries, to embrace the sojourner as one of our own. It’s a harder thing to do, but I think it’s clear which choice leads to a more welcoming and inclusive society.