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Does"Everyone Welcome" REALLY mean everyone?

“The old woman stood with eyes uplifted in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes: high shoes polished about the tops and toes, a long rusty dress adorned with an old corsage, long withered, and the remnants of an elegant silk scarf. There was a dazed and sleepy look in her aged blue-brown eyes.”

That’s how African American author Alice Walker — best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple — introduces her short story, “The Welcome Table.”

“The old black woman has staggered down the country road half a mile from her house on the Lord’s Day, drawn by the cross on the church’s steeple, drawn to the “welcome table.” But there is no welcome to be found… People stared and shifted uneasily. An usher suggested she was in the wrong church. Finally, it was the ladies who did what — to them — had to be done and asked their husbands to throw the old coloured woman out. Inside the church, they sang and they prayed. The promises of God’s love wafted over the bowed heads of the congregation as the old woman shuffled back along the road.”

One of the great anomalies of human history is that Christianity — at its core rooted in justice, compassion, love, and tolerance has openly promoted exclusivism, intolerance, and injustice.

As Alice Walker so eloquently expressed, you don’t have to go any further than American church history to see it.

Of course, America is not alone.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about his own experiences in the Croatian-Serbian-Bosnian war. Croatia is heavily Roman Catholic; Serbia is predominantly Eastern Orthodox; Bosnia is primarily Muslim.

That conflict gave us perhaps the ugliest phrase in the English language: “ethnic cleansing,” the forced removal of Muslims from what was called “Greater Serbia” by whatever means necessary, including massacres.

He quotes a soldier in the Serbian army, which was raining artillery shells on the beautiful, defenceless city of Sarajevo, onto public buildings, hospitals, and marketplaces, picking off the elderly and children in “snipers alley.”

“There is no choice,” the Serbian soldier said. “There are no innocents.”

Volf traces the process by which the unthinkable becomes thinkable and then actually happens. The result is apartheid, holocaust, and ethnic cleansing.

If this line of thinking sounds familiar, then it's because our current news agenda features the same narrative from Russia.

With the complete and unbridled support of the Russian Orthodox Church, Vladimir Putin has pumped the narrative that Ukraine is “not a country” — but rather part of a mythical entity called “Greater Russia.”

When the stories of Ukraine are told in years to come, I suspect we will once more hear of how the unthinkable became a reality — and the insidious role of religion will be writ large… again.

There are four ways to deal with diversity.

The first is to cleanse the community or nation of difference — fascism.

It’s the dogma of the Nazis with the Jews. Serbians with Bosnian Muslims. And Russians with Ukrainians. The inevitable end result of fascism is to wipe people groups off the face of the planet in a frenzy of hate and violence.

The second way is to compartmentalise. Instead of diversity, it legitimises apartheid. The result is segregation, reservations, and internment camps.

We saw this writ large in South Africa throughout much of the Twentieth Century. Again, the church was complicit. The Dutch Reformed Church legitimised and validated that evil.

But compartmentalism doesn’t work, either. Besides violating the basic idea of freedom, compartmentalisation never leads to equality. History has taught us that lesson.

The third way to deal with diversity is the melting pot.

You might have heard the 1969 hit song, Melting Pot, from the multi-cultural British soul/pop band Blue Mink.

What we need is a great big melting pot Big enough to take, the world and all it’s got And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score

The core idea is to mix cultures, colours, and religions, stir them up, and create a global melting pot of diversity.

But do we want to see cultures that have existed for hundreds of years mushed together into a bland melting pot?

In the end, I suggest we don’t want to be stirred into a mushy “lowest common denominator” culture where we all lose what makes us unique.

So, painful experience drives us to the fourth method, which is to ACCEPT diversity and then learn to understand it, appreciate it, love it, and celebrate it.

We are driven to celebrate diversity by the reality that nothing else works.

History has shown that every other approach ends in injustice, intolerance, and tragedy.

But for Christians, understanding diversity is more than taking “the least bad option”.

It’s rooted in 50 AD when Paul arrived in one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the ancient world: the Greek City of Corinth.

The little church there was fractured. People argued about everything. There were liberals, conservatives, moderates, and fundamentalists. There were Jewish believers, Gentile believers, people from the East, and people of colour from the South.

So Paul devotes an entire chapter to patiently and carefully laying the foundation for diversity in this melting pot of cultures.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Corinthians 12.12–13, NIV)

The heart of Paul’s argument is that diversity was God’s idea first. In fact, it’s at the heart of who God is.

Diversity isn’t “a problem to be solved” for the church — as those within Christianity so often perceive it.

Instead, Diversity is God’s gift to the church — it is part and parcel of His diverse creation.

Diversity is rooted in the very nature of an infinitely creative God.

And so to deny it — and to treat people differently based on their race, gender, sexuality, or background is not simply an affront; it is a denial of who God is.

It is that simple.

There is infinite diversity in God’s kingdom — therefore, there must be in God’s church — a place for everybody.

When I think about how Jesus treated people who were perceived as outsiders—“different,” if you like—I’m drawn back to how He stunned his friends and followers by reaching out to the Samaritan woman.

Just then, his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman (John 4.27)

It was Jesus who welcomed those who were different to the table — the poor, the religiously unorthodox, the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9.10–11)

The religious types were outraged — but Jesus was perfectly at home with those customarily rejected…

And it is the same Jesus who challenges each of us to move beyond the discomfort and fear of those who are different — and to open our hearts and lives to the beautiful, multicoloured, multifaceted, and multicultural diversity of God’s wonderful creation.

Because everybody — and Jesus really does mean everybody — is welcome at God’s Table.


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