Today’s guest post is from Simon C.

We are definitely receiving more frequent messaging about diversity and inclusion in our church community, the most recent being Elder Christofferson’s talk last Conference on ‘The Doctrine of Belonging’. These are largely positive attempts to recognise diversity of background and experiences, to root out judgment and prejudice and to foster love and unity among us. Most messages, including Elder Christofferson’s, place at their heart Paul’s teaching of unity in Christ. Paul’s take, expressed in various ways in his letters, is summed up neatly here:

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’

Galatians 3.28, RNSV.

Just a couple of years ago, Elder Cook gave this perspective:

‘The culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a Gentile culture or a Judaic culture. It is not determined by the color of one’s skin or where one lives. While we rejoice in distinctive cultures, we should leave behind aspects of those cultures that conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our members and new converts often come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds … Yet we can be united in our love of and faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans establishes the principle that we follow the culture and doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the model for us even today.’

Quentin Cook, Hearts knit in righteousness and unity, October 2020 General Conference.

What Elder Cook expresses is a wonderful ideal on the surface, but let’s lift the lid and think critically and sensitively about the real-world dynamics of a quest towards inclusion and belonging in our community, and the celebration of diversity. What are the other sides to this story?What impact does ‘inclusion’ and the potential erasure of difference have on individuals, minorities and those marginalised?Is there a price to be paid for ‘belonging’?

Going back to the message of Paul:

‘While Paul’s impulse toward the founding of a non-differentiated, non-hierarchical humanity was laudable in my opinion, many of its effects in terms of actual lives were not. In terms of ethnicity, his system required that all human cultural specificities—first and foremost, that of the Jews—be eradicated, whether or not the people in question were willing. Moreover, since of course, there is no such thing as cultural unspecificity, merging all people into one common culture means ultimately (as it has meant in the history of European cultural imperialism) merging all people into the dominant culture. In terms of gender, for Paul (as indeed, for nearly everyone until now), autonomy and something like true equality for women were bought at the expense of sexuality and maternity. Also, analogously to the culture question, the erasure of gender seems always to have ended up positing maleness as the norm to which women can “aspire.”’

Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1994) p.8

Or to put it more succinctly:

‘The erasure of “male and female” is not necessarily a good thing for women; nor is the erasure of Jewish identity necessarily a good thing for Jews. For the slave, the erasure of the category “free” is another contested point.’

Warren Carter and Amy-Jill Levine, The New Testament: Methods and Meaning (2013) p.180.

How can we use these insightsas a lens for our own community?

Firstly, erasure or demotion of different identities has the potential to increase marginalisation, to further ignore voices and sidestep deep and profound questions. Think about the following statements: “We are all first and foremost children of god” and“There are no homosexual members of the church.”The first is of course meant to be a hopeful message; the second is just downright bizarre. Using this universalising angle, however well-intentioned, can be dismissive of real issues and real concerns and real identities. Some may be happy to let go some aspects of their identity (whatever that may be), or relegate them in importance while promoting others. Some may not. But it is their choice.

In relation to marginalised identities, bell hooks wrote:

“As such, I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”

Marginality as a site of resistance. In R. Ferguson et al (eds), Out there: marginalization and contemporary cultures (1990) pp.341-343.

Which leads us to…

Erasure of difference in practice often means aligning to the dominant culture. Simply put, does belonging seek to eliminate difference or seek to empower diverse and marginalised voices? The church discourse is getting better, but inpractice the idea of belonging hasoften been seen in terms ofsurrendering to some idealised unifying ‘gospel culture’ which in turn can mean surrender to a culture that looks suspiciously ‘Western’ and ‘Corporate’. (As a Brit, I’m not going to go any further anddescribe possible ‘American’ aspects of this culture. I’ll leave that to other commentators. But a good friend—also British—who has worked for American corporations does note the similarities.) Elder Cook talked about ‘leaving behind aspects of those cultures that conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ’. But what do those aspects look like and who is defining the conflict?

Women throughout the history of Christianity, for example, often abandoned a specifically gendered identity for either a non-gendered asceticism, or a more ‘masculine’ one, to increase their social and cultural capital in their Christian community. They didn’t feel they could be included ‘as women’. Instead of the dominant narrative changing to include them as they were, they changed to fit the dominant patriarchal narrative to achieve some form of equality and respect. Patriarchal equality—does that sound familiar? And what about ‘benign patriarchy’ where we marginalise upwards to the pedestal? Whether second-class, better-class or equal, patriarchy seems to define the terms.

