by Christopher C. Thompson
Terrorists, drug dealers, rapists, drug addicts, homosexuals… I’m trying to think of all the different types of people whom we consider to be cut off from God.
I have long struggled with this given the fact that over the years it has been some of the very people on this list that have demonstrated for me a vibrant and authentic spirituality. I struggle because I know that these people would have to fight to find a safe place in many of our faith communities.
Take for instance Donald and Dave. I have known them for over ten years. We were neighbors many moons ago and they are to date the best neighbors our family has ever had. They are some of the warmest, most hospitable and kind people I have ever met. When we were on the road they looked after our house, received our deliveries. They cooked for us often, and we spent many hours talking over delicious meals about life, relationships, family and spirituality. They are jewels. We miss them dearly.Then there’s Casey. He’s been involved with drug culture his entire life. His mom was a drug dealer. His dad was a drug dealer and a pimp. He was a hopeless drug addict and then began to deal drugs himself. I have met few people with a more pastoral, nurturing spirit. While he did not sell the drug that had ensnared him, he did have a very interesting perspective on the role that illegal substances play in the lives of impoverished and oppressed people. I learned so much from him. He started coming to church, but not for long. I have a really funny story about this. Maybe I’ll tell it to you another time. But here’s what you need to know: Casey directed me to more people to baptize, counsel and study with than all of my other members combined.
These are true stories and I have many more like them. Neither Donald, Dave or Casey would be welcomed in our churches, but they are all very dear friends of mine. The fact is, I often feel more comfortable with them than I have felt with my own members…that still hurts to think about…but it’s true. Here’s another harsh reality, I would much rather spend time in the places where I find these people than I would at church. Maybe it says more about me than it does about church. I don’t mind that at all. I have learned to acknowledge and accept my limitations and inconsistencies. Nevertheless, I press toward the mark.
As much as this upsets me, I understand that this is not new. As a matter of fact, this is something that the believers have dealt with for thousands of years. I’m reminded of the story of the leper in Mark who approached Jesus with a very strangely ordered request. “And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean’” (Mark 1:40 NASB). It’s a profound moment that sheds a great deal of clarity for us on the Hebrew worldview. If you’ve been a Christian for a considerable length of time you’ve probably heard numerous sermons on lepers, or this text in particular. With it, I’m sure you’ve heard in-depth explanations about Hansen’s Disease and how it affects the nervous system. You’ve heard about how people lose feeling in their extremities and how they can even lose their sight. But more important than the effects of the disease were the very words he spoke.
“If you are willing…” suggests that he is not sure that God desires to help him. He lives in an community where the people have created and curated a theological construct that teaches that God does not care for broken people. Now, in fairness, it was God who directed that people with this terrible disease be separated from the masses (Lev. 13:44-46). However, it’s obvious to me that what started out as a set of basic public health and safety guidelines, over time, morphed into an erroneous theological framework that undergirded a superiority complex and an oppressive caste system.
I want to be clear here. The Jews created a world where only people who looked, acted, behaved, and lived like them were honorable in the sight of God. In their minds, they were always the accepted ones, and everyone else was always rejected. The problem here is that God himself had clarified that they were nothing before they received divine favor (see Ex. 6:7, Deut. 10:15, Hos. 2:23, Eph. 2:11, 1 Cor. 12:2, 1 Pet. 2:10).
I have not quite figured out how this works. Maybe it has something to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about how a near miss (grace and mercy) emboldens us (pride and arrogance). Maybe it’s simply human nature to help ourselves feel safer by excluding others. Nevertheless, we bring shame upon the kingdom and the King when we arbitrarily decide who’s acceptable and who’s not.
As I reflect on this, I’m mindful that the list of untouchables can shift dramatically depending on whom you talk to. The fact is, some people even have on their own lists certain cultures or people groups. And while they may not have a race of people categorized as completely shut off from God, they could easily consider them to have a spiritual experience that is of considerably lower quality than their own.
There are those who think they’re taking the high-road when they pontificate about the need to do away with what they call “segregation in the church.” Yet the microaggressions abound. Minorities aren’t even allowed to sing culturally authentic songs at major church events. Then there are the snide little side comments about the preaching and the music being too loud. And don’t get me started about what their children say when they are shrouded in the anonymity that social media provides. God!!! Your people hate me!
I have no solutions here, only lamentations. I know what it’s like to be an outsider. I suppose that’s why I can relate to other outsiders. I do have three wishes though.
- I wish people could understand the anguish that outsiders feel. I recently heard a preacher point out that the man’s request was not to healed, but rather to be made “clean.” Clean was the pronouncement that was the prerogative of the priests. If the priests said you were clean then you could be included in the community again. This man wanted to be included. Rejection is exhausting. The malice that one must bear when they are on the margin of society is debilitating. That burden is worse than the physical deformity.
- I wish that more people were constantly mindful of the daily dispensation of the divine power and the miracle of grace that has been made available to us. I remember exactly where I was when God found me. Every, single, day, I am mindful that if it had not been for the grace of God…my story would be diametrically different. I am thankful, and I am humbled.
- I wish that everybody would leave the final judgment to God. We love to label and categorize people, but we get it wrong too often. We often ascribe virtue to those who don’t deserve it, and we pronounce depravity upon those who very well may be honorable. I wish that we would hope for the best for, and in, others.
I’m not confident that we will ever get this right. After all, this problem has persisted for a very, very, long time. but…for now I just pray.
God, your people hate my friends. Fact is, God, their hate is often directed at me too. I don’t have a place where they can feel free to worship you in spirit and in truth, but I sure hope to find one…or maybe even build one. I thank you for finding me, making me clean and accepting me into your family. God, make me the kind of sanctuary where people come to find safety, acceptance, grace, truth and love. And God…keep me and all of my people safe…from your people.
Christopher C. Thompson works in the Orlando, FL, area as Communication Director of the Southeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He and his wife Tracy have one son, Christopher II.