A remarkable story is situated in the book of Acts that reveals Peter’s mindset toward people he considered unclean. Peter is praying on a rooftop when he falls into a deep trance. He has a vision of a great sheet coming down from heaven on which he sees all kinds of animals. A voice then commands him to eat the animals, but Peter refuses because, for him and other Jews like him, the eating of these animals made one unclean before God. The voice, which we are to assume is God’s, however, reasserts the original command by clarifying that what God has made clean, is clean.
This story is not about animals, clean or unclean; it is about Peter’s prejudices and his exclusion of others from full participation in the community of God. Peter understood the well-established boundaries between purity and impurity, boundaries that faithful Jews of the first century dared not cross. Among those who could be viewed as unclean were the diseased, the lame, sinners of all sorts, and, in Peter’s case, the Gentiles.
Jesus also understood the boundaries between purity and impurity that existed in his day. In fact, one of the frequent accusations made against him is that he congregated with the wrong kind of people, even to the point of sharing intimate meals with them. However, regardless of whether they were sinners and tax collectors, women of questionable character, or those with unclean diseases, each societal outcast found acceptance in Jesus’ community. Why? Because Jesus also understood that in him God was establishing a kingdom in which the boundaries between those who were pure and those who were deemed impure were torn down, and he made conscious choices to cross those boundaries to share intimate space and table fellowship with them, embracing them in God’s love.
What does it mean to exclude others? Yale theologian Miroslav Volf sees the sin of exclusion inherent in four human actions. According to Volf, we exclude others from the embrace of God when we abandon them and their needs. We also exclude others when we seek to assimilate them to be like us. We practice exclusion of others when we dominate them and force our own views and way of life on them. And worse still, we exclude others when we seek to exterminate them. In light of Volf’s comprehensive description of the sin of exclusion, each one of us is in a position of guilt. How shall we remedy this situation?
When it comes to the issue of exclusion in our own world we hear two dominant voices pulling us to and fro. On one side we hear our secular culture call us to practice tolerance. The other voice comes from religious fundamentalists who preach to us that tolerance is a sin. So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it rejection of tolerance or acceptance of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred? Or should we conform to the meaninglessness of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but it keeps us at a distance from them? The biblical answer lies neither in the denunciation of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The answer lies in the person and practice of Jesus, who has come into the world not to cast us aside, and surely not to tolerate us, but rather to embrace us.
If we accept the historical reality that Jesus lived the way the Gospels say he lived, as an intimate to those considered impure to his society, then those of us who claim to follow Jesus can do nothing less than to model his way of life. But if we reject his example by choosing to exclude others, then we mock God’s embrace of us, and we come dangerously close to being outsiders to God’s kingdom.
Where are the boundaries of exclusion we have established between ourselves and those we consider unclean? Race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social standing, economic status, and sexual orientation are all areas of identity where in some form or fashion we practice exclusion. But if we are to participate in God’s kingdom coming into the world, then we must repent of our sin of exclusion, cross the boundaries we have set between ourselves and others, and embrace all persons, as God in Christ has embraced us.