This post concludes our series on relational transformation. In previous posts, we spoke of “sin” as relational failure and suggested that this view of sin encapsulates areas that are often separated, for example, a nasty comment, the marginalization and abuse of women, and the destruction of the environment.
Parts of Christianity still labor under philosophical and theological categories that allow for “personal transformation” disconnected from “social transformation,” where issues of justice are neglected or secondary—where, for instance, the gospel story may speak to how we relate to our families but not to the abuse of women. If, however, we view sin and evil as relational failure, then the transformation of a marriage, or the transformation of a racist society, or the transformation of environmental abuse are similar concerns.
So a series of articles on relational transformation should include issues of justice, and I’d like to consider one area.
What relationships are the hardest to transform? Where is relational failure most evident? An answer is suggested in Jesus’s words to his disciples, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47)
One notable problem plaguing our species is tribalism. Raiding and war for resources and territory has gone on for tens of thousands of years and possibly longer. Furthermore, in documented history, religion has played an active role in conflict. Even today, Christianity often promotes an insider-outsider mentality. All too often, we find churches, denominations, and seminaries that perpetrate an exclusive and insular mindset. Viewed from the outside, the message is, “If you want to be part of our community, you have to become like us. Borg-like, we’ll assimilate your distinctives into our collective. Your differences are only valuable as far as they improve our community.”
There is, however, an inbuilt critique seen in the life of Jesus and the gospel story. It is difficult to read and interact with the accounts of Jesus without noticing his relational integrity with and love for outsiders—for people on the fringes of society, for people whom society shuns and excludes. For instance, when parents bring their children to Jesus, and the disciples try to shoo them away, we read, “But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’” (Luke 18: 16). Jesus turns the table by telling adults (in this case, his disciples) that they must become like the people they exclude.
On another occasion, Jesus says to some Israelites regarding a Gentile, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9). Again, Jesus includes the excluded (a Gentile Roman soldier) and encourages Israel to model their faith on this outsider.
One final example—Jesus’s conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). People have excluded this woman for three mains reasons: her race, sex, and morals. She is a Samaritan, a woman, and one who has gone through five husbands and the person she is living with is not her husband. One strike would be enough to show you the door, three strikes gets you a spit and kick on the way out. The woman is astonished that Jesus talks to her, given that Jews excluded Samaritans. (According to Jews, Samaritans were the wrong race, had the wrong Bible, the wrong theology, and worshipped in the wrong place). When Jesus’s disciples arrive at the well, they have a similar response—they are stunned that Jesus is speaking with her.
If there was one thing that riled up people, it was Jesus’s relationship with outsiders. In Luke 4:14-22, we read that everyone was amazed at his teaching and everyone spoke well of him. Jesus’s response is to speak of God’s concern for the outsider (a widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian). The result? “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).
And it didn’t stop there. Jesus had the gall to make these outsiders the heroes in his stories. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Who is the hero of the story? It is the tax collector. Imagine! The “righteous” one in that society is not right before God, but the unrighteous one is.
Societies define some people as the “worst of the worst.” They are ones whom society has contempt for, is indifferent to, and sometimes persecutes to death. Usually, people don’t recognize the depth of the problem. It is hard to recognize the evil of this exclusion because the society feels justified in shunning these kinds of people, and their culture supports them in doing so. In Jesus’s time, people singled out tax collectors with disgust. A recurring phrase in the New Testament is “sinners and tax collectors.” Not only are the tax collectors lumped together with “sinners” but they are also the one group of people singled out and particularly identified as being rotten.
But it is these people Jesus hangs out with, including choosing one to be a disciple. The attraction was mutual. Tax collectors came to hear Jesus speak and Jesus ate with them, so much so that Jesus’s enemies called him a “friend of sinners and tax collectors” (Matthew 11:19).
So the gospel story has an inbuilt critique and challenge to exclusive clubs. The appeal is to transform these most difficult and problematic of relationships.
But some may raise objections. Does this mean giving up our beliefs, values, and identity? And what about our theological reasons for exclusion? Two things we should keep in mind:
(1) The exclusion of others based on theological arguments has a sad history. For instance, support for slavery, apartheid, contempt for Jews, and the inferior nature and status of women, have all been wrestled from the Bible. But as the Church has further reflected on the gospel story, its foundational text, and has experienced the continuing work of the Spirit, these “biblical” reasons for exclusion are now considered immoral.
(2) Justice is not about giving up everything we believe. It is about seeking ways to be in better relationship with outsiders. Once this happens, we will find that not only do outsiders need transformation. Relationships with those we once excluded will transform us. So, yes, some of our beliefs, attitudes, and ways of relating will change. Relationships always bring change. Modern psychology and theology has rightly stressed that we are not isolated individuals, but persons-in-relationship. Our relations define who we are. Even our identity will transform, because our identity is inextricably tied to others.
Justice is not “just us.” Justice is more than simply including the outsider. It is the process of relational transformation with those outside our group. It is removing the barriers that separate us from those who are different. It is to be for the “other” and for their good. Jesus exemplifies this way of life, as well as people such as Paul, who used the gospel story to break down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.