Miracles of Inclusion (Eph. 2:14)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, p.625, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Every model of inclusivity entails specific convictions — which will exclude somebody.

"For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility"

Whenever Christians seriously grapple with the question of who should be included as full and equal partners in the commonwealth of the God and Father of Jesus Christ, Paul’s words about Christ having "broken down the dividing wall of hostility" ought to provide -- and in moments of grace have provided -- a powerful impetus toward the destruction of the various prejudicial barriers.

After the dividing wall between gentile and Jew has been broken down, the destruction of all other human barriers must follow, as Paul himself confirms. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

To be sure, none of us is without biases and stubborn inconsistencies. It has become an open scandal that Paul himself had some exclusivistic things to say about women and homosexuals which contradict his many revolutionary insights. Paul, the apostle of human openness and freedom in Christ, when envisioning the drastic liberty implied in such freedom, sometimes seems to have become fearful of the dizzying prospect and reverted to a reassertion of that fleshly thinking which takes comfort in imposing the "law of commandments and ordinances."

However, let us admit that we too feel more secure when freedom is in our hands than when it is in the hands of others. It is ungraciously self-righteous to repudiate our revolutionary forbears in freedom, on whose shoulders we stand, for not being able to see quite as far as we.

A Christianity obedient to Christ’s peacemaking life, death and resurrection must view each and every human being as one for whom Christ has died. "Christian" bigotry is simple blasphemy.

Nevertheless, we all participate in varying degrees at various levels -- constantly or intermittently, subtly or crudely, consciously or unconsciously, brazenly or hypocritically -- in racism, sexism, classism, ideological clannishness, nationalism. Upon consideration, the sorry litany mounts. Progress on one front is mocked by retreats on another.

Quite apart from the difficulties Christians have in viewing fellow Christians as people "in Christ," there is a problem of how to regard those outside the circle of faith. Many non-Christians resent the very notion of their being viewed christologically. As a Christian I cannot and dare not view others except christologically. Yet I can understand why those who reject Christianity might be alienated by the implication that they have been "included" within the saving ministry of Christ by me and my well-meaning theology. Christian inclusivity must appear to some to be an ideologically imperialistic kind of inclusivity.

This is a classic case of being damned if one does and damned if one doesn’t. If one asserts a doctrine of limited atonement, according to which Christ died only for a segment and not even all of the Christian church, with the rest of humanity being condemned to hell, one is deservedly accused of Christian bigotry. On the other hand, if one views people of other religious persuasions, agnostics and atheists as ones for whom Christ has died, one can also be judged as imperialistic or bigoted. As I read Paul’s christocentric rationale for the breaking down of the dividing walls of separation -- a basic text for branding anti-Semitism the heresy it is -- I wonder how an orthodox Jew, for example, would regard Paul’s insistence that Christ has abolished "in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances." Could he or she fail to find this a hostile intrusion into his or her most cherished beliefs?

The logic of existence makes it impossible to be unoffensively inclusive. Every inclusivistic model presupposes a vision of humanity decidedly not shared by all. Many people mouth platitudes of openness in blithe naïveté concerning the potential for alienation which conviction, any conviction, entails.

We walk on eggshells here. Though people may well believe in the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, it is inevitable that some fundamental, spoken or unspoken conviction, Christian or non-Christian, lies behind their universalism. Therefore in our various attempts to implement our universalistic beliefs we can only try to play our relations with others by ear. There are no pat formulas, no sure-fire rules of discourse. In seeking some measure of human concord we can only improvise, hoping to find in persons from alien ideological shores some mutual if unspoken recognition, a certain unfeigned, even naïve good will.

Hanging our hopes for human reconciliation on such impermanent, spontaneous episodes of grace is to suspend a great deal, perhaps even the survival of life on earth, by a slender thread. Nevertheless, whenever there is person-to-person communication between ideological opposites, particularly in this era of "inclusiveness," it finally can only be by virtue of the miraculous.