True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace

True Inclusion Book Coverby Brandan Robertson
St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018

Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

This book is about an inclusion that is defined as “embracing the full breadth of diversity … in every single person” (p. 4). Furthermore, this kind of inclusion is “the heart of God,” “the fundamental direction of the universe” (p. 4), and “the burning core of the gospel … imperative for every follower of Christ” (p. 102). If any part of this definition feels different from what you had been assuming, then Robertson’s daring transformation of traditional definitions should serve as a challenge for you to open up your mind.

When I became an evangelical queer activist, our first job was to deal with the six “clobber passages” that seemed to exclude LGBT+ people from church leadership. The big question then was “Is the homosexual my neighbor?” with the fervent belief that “non-neighbors” should be avoided to protect the purity of the gospel. Eventually, we moved to a stronger position: indeed, everyone is my neighbor and should be welcomed. But often that “welcome” required outsiders to become insiders by changing their beliefs and actions to match those of the congregation. Now, in studies like this one and Elizabeth Edman’s Queer Virtue (2016), the point is learning that inclusion is the very essence of Christ’s message and practice. This perspective emphasizes that “what God has called clean must not be called unclean” (Acts 10:15, a Scripture I have never heard discussed by clergy in any of my 86 years). This revolutionary statement indicates that God has made us all with one common core of being, so that boundaries and exclusions drawn by our egos are the essence of sin.

Robertson asserts that Jesus was crucified “not in order to absorb the wrath of God, but because Jesus magnified the agape of God – the unmerited, unconditional, never-ending, ever-growing love of God for every molecule in the universe, without exceptions” (p. 28). Therefore, for a person to take up the cross means to be “willing to name our privilege, willing to carry burdens in solidarity with [the oppressed], and willing to destroy exclusion by our own self-sacrifice” (p. 64). This kind of cross-bearing means “to dive deep into ourselves and deconstruct all that we have been indoctrinated to believe about how the world has to work, and then to begin building a new world, right here and right now” (p. 31).

How then is the kingdom of God to be defined? It is “not some far off otherworldly reality, but is instead God making [Her] dwelling among humans” (p. 36). To arrive at this definition, Robertson explores Revelation 21:22–27, Luke 13:21, and John 17:21 (pp. 36–38). On the basis of these and other biblical passages, Robertson (correctly, I think) declares that “the whole thrust of the gospel of Christ is that God has declared all of humanity to be ‘clean’” (p. 37).

Paradoxically, building a truly inclusive community requires one exclusion, because “welcoming those who oppose the very personhood … of others in our community … undoes the entire grounding of … true inclusion” (p. 49). Because the United States has perpetuated a myth of “inferiority of all … people who [are] not white, straight, cisgender men,” we must now build a democracy where “only perspectives … of equality and inclusivity as an idea are allowed to govern” (p. 51).

Robertson notes that the early church had to purge its theology of its patriarchal mindset (p. 53; see Acts 2:44–47). How then should we define salvation? It is “a new way of seeing and being … that essentially ignore[s] the patriarchy altogether” (p 57).

Robertson rejects the goal of building ever-larger congregations in favor of liberating people to change communities if they feel called to do so (p. 80). Unfortunately, many Christian churches have made marginalizing others into an entire theology. “The … evangelical theological paradigm depends upon patriarchy,” which must, therefore, be “completely deconstructed” (p. 68). Robertson provides comments from five leaders of inclusive congregations, an appendix describing ten actions that would help a group achieve true inclusivity, and a bibliography of further resources.

In the process of supporting his powerful thesis, Robertson explains that, although the Greek word metanoia is often translated “repentance,” its literal translation is “to expand one’s mind.” Therefore, to be inclusive, we must “give up the certainties of which religion often assures us, and be willing to hold tensions, to deconstruct, and to experience total transformation throughout our lives” (p. 71).

Well, this is the challenge. How many pastors, priests, congregations, and individuals will take up the cross of selfless inclusion? We cannot afford to wait and see. Our job as followers of Jesus is precisely to follow Jesus by embodying universal love, as Jesus did.

 

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott was married to Judith Suzannah Tilton until her death in 2018, and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. In 2017 she was awarded the inaugural Mother Eagle Award. At age 86, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continues to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek Community educational programs. She has recently taught an Elderhostel course on the poems of the Rev. Dr. John Donne, and a course on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. She deeply regrets that her severe arthritis forbids her presence at recent and wonderful street protests.

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