From the latest Abbey Letter...
In chapters 10 and 11 of the Book of Acts is a remarkable story that deals with a question that seems never to go away in both church and society. It is the question of who is in and who is out, who is one of us and who is one of them, who is included and who is excluded. This is the issue raised in the story of Cornelius the centurion, and of how the early church struggled to find an answer. Can gentiles be accepted into the Church, and should the requirements of the Jewish law be applied to them? After much debate, it was decided that yes, gentiles can indeed be accepted as members of the Church; and no, the Jewish law cannot be required of them. Do not place burdens on others that one cannot carry oneself, is the reasoning.
This story is crucial in the development of Christian faith and practice, and it continues to offer us a scenario as to how to deal with similar questions of inclusion and exclusion in our own day. This is not the first time the issue is raised in Scripture, for there is an over-arching tendency in the Bible to show God pushing the boundaries of our borders (real and imagined) to include more and more of those outside our boundaries.
The revelation that God is God of the Jews eventually leads to the realization that God is also the God of everyone else. This idea of expanding our borders to include those outside affects not only the groups we belong to, but us as individuals as well. One of the effects of the command to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves is to enlarge not only our personal and private worlds, but the world of the collective culture and society in which we find ourselves.
Let’s put it like this: Throughout our lives we have built walls (literally and figuratively) that we hid behind, both as individuals and as societies. While these walls can be beneficial and inevitable (after all, we all need to take a refuge from life’s travails from time to time), it is not healthy to remain within our private sanctuaries, living in constant fear of what lies outside. Fear can conquer love, just as love conquers fear. It is the latter that God wants us to do. So God will search for weak spots in our walls and will eventually tear them down, so that fresh air can come into our worlds and the boundaries enlarged to include others. This is something that usually takes time to accomplish, for it is as if when one wall is torn down, we build another wall, yet one that enlarges our world. With each demolishing of our walls, our worlds enlarge over time.
Admittedly this process can be scary. We build walls for protection, after all. It must be remembered that the reason for this tearing down of walls that separate one from another is to enlarge our capacity for love and compassion. As this capacity increases, our fear decreases. Love casts out fear. For most of us, this will take all our lives. Human life is a spiritual journey, and in the end, it is the journey that matters. Our willingness to become more and more inclusive of others (and thus more inclusive of God) in our lives is what is important.
The above description is the lens through which I see the issue of inclusion and exclusion within the church, society, and my own little world. There are always those who are excluded. And it seems to me that this is the issue that will not go away. Women’s rights, minority rights, gay and lesbian rights, transgender rights, immigrant rights: these are all examples of the continuing challenge of who can be accepted as one of us and of what requirements can be demanded of those we include. I think the solution to such a challenge is what the early church found when debating whether or not to include gentiles, that is, do not burden others with what one cannot do oneself.
I pray that my eyes may become open enough to see how I exclude others, and that I may also have the grace to become more and more inclusive, not only of others but of God as well. For when we reject others we reject God: “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” (Matthew 25:40) — Br. Martin
You can download the whole Abbey Letter (Of St. Gergory's Abbey) here.