Tolerance, affirmation, celebration - these are the gifts we share
Too frequently, Christian creeds that affirm only Jesus' birth or that he suffered under Pontius Pilate suggest that the only significant reference points in his life were that he was born and suffered a cruel death. Such creeds of "civil religion" unwittingly blur the depth and content of Jesus' ministry to the poor, the outcast, the down trodden and ethnically marginalized. Unfortunately, often today, persons who have a different sexual orientation are treated as outcasts, within society in general and within our own assemblies specifically.
Jesus spoke truth to power and became the incarnation of a redemptive, inclusive love for everyone, no matter what. Many persons, who are otherwise quite spiritual, are quick to forget that it was our Lord who could find enough goodness in a condemned man to forgive him on the cross!
Our nation and our church share a great legacy of appreciation for the ideals and rhetoric of freedom and "justice for all," but we miss so many opportunities to put these into actual practice. Instead, harmful intolerance, fully attested within the Old and New Testaments, is an ancient evil that still bedevils us today.
We have such a painful history of using religion to brand, burn, persecute, hate and condemn others without either theological or philosophical justification. Jesus was indeed rejected by the authorities, as were many of his unfortunate contemporaries. Yet, today many church-goers virtually eject those who do not look, dress, talk, or act like them. Jesus reminds us that "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people." (Mark 11:17)
Making room at the table is never difficult for us if we make the same room for others as Jesus made for us. There simply are too many today who want to preempt God's own prerogative to judge, forgetting Jesus' Sermon on the Mount mandate: "Judge not, lest ye not be judged" (Read Matt. 7:1-3).
The new millennium provides us with an opportunity to associate Christian faith more consistently with a jubilee of love. The hallmark of Jesus' ministry was openness, inclusion and compassion for those frequently shunned and despised by the world. As the incarnation of justice, Jesus was engaged in a ministry that sought to end domination, senseless violence, economic class distinctions, and all types of exclusive behavior.
Both society and the church are at their best when they become a home for the homeless and a fortresses of tolerance in a world of bias, prejudice and hate. Christ's church is always a stronger witness when all believers affirm, heal, and accept the mosaic of difference among God's people. Jesus Christ inspires the church not just to tolerate difference, but actually to affirm the talents and gifts of each human being and to then celebrate the rich diversity among God's people - no exceptions.
The gospels consistently remind us that Jesus of Nazareth listened when God spoke. The 21st-century witnessing church should rejoice in welcoming all, because the God who spoke so eloquently to Elizabeth, Mary, Jesus, Paul and James is still speaking the gospel of inclusion and affirmation.
The Rev. Cain Hope Felder is professor of New Testament language and literature at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. His first book, "Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family,"(Orbis Books, 1989) is considered a contemporary classic in the study of African American biblical interpretation.
Inspired by the Stillspeaking Initiative, the Rev. Cain Hope Felder invites your reflection on the following questions:
1. How can we devise feasible strategies for a church that is relatively homogeneous to partner with churches that are more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity or sexuality?
2. How can the church provide stronger leadership in analyzing the politics of difference and through what kinds of church-sponsored programs can we engage each other in conversations about traditionally ignored subjects, such as race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality?
3. How might the church use role reversal to highlight the pain and damage to those who are victims of race, ethnic or sexual bias?