Inclusive Justice, part 1

Being shaped by the Anabaptist tradition, I have always resonated with “peace” and “justice.” Shalom. That which is the fruit of God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” Human flourishing. All of creation flourishing. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

Along my journey I have seen time and again injustice perpetuated even within communities theologically committed to peacemaking. Sometimes these communities are not aware of harm done within; other times, harm is covered up in order to protect the reputation of the community and its good work. Too often “peace and justice” are only experienced by those most privileged within the community (or organization), and the wellbeing of those with the least power is sacrificed to “keep the peace.” Exclusion becomes a way of maintaining control. This kind of power dynamic predictably functions hierarchically along the lines of gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. This is not peace. This is not justice. This is not flourishing. Anytime one group benefits at the expense of another, God’s will is not being done and we have work to do.

Inclusive justice. This phrase has captured my imagination since I participated in The Reformation Project’s 2018 Leadership Development Cohort. Last month I presented a bit of what I learned during the three months of the cohort at the church I attend, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church. I highlighted three voices that have reverberated in my mind and heart, and given me language, concepts and practices that I deem critical to moving us closer to inclusive justice – flourishing for all people and all creation.

The first voice is that of Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She worked with the Leadership Cohort when we met in Chicago for a 4-day intensive training. From her I see “inclusive biblical interpretation” as foundational to the project of inclusive justice.

anderson book

Anderson, in her book, Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, identifies exclusion as a core problem within Christian tradition. Too often “orthodoxy” and “biblical ethics” are used to control and oppress others in order to gain or maintain a privileged position of power. This is done by narrowly interpreting scripture only from the privileged perspective: if alternative or marginalized voices are not heard, it becomes easier to draw lines and make rules that benefit those on the inside by taking from and/or harming those on the outside.

I have seen [a] relationship between “authentic” Christianity and exclusion… For traditional (conservative) Christianity, different perspectives are not acknowledged, and the consequences for targeted groups cannot be considered… Basically, the exclusion of certain groups and perspectives has become equated with the church’s concept of right doctrine (orthodoxy). As a result, we have come to define ourselves by that which we exclude. (Anderson p. 5)

Many Christians so closely identify “right belief” or “true faith” in terms of what they exclude. For example, many evangelicals equate being a “good Christian” with their anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ positions that those points of exclusion become the litmus test for evangelical identity. As long as you’re on the right side of the line on this or that issue, you can confidently identify with the “right” group. In my experience, however, those who build a sense of Christian identity on an “anti” foundation, are unable to listen to those voices their “anti” position excludes. There is too much at stake (a secure sense of identity), and so, for example, LGBTQ perspectives are attacked, dismissed, and/or silenced instead of heard and understood so that they might be integrated into discernment processes regarding sexual ethics or a definition of marriage.

Anderson proposes “inclusive biblical interpretation” as a way toward greater justice in our relationships as individuals, churches and as a society. Listening to our neighbor is a critical step toward loving our neighbor. If we are to be gospel people, we must break free from an exclusion-based faith identity and practice. An inclusive approach to biblical interpretation, simply put

seeks to include persons and insights that are usually ignored. More specifically, “inclusion is a discipline of extending our boundary to take into consideration another’s needs, interests, experience, and perspective, which will lead to clearer understanding of ourselves and others, fuller description of the issue at hand, and possibly a newly negotiated boundary of the community to which we belong.” (Anderson p. 8-9)

To some, this idea of inclusion may trigger severe anxiety generated by a sense of threat to biblical authority. One understanding of what makes the bible authoritative is that it is “God’s word,” and as such, it is above human subjectivity and fallibility. If the bible is God’s unadulterated guide for drawing lines between who is in and who is out and has provided a sense of security about how to be on the inside, then considering any perspective that does not match with those lines could call into question the whole system. This creates a desperate need to “protect and preserve the truth.”

The popularity of podcasts like The Bible for Normal People demonstrates a growing interest in revisiting the questions: What is the bible? How do we use it? People are experiencing greater openness to explore ideas of biblical authority and biblical interpretation beyond those rooted in exclusion. Many times this is because they have had close encounters with people who have been harmed by exclusionary and oppressive beliefs and/or practices. Wrestling with the real life impact of biblical teaching and ethics prompts many people to search for alternatives that actually produce the kind of flourishing promised in Jesus’ gospel.

As part of inclusive biblical interpretation, Anderson is committed to a concept of biblical authority yet recognizes the need to redefine that concept:

[A] new concept of biblical authority must accompany critical biblical interpretation… biblical authority does not have to be synonymous with authoritarianism. Rather than authority as domination, a critical and liberative approach to biblical interpretation defines authority as partnership, where the voice of God emerges from Scripture in the context of dialogue within faith communities. From this perspective, authority is relational rather than hierarchical. (Anderson p. 8)

What potential for peace and justice might be unleashed if our faith was shaped by voices regularly excluded? How might churches find greater strength from inclusive discernment practices? What are some concrete steps individuals and church communities can take to explore the idea and practice of inclusive biblical interpretation?

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