Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Exclusion Won't Work

Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4.4-5)

Soul Food

Being one with Southern roots who’s also an incurable Francophile, I’m always amused by the similarity between dishes I grew up with and offerings on French menus. The cooks who fed me as a child may not have exhibited the flair and nuance Parisians are famous for. But without hesitation any of them could trade places with a three-star French chef and each would feel completely at home in the other’s kitchen. Southern food—soul food—shares one fundamental with French food: disdain for waste. If it’s edible, it’s credible. With a bit of ingenuity and a lot of patience, the lowliest parts of any beast or plant can be transformed into delicacies when cooked with the right seasonings at the right temperature. Southern cooks and French chefs create culinary triumphs from foodstuff less imaginative cooks toss aside by viewing all food as inherently good and useful. How it’s treated makes the difference. And they take it upon themselves to treat it with love and respect that brings its goodness to light.

Cracklings are a good example. They’re pigskin sheared from fatback (just what it sounds like). You rub rock salt, cayenne, and black pepper on the skin, cut it in strips, and bake them on a rack. Heat causes them to puff up and the residual fat mingled with spices saturates them with flavor. Cracklings make for a fine snack. But they’re best with white beans slowly simmered in the juices of a ham hock, roast beef drippings, and other leftover meats. In France, they call the bean portion cassoulet and pigskin bits grattons. Grattons are less spicy than cracklings, but cassoulet tastes the same as our bean stew. We call it “country cooking;” they call it “cuisine.” Either way, it’s soul food, because it reflects reverence and appreciation of goodness in everything God makes.

Wasteful Cooks

The soul-food philosophy is identical to the one behind Paul’s statement to Timothy: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4.4-5) On its own, it sounds like a sunny proverb. (A Web search turned up eight posters—all happy and pretty—with its inscription.) Yet when we read down from verse 1, we discover it’s a cautionary reminder. Paul warns his young charge to be wary of believers who “abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits.” (v1) They’re seduced by “teachings [that] come from hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” (v2) Paul cites two erroneous doctrines that exemplify the sort of foolishness Timothy should guard against: “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (v3) Then, lest Timothy succumb to similarly baseless notions, Paul restates the truth: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected.”

If you’ll indulge one last tug on the soul-food metaphor, Paul’s saying, “Stay clear of wasteful cooks. If they throw out perfectly good food because they think it’s nasty—or too hard to swallow—or it violates religious taboos—or they have neither talent nor patience to bring out its flavor—or ingratitude blinds them to its goodness—don’t hang out in their kitchens and eat at their tables. They’re incompetent.” Returning to Paul’s original context, his message makes sense. People who doubt the inherent goodness of God’s creation, who feel no compunction about rejecting anyone or anything God made have no business messing with God’s business. Beliefs that alienate aren’t to be believed. Religious groups that throw lives away instead of gratefully seasoning and preparing them for service aren’t faith communities. Christians who dismiss people on sight have yet to see Christ. And taboo-driven traditions that teach exclusion have abandoned Christ’s way to follow hypocritical liars with seared consciences; they’re neither credible nor competent in the faith.

Received with Thanksgiving

The Church and the Body of Christ it represents are ordained for one purpose and only one: to nurture faith. The last recorded conversation we have between Jesus and Peter, whom Jesus charged with founding the Church, confirms this. In John 21, Jesus asks whether Peter loves Him. “Lord, you know I love you,” the disciple protests, to which Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” He takes Peter over this three times to leave no room to doubt the Church’s mission is feeding souls. Policies and practices, doctrines and dogmas that hedge this command by questioning the inherent goodness in God’s creation and rejecting anyone for any reason evidence no love for Christ. That’s why exclusion won’t work for those in committed relationship with Christ. Out of love for Christ, they turn no one away. They receive everyone with thanksgiving, knowing what each life can become once it’s seasoned with God’s word and prayer.

Genuine Christians know exclusion won’t work, because they know how God works. God isn’t in the trash business. God doesn’t throw us away. God saves us. Open any page in the Gospels. Every word Jesus says, every story He tells, every trait He exemplifies, and everything He does points directly toward redemption. “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” He says in John 6.37, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

So where did this noxious idea that one must become righteous to be part of the Church originate? It makes no sense. Being part of the Church is how we become righteous. That’s why exclusion won’t work. And that’s what anyone struggling with religious exclusion has to realize. The landscape is dotted with churches deceived by doctrines of exclusion and ingratitude for God’s creation. Without knowing it, they’ve abandoned the Church Christ ordained. When they say you’re not good enough to belong, they speak for no one but them. God created you. Know that. There is goodness in you. Know that. You deserve to be received with thanksgiving by believers committed to bringing your goodness to light. Exclusion only works if we allow it. Love for Christ won’t permit that. That’s why exclusion won’t work.

Exclusion won’t work for those in committed relationship with Christ. They find goodness in all of God’s creation and receive everyone with thanksgiving.


Philomena Ewing said...

Amen to this ! We have pork cracklings in the UK too-!

Tim said...

Phil, thanks! As you're well aware, we don't turn the gay-Christian thing into a one-note sonata around here, and I try to be as sensitive as possible to keeping the conversation as rounded as possible.

But I'd just got off the phone with someone who used that onerous phrase "they don't accept your lifestyle." And then I opened the daily lectionary and there was Paul (writing to Timothy of all people!) saying nothing is to be rejected! I could almost literally hear the Spirit say, "Time to pick this up again."

I think it's good for all of us to be reminded from time to time that exclusion and righteousness aren't compatible. But for alienated Christians of all orientations, it's also important to realize they need not tolerate exclusion; they're free to seek more welcoming homes that teach and practice what Paul writes about.

In the US, for example, there are perhaps millions of gay people who are trying to be faithful believers by remaining in the traditions they've been raised in--enduring hateful, non-biblical rhetoric and hiding their sexuality as a price for practicing their faith. A number of us working in this part of the vineyard want them to know they can find what they need in other communities; there are healthier homes that will welcome them. It's just so hard for them let go what they've always known--as unhealthy as it is--to venture out and seek community. Many of them ultimately give up and drop out altogether. That grieves my soul.

So, I suppose, it is a good thing every now and then to take the proverbial bull by the horns and do what we can to render it powerless. Exclusion is what must be excluded from the Body's mentality and conversation!

Blessings, dear friend, and the next time I'm in the UK, I'll have to scout out some cracklings!