Along with ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ is one of the great buzz-words of our time. Everyone shouts ‘Hurrah!’ for inclusion, and ‘Boo!’ for exclusion.
It’s time to ask a few questions, and maybe even find a better bandwagon to jump onto.
What follows is based on Edward Dowler’s Inclusive Gospel? Grove Books, 2015
To be sure the biblical doctrine of adoption (Eph 1:5f) speaks powerfully of our inclusion by God in Christ. And Paul elsewhere teaches that believers are included into Christ himself (1 Cor 12:1).
But when we move from these specifics to a more general consideration of ‘inclusion’, the situation becomes more contentious. For some, inclusion is to be regarded as altogether a ‘good thing’. After all, what church would not want to be known as ‘welcoming and open to all’? Is not inclusion the very heart and essence of the gospel? But for others, the modern dogma of ‘inclusion’ is simply a warmed-over version of secular ideas, masquerading as ‘the gospel’ but actually diluting and distorting it.
In today’s world of sound-bite communication, ‘inclusion’ is regarded as a ‘good thing’, and exclusion a ‘bad thing’. But the terms are virtually meaningless until we start to specify who are what we are ‘including’ or ‘excluding’. ‘Inclusion’ stands for a generally liberal attitude, but is unlikely to extend to religious fundamentalists, paedophiles, or right-wing extremists. It comes to mean ‘inclusive of some individuals and groups, but not of others’.
‘Inclusion’ often functions as a sort of code-word, indicating (on parish web sites and elsewhere) a certain view about certain issues affecting the contemporary church. There is, says Dowler, ‘a certain “let the reader understand” quality to this description.’
Ironically, the very word ‘inclusion’ has come to define which groups are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’. It becomes itself an instrument of exclusion. As one writer has put it: ‘toleration despises bigots, inclusiveness shuts out excluders, and diversity insists that we all line up to support it.’
How coherent is ‘inclusion’ as a concept? If the circle of inclusion has no boundaries at all, then it become meaningless.
‘Inclusion’ treats people as passive agents: they are simply ‘included in’ by others. But the Christian gospel calls people out of darkness into God’s marvellous light (1 Pet 2:9); they are not merely ‘included’, but transformed. Such transformation entails a change of behaviour (see Acts 15:29, for example). Inclusion in the life of the church (baptism, confirmation, communion, and so on) comes with various conditions attached. So, a headline of ‘inclusion’, with no explanation or elaboration, is meaningless.
Inclusivity in political life
American writer James Kalb notes that under the guise of inclusion, diversity and tolerance real differences (between the sexes, for example) have become blurred. Those who resist this flattening-out of difference are routinely accused of ‘hatred, quasi-medical phobias, or bigotry’ (a word which has come to mean a refusal to accept modern liberal standards). The dogma of inclusion seeks to end discrimination; but actually it has led to greater discrimination, only on different fronts.
Kalb writes: ‘When inclusiveness destroys the concreteness and specificity of culture, it destroys the possibility of a civilised and humane way of life…Russian socialism ended in the reign of lawless greed, and Western multiculturalism will very likely end in a radically divided society shot through with hatred and violence.’
The obliteration of difference leads to a totalitarian society, in which we are all reduced to interchangeable cogs in a depersonalised machine.
So far as the local church is concerned, a commitment to indiscriminate inclusivism will deprive ‘the particularities of history, place, and human relations’ of significance.
Inclusivity and the liberal narrative
The language of inclusion, diversity and tolerance is linked to a wider narrative of progress from an ignorant and superstition (i.e. religion-dominated) past to a bright and fairer (i.e. secular) future. This is to be achieved through education and political action. The West is emerging (it is claimed) from centuries of Christian violence and oppression into an era of peace and rationality. Utopia beckons. The main threat to its progress comes from religious believers, who continually stand in the way of progress.
Following Augustine, Christian thinkers are suspicious of this notion of inevitable progress. While we work to maintain, or restore, a peaceful and fruitful society, we are not blind to the fundamental flaws that affect individuals both individually and in community. Utopian thinking has a very poor track record in terms of unleashing many terros upon men and women.
Larry Siedentop and David Bentley Hart have shown that respect for the individual owes more to Christian teaching and practice than to the Enlightenment. As Christian virtues are given up, a Bertrand Russell can advocate eugenics, Peter Singer can argue for infanticide, and Richard Dawkins for the abortion of unborn babies with Down’s Syndrome. The idea that Christianity has to play ‘catch-up’ with modern secular ethics becomes absurd. We desert the old doctrines of men and women created in God’s image, and of love for God and neighbour, at our (and our society’s) peril.
Inclusivity and the Bible
‘If Jesus were alive today, he definitely would have been inclusive.’ This mantra is as vague as it is simplistic.
The Gospels paint a far more variegated picture. Drawing on the work of Richard Burridge, we may say that Jesus’ moral teaching was extremely rigorous. His teaching on marriage, for example, was more restrictive that that of his forebears and contemporaries (Mk 10:2-13). Many of his parables speak of separation and exclusion (see, for example, Mt 25:10,33). He places difficulties in the way of entering the kingdom of God (Mt 19:16-22; 15:24; Mk 7:27; 10:25). The other side of the same coin, of course, is that Jesus was radically inclusive of ‘sinners’, with whom he consorted regularly and from whom he drew a number of his disciples.
Looking more generally at the Bible, we find a story that might well be described as inclusive. The Lord is Creator of all things (Psa 24:1). His will is that through his chosen people all people will be blessed (Gen 22:18; Psa 72:10; Lk 2:32). It was through Paul’s witness that the church was opened up to Gentiles as well as Jews (Gal 2; Acts 15). And this was in fulfilment of God’s ancient plan, and in anticipation of the renewal of all things in Christ. (It was not, be it noted, in the service of abstract notions of equality, fairness and inclusivity.)
Inclusivity among the virtues
Given the many difficulties – theoretical and practical – facing the notion of ‘inclusivity’ we should return to the more robust and honourable concept of ‘justice’. This, according to Aquinas, is ‘the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right.’ Whereas ‘inclusivity’ flattens out distinctions between people, justice (in the teaching of philosopher Josef Pieper) is content to let the other, while still recognising my obligations towards him. While inclusivity paints a picture of two groups – the included and the excluded, the oppressed and the oppressor, victims and perpetrators – justice directs us to the duties and obligations that we all owe to others.
Looking through the lens of justice, we see that we owe different things to different people at different times. The pastor has different obligations towards children and towards paedophiles in his congregation, for instance; different obligations towards a couple about the get marries towards a person who is about to die.