Rediscovering What It Means To Be Inclusive
By Brandan Robertson
One of the fastest growing used by American faith communities to define themselves is that of “inclusive”. You’d be hard pressed to find a church website in the U.S that doesn’t use the word to describe the posture of warm welcome of people from all walks of life. But for many, if not most of these communities, their version of inclusion falls dramatically short. When most of these communities are pressed about whether they would allow transgender members of their congregation in leadership roles or if a gay couple could be married in their church would answer “no”.
For these churches, their version of inclusion doesn’t actually mean that everyone is embraced just as they are, but rather, everyone is welcome to come and conform to their understanding of what is acceptable. It’s a warm welcome to come and change who you are, but if one shows up with confidence in their queer God-given identity, they will quickly be pushed towards the door. It’s an incredibly deficient version of inclusion, one that many LGBT+ people of faith have been deeply harmed by as they have joined communities touting the “I” word, only to find out that their churches version of inclusion simply doesn’t include them.
On the other hand, there are many progressive communities of faith that also use the word “inclusion” and really do mean that all are welcome to come and participate in worship. These communities likely will march in pride parades and show up at local demonstrations, and by and large, from and ideological standpoint, they are radically inclusive. But when one walks in to many of these churches for Sunday worship, you often find that for some reason, their inclusion usually stops short of diversity.
These congregations are often made up of one marginalized group- most often gay, white, cisgender, men, and that’s about it. While it is certainly important that white gay men have a place to be welcomed, many churches, once they declare they are inclusive and attract a few more gay people think that their work is done- they have arrived at progressive enlightenment and can simply bask in the glory of being “inclusive”.
In both of these contexts there has been a severe misunderstanding of what it means to be truly inclusive, and if churches in America are truly going to lean into the value of inclusion, there must be a moment of reckoning with what exactly that term means. In my new book True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace, I suggest that to be truly inclusive calls churches into a continual posture of checking and leveraging their privilege to give the voiceless back their voice in their community. It requires constant conversation, engagement in the community, and a fundamental shift in the way a churches faith is spoken of and manifest in the world.
The type of inclusion that Jesus Christ embodied was one that moved beyond the walls of the establishment to identify and empower those who have been told their voice doesn’t matter. It was extending a hand to those who have been pushed down by the systems and structures of power, and lifting them up to confront the very systems that the church may be a part of. It’s an understanding of how toxic privilege has infected every aspect of our churches theology and practice of the centuries, and is a commitment to rethink and reform every aspect of our faith through valuing and learning from the perspectives of the marginalized. True inclusion demands an overhauling of Christianity to return to the radical movement of redemption that began with that renegade Rabbi from Nazareth.
When a church begins to engage in true inclusion, it always costs them. Numbers, money, and power are the first things to go when a community commits to following the inclusive way of Christ. It’s hard to build a church around the idea that we should be consistently uncomfortable, consistently challenged in our thinking, and consistently seeking to grow beyond our internal spiritual boundaries. It’s hard to motivate the masses to forfeit their privilege and power for the good of those whose privilege and power has been stolen. It’s hard to take the words and example of Jesus seriously, but it’s the most basic meaning of the word “disciple”- to actually follow the inclusive example of Christ.
Oftentimes it is the more progressive faith communities that resist this most fiercely- they have already changed their policies and procedures to embrace minorities, they may have voted denominational resolutions supporting activist movements, and they may even elect minority leaders to their highest offices- but all of that movement is taking place within their own system of comfort. It requires nothing more than mental assent and lip service, which will ultimately do very little to change the tangible reality in their midst.
No, to be truly inclusive requires consistent action and engagement from the pulpit to the pew. It requires more than tokenizing a few minorities in our midst or flying a rainbow flag on our door. It demands that we leave the comfort of our pews and use our resources to simply serve those in our community who are fighting for equity and justice. It requires us to do our own work learning and listening to the ways we have perpetuated exclusion and injustice. It requires regular repentance and transformation in how we live our lives in the world. It requires that we do more than “respond” to major moments of injustice, but consistently engage in organizing for justice even when the TV cameras aren’t around.
True inclusion shifts the posture and practice of a faith community. It calls us to question our mission and values as a community. It won’t make our churches the biggest or the most popular. But that’s never been what following in the way of Jesus has been about, has it? To be truly inclusive requires sacrificing our desire to be “successful” in the way our society has defined it and embracing a more meaningful vision of what success looks like- transformed lives, a transformed society, and a transformed world. And it seems to me that these sorts of communities are precisely what the world needs most in this moment of our collective history.
Brandan Robertson is the author of True Inclusion. He is an author, pastor, thought-leader, and contemplative activist working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal.