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At Issue

Have our best efforts to eliminate sexism and racism morphed into new exclusions?

By Connie denBok

Last summer, I was indirectly connected to a camp experience where a squad of campers united to exclude a kid who lacked social grace and bladder control. He appeared to be one of those children whose parents send him away at every opportunity. Even the counsellors, who would normally champion an underdog, found nothing endearing in him to nurture.

From a distance, I fervently wished better for the child, but it left me wondering about tribal behaviour. Or group-ism. Or “us” and “them”; the in-group and the out-group.

Could our best efforts to eliminate sexism, racism and other put-downs have morphed into new exclusions, as if some kind of gravity pulls people together and then grows a membrane to keep someone out? We know we’re “us” because we’re not sexist, racist or homophobic like “them.”

In my mind it raises a question: What tribe are we people of the church? We all carry several passports according to race, gender, nationality, family of origin, family of choice, sexual orientation, age, education and theology. What is it about church that makes us “us”? Which identity is the primary identity of Christians?

Inclusivity cannot live up to expectations. Every group is like a football huddle — faces of comrades and friends set with a common purpose on the inside. But from the outside, the view is less appealing. Every group has an inside and outside.

If we are simply a coalition of different groups that form and reform their identities according to the tastes and trends of the decade, why ever would the world need a church?

Having lived the Soviet experiment over a lifetime, Alexander Solzhenitsyn turned his eye to western culture and observed, “Fashionable trends of thoughts and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable.” He predicted this would lead to “strong mass prejudices” with people “hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.”

I happen to agree that bottled water is bad for the environment, and so I carry tap water in a glass-lined canister wherever I go. That makes me one of the virtuous, I suppose. Ten years ago, I agreed that sugary drinks were bad for the body and began to carry bottled water wherever I went. That also was virtuous. Twenty years before, I agreed that a thermos was unsanitary and it was better to carry cans of pop or bottles of juice. Ten years before that, we drank tap water from glasses, and before that, common drinking fountains, and before that, maybe the village pump.  

Tribal identity around fashion trends is the worst kind of conformity. At least the old communist cadres believed in the ultimate value of the cause. Fashionistas believe the ultimate value is belonging to the fashion of the day. Fashion exists to tickle the sense of superiority of those in the know — a kind of external Gnosticism.

Maybe the church was a trendsetter once upon a time, and maybe we are fashion forward still. But the church of the first century burst the borders between slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, beloved and abandoned children. Their Jesus was too Jewish, too poor and too crucified to bother keeping the riff-raff out. Still is.
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