Diversity in the People of God
In the March 2018 issue of the Observer, then-Moderator Jordan Cantwell tells a story from when she was in ministry at a church, and for coffee hour a man comes in off the street, in the Saskatchewan cold, just needing a place to sit and warm up. He is offered a cup of coffee and some food and stays awhile, and then a little while later the police show up and forcibly escort him out, because someone in the congregation phoned because his presence made them uncomfortable.
Let me just say I don’t think for a moment something like that would happen at this church, but if it did, I would be inclined to react very poorly. As in, screaming-at-whoever-made-the-phone-call-to-get-out-of-this-church-and-never-come-back-and-they-have-no-right-to-call-themselves-a-Christian poorly. I probably wouldn’t, but I would certainly want to. I would go on and on about the radical inclusivity of Jesus and how we need to include everyone in the church, even if we don’t like them, even if we’re made uncomfortable by them.
And then someone would ask the question, what about the person who felt uncomfortable? Do we not include them? If we include trans people, what about the people who are uncomfortable with trans people? I go off about inclusivity, but what about people who disagree with the things I say in my sermons? Are they not included? What about . . . and so on.
You’ve seen or at least heard about the video of students from Covington Catholic high school, at a protest in Washington DC, shouting “build the wall” in the face of an indigenous American leader, Nathan Phillips. And perhaps you have seen or hear about “the whole video,” where it seems like the confrontation was instigated by the indigenous activists reacting to the red “Make America Great Again” hats on the students, who were there for a pro-life rally.
What about the students? Shouldn’t their voice be included in a tolerant and diverse society? Should we try to silence them just because we disagree with them? That’s not very inclusive.
I’ll leave that question in the air while I talk about the passage from 1 Corinthians.
Paul gives us an extended metaphor to essentially say, “If we were all the same, it would be really boring.” Really, that’s what he’s saying. “If all the body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” Diversity is not only to be tolerated; it should be desired because it is necessary. The body can’t function without a diversity in parts. We can’t function without a diversity of peoples, opinions, and experiences. If Paul lived today, he might point to biodiversity and how the environment cannot function without a diversity of animals and plant life.
I said last week it’s a shame that Paul is often seen as this arch-conservative figure in Christian theology when he argues so passionately for diversity. But while he says “there is neither male nor female but we are one in Christ,” he also says “I permit no woman to speak in church and no woman should have authority over a man;” he says “there is neither slave nor free but we are one in Christ,” while he also says, “slaves obey your masters;” he says we are to be free of the restrictive law of the Old Testament while leaning on that law for his sense of sexual morality.
The question has to be asked: how much diversity is Paul even really willing to tolerate? But while there is the unfortunate reality of the time and place in which he is writing, he still has an understanding that all people are part of the whole, no matter differences. Paul maintains this distinction between accepting people and accepting behaviour; the lines he draws aren’t lines I agree with or lines I think God draws, however.
We see the body and soul as being two separate pieces that come together, with much greater importance placed on the soul. In fact, much of our ethic of diversity is to say that even though our bodies may be different in skin colour, reproductive parts, abilities, or anything else, we all have similar souls and we say that learning to respect diversity involves seeing the soul behind the person’s body.
For the classical Greeks, this was not the case. The body was what you were. People who looked different fundamentally were different. Male and female were fundamentally different because their bodies were different. Jews and Greeks were fundamentally different because, on the men at least, one particular part of the body was slightly different.
Paul is trying to do some cross-cultural translation and dialogue here, putting things into terms that the Greek members of the Corinthian church can understand. He’s also using a lot of classical Greek rhetoric; he’s Jewish himself, but communicating across cultures, languages, and ways of thinking. He doesn’t assume the Jewish way of thinking—in which an argument that describes the group as different parts of a body makes no sense because the body is an image of God and God is one—he doesn’t assume his way of thinking is superior.
But Paul does bring to the Greek Christians in Corinth a radical idea about the equality of each part of the body; no one part is more fundamental or important to the other. That doesn’t make sense to the Corinthians; it doesn’t make sense to us.
We’re very committed to hierarchies. I go out riding my snowboard and I wear my helmet because that’s the most important part of me, right? If that gets hurt it’s a lot worse than anywhere else, right? And so we have societies in hierarchies where some people get a lot more protection and support than others. No one questions the security detail for the Prime Minister or some other “important” person even as victims of violence are disproportionately low-income, people of colour, and women. It just makes sense to protect the head.
Paul’s radical idea is that God just doesn’t care about who is more important than who. For citizens of the Roman empire, who saw their emperor as divine, who saw men as inherently better than women, who saw higher caste people as inherently better than slaves, this is a radically inclusive idea. All reflect the image of God, therefore all are equal parts of the body of Christ, which is the church.
Which sounds like a nice, pleasant idea until we realize that we don’t enter into this place equals, because society doesn’t make us equals. Therefore, we have to be made equal by God. And that means some people have to give up while others receive, and that’s when people start asking, “What about . . . why aren’t you including them?” What about those rich white kids from a private school shouting in the face of an indigenous American?
As much as I would like to live in a world without power structures, without systems of oppression, without the repercussions of centuries of violence and extermination, and without money; that isn’t the world we live in. That’s our eschatological vision of the kingdom of God, but that isn’t where we are. And, as Paul points out, what needs to happen is to pay attention to where the traditional hierarchy has lowered some people, and lift them up. It’s what Jesus says in his quoting of the prophet Isaiah; the least parts will be lifted up to the highest place. The poor, the captives, and the oppressed. And forgive me for being blunt, but that isn’t a bunch of rich white kids, no matter their opinion.
People bear the image of God; not opinions, not actions, not thoughts, not political beliefs. People are part of the body of Christ, not political affiliations. People are diverse and equal and included. There’s often a sense that Christianity should be above politics, should see the common humanity in everyone despite their differences, and that’s encapsulated in commandments like, “Love your neighbour” and “love your enemies.” And that is true, to a degree; God has no political party or political philosophy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the church and we as Christians still live in a political world.
If I were there, I would have confronted a bunch of red-hat wearing kids too, provoked or not. When confronted with something as vile and evil as racism, what else is there to do but oppose it? And as I’ve said before, often one of the most difficult but loving things you can do for your neighbour is to call out their evil, like racism. To see them as people who are part of the body humanity who are hurting themselves and others by their hate. To include them as people, not as opinions, made in the image of God. That is the diversity of the image of God and the people of God. Amen.