But to understand how we approach belonging we need to understand how we approach the ‘other’. We all know the process; it is what we do as groups and societies, although the specifics will be context-bound. ‘Othering’ is a fundamental part of identity formation; to talk of ‘inclusion’ so often means to talk of exclusion, of separation. We can often include and exclude in the same breath. Love the sinner but hate the sin? Well, if the alleged ‘sin’ is an inseparable part of your identity, what then?

If you ever want a case study in forming a stark ‘us and them’, ‘good and evil’ paradigm, then look no further than the Johannine Epistles:

‘Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.

They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.’

1 John 2.18-19 (RNSV)

It would be great to know what those on the ‘outside’ felt about this community split. Most likely they still considered themselves fellow Christians and resisted the identity chosen for them by others. Last conference’s message about overcoming “this sin-saturated, self-centered, and often exhausting world” shows we never stop drawing the dividing lines. Can we truly ever be inclusive when our desire to separate and feel ‘special’ seems to be in our very DNA? Does our attitude toward the ‘world’ have an impact on our attitude to members within of our community?

‘Othering’ is a slippery and creative process, the dividing lines changing to meet the needs of the community, constantly being constructed, deconstructed, re-constructed. Paradoxically, sometimes the fiercestlines are drawn against those who are the closest to us. Those who are most different can be so outside our daily experience that they can be safely neutralised as a benign curiosity. Those closest to us, on the other hand, can represent the real threat, just because they are so very close. Think about the controversies and schisms in the first centuries of Christianity over the meaning of a single word or the use of a single term.

The complexity of ‘othering’ can be seen everywhere. In 2015 the UK government did little to aid those fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, preferring instead to fall back on the wider EU refugee policy that sanctuary should be sought in the first safe country entered (thus putting an undue and unfair burden on Greece, Italy and Spain). Fast-forward to this year and the UK government put in place a large refugee resettlement and hosting programme for those fleeing Ukraine; government officials were also dispatched to France to offer help to those Ukrainians who had made it to the shores of the English Channel (but not to Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who had also been in the area for months, even years.) This was wonderful to see, but the different approach was not lost on refugee advocacy groups. Are there good refugees and bad refugees? I’ll let you decide the motives.

Just last week a British opposition MP was suspended from her party for saying that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was only “superficially black” and that “If you hear him on the Today programme [a flagship radio news show], you wouldn’t know he’s black.” This jaw-droppingly awful comment was an attempt (I think) at criticising class and privilege, coming from a left-wing Labour politician aimed at a right-wing Conservative government; but it was also a racist play of ‘essentialist’ ideas of race, as defined by those on the outside. When someone else is telling you what someone of your race ‘should’ look, act, and sound like, we are in deep trouble. In the UK we have a very live debate surrounding class, privilege and educational background in our politics. But we also currently have the most ethnically diverse government ever. This is wonderful. On the other hand, there is still a lack of diversity according to these other measures. Fair point. But that cannot detract from the fact that we have the most ethnically diverse government ever! It seems sometimes we snatch ‘othering’ from the jaws of inclusion. The irony in all this is that the MP who made the remarks is herself from an ethnic minority. This is a seriously messy business. Who, how and why we ‘other’ can be very creative indeed.

I realise throughout all of this I speak from a position of privilege. I don’t come from a minority, although I too can feel marginalised sometimes. But I have also been guilty of marginalising others.I may have spoken about such sensitive and complicated issues clumsily, so forgive me. But I do know that it will benefit us to approach these issues with critical thinking and a huge dollop of humility and empathy. We can nobly talk of inclusion and belonging, but what that looks like and how we go about it really does matter.

  • Have you had experiences of ‘identity erasure’, well-intentioned or otherwise? Have you felt these in a church and gospel context?
  • How would you describe the dominant culture and identity of the church? Is the narrative changing to include you or do you still need to change to fit the narrative?
  • Does the talk of diversity and belonging in the church ring true or ring hollow? In our drive for inclusion do we just find ever more elaborate ways to exclude?