The Church is a Community of Equals
The church is a democratic community of faith, founded in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Elisabeth Fiorenza said that the church is a “radical, democratic, and inclusive assembly of equals.” In this democratic community, all gifts and opinions are respected, and all the responsibilities are shared in the spirit of love, care, and servant-hood. It is not a few older men deciding for everybody; all people – men, women, youth, disabled, etc are all included. The Bible further testifies that the church is a called-out community to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ that transcends all walls of separation. Using the analogy of the body, St. Paul explains the nature and function of the church. All the members are different, unique, and yet equally important just like different parts of “one body”. All the gifts are from God, and for the whole people of God. However, we have lost the essence of the community of equals in the church. Today, the church is patriarchal, monarchical, and caste-based, where many church leaders are like pujaris (mere ritual performers) – preservers of church traditions and properties.
Marginality and Exclusion
Some people are socially excluded in Indian/Asian society, so also in the church. Social exclusion refers to the denial of equal access to opportunities imposed on certain groups of people by privileged groups. This denial includes livelihood, employment, property, credit or land, housing, education, citizenship and legal equality, democratic participation, cultural resources, and religious rights. Today, the people who cannot participate in the basic economic, political, social, and religious functions are women, dalit, tribal/adivasi, religious/cultural minorities, migrant workers, people with different sexual orientations, persons with disabilities, and persons living with HIV. Due to denial and exclusion, they suffer by lowered self-esteem, of contempt, segregation, endogamy, exclusion, and discrimination on many fronts. We may cite a few examples.
- Exclusion of Persons with Disabilities: Abled people exclude persons with disabilities. We see them as the embodiment of suffering, evil, uncleanness, and depravity. Many churches are still not open to recognizing the gift of persons with disabilities and we keep them away from the church and society. Yet their bodies and labourers are exploited and are deprived of their freedom. The church has often exhibited a patronizing attitude toward them, and see them as charity cases and objects of pity and compassion. The church finds it difficult to welcome them into the Body of Christ. We deny them in giving leadership in the church. How do we make the experience of the disabled people ‘central’ in the body of Christ? How do we integrate their vision of life in strengthening the mission of the church?
- Persons living with HIV: One group of marginalized people who are stigmatized by societies are people living with HIV. Some years ago, I was involved in an ESHA-NCCI sponsored HIV awareness programme among theological teachers. I posed a few questions to assess their level of awareness, perceptions, and attitudes. Three responses were quite shocking. In response to whether an HIV-positive church member should be allowed to participate in the Holy Communion, one answer was, “It depends how the person got infected.” I asked him why? He kept quiet but his silence provided the answer – if the person got infected through a sexual act, that person should not be given Holy Communion. Another question was: Would you recommend HIV-positive to a local congregation for pastoral ministry (who is very committed and doing very well in studies)? The answer was “no.” I asked him why? He replied, “The person is going to die soon.” Another replied, “As long as HIV is associated with immoral activities, I will not recommend it.” The judgemental attitude is the root of exclusion. The answers say a lot about how we perceive those infected and affected by HIV – we are always judgmental and have a negative attitude.
- Exclusion of Women: We have been talking about women’s rights in society as well as in the church for many years, yet women’s identities are shaped by men – our society and church operate within a patriarchal structure, and women are still excluded from leadership in many churches. All the characteristics of being “feminine,” such as obedience, tenderness, sweetness, humbleness, discretion, maternity, are ascribed to them by men to ensure their status as passive mates and mothers of their children. This has denied women both a voice and an agency, since their bodies, sexuality, and entire lives have been controlled by men. In many churches, women are not given pastoral and responsible leadership positions. Some churches give second-grade ordination to women. This is discrimination and known as exclusion from the mainstream church. Are our churches not practicing injustice against women?
These are just a few examples, but similar attitudes are still prevalent towards migrants, dalits, indigenous people, young people, and persons with different sexual orientations. They are treated like second-class citizens in the body of Christ and are excluded groups within the power structure. This is called structural sin.
Jesus’ Ministry among Excluded People
In the biblical tradition, the socially excluded people are the privileged space for God’s compassion and justice. There are several accounts of God’s special attention, care, and love to people in situations of systemic oppression and deprivation. God hears the cry of the oppressed and responds by sustaining and accompanying them in their journey towards liberation. (Exo.3:7-8). Jesus announced his manifesto as one that liberates the oppressed, opens the eyes that are blind, and heals the sick (Lk 4: 16f). By asserting time and again that he has come to seek the lost and the least, Jesus constantly located his ministry among the socially excluded people of his time. Jesus, knowing that his liberating actions would ultimately lead him to the cross, rejected abusive power (Lk.1:1-12), oppressive and legalistic religious traditions (Lk 11:37-54), and opted for a ministry to seek and restore the ones who were denied life. He worked for justice, peace, equality, dignity, and respect of all. Thus, through such an option, Jesus exposed and confronted the forces of marginalization.
To enable people to celebrate life in fullness, Jesus was involved in and identified with the grassroots and ground reality of the socially excluded people. He did not belong to the elite or rich class. He was with, for, and from the people who were outside of power structure and people’s problems and predicaments were his concerns. He did not understand his spirituality in terms of separation from the people in pain, but in terms of total identification; the Pharisees and the Scribes were always uncomfortable about his association with the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom he regularly ate and drank (Mk. 2: 15-17; Lk. 15:1-2; 5:27-32; Matt. 9:9-13). Jesus also said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, brothers, relatives, or your rich neighbours …. But invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Lk 14: 12-14a). This indicates his priority and perspective of social exclusion and injustice. In Jesus’ view, God’s kingdom is incomplete without the inclusion of people in the margin. Thus, one can discern that there is a reversal of values or transvaluation of values. Jesus worked for the rejected and excluded ones and brought them to the central stage; his morality and ethics were not legalistic, ritualistic, and traditional; he was not self-righteous and hypocritical in his relationships. Therefore, an authentic church is only possible through identification in love with the victims, the poor, and the sufferers of social exclusion. The church is not a magnificent building nor a place of strict ritual observance, but a building of the people – the whole people of God. Building people demands dismantling of oppressive structures in favour of the socially excluded communities.
The Poor Resisting Exclusion in the Early Christian Community
Christianity spread fast despite Roman persecution. The early Christian community, who mostly come from the lower strata of the society, had to resist two powers – the Romans and the religious hierarchy. The imperial domination, social injustice, false pride, legalism, hypocritical religiousness, and infidelity to God’s Covenant kept out people of the power structure. Against these evils, the poor Christians, the uneducated, the untouchables from Bethany, and the neglected villages in and around Jerusalem and Galilee, empowered by the event of the Pentecost, developed a prophetic mission against imperial domination. The experience of the Pentecost empowered them to express their resistance against the power of mammon and the abusive power in the hierarchy by developing the practice of common ownership of property and the sharing of wealth. This solidarity and sharing of wealth among the poor people became a threat to the existing empire and its social, political, and economic structures. On the Pentecost day, the believers of Jesus Christ began to speak in tongues and claimed that they are also anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. They fought against the religious and economic monopoly of the empire by sharing and solidarity.
We cannot talk about a true church and Christian witness without resisting the unjust structure in our political, social, and economic systems. While giving more importance to soul winning, the church in the past often failed to challenge the economic, social, religious, cultural, and political systems which have marginalized sections of the people in society. For instance, during the Edinburgh Conference in 1910, the leaders at that time thought that oikoumene (unity of the churches) was possible even without removing and transforming the structures of oppression and exploitation of colonial regimes. The same is the case in the church today. We often think that the church is inclusive without questioning the exclusionary structures. The existence of the church will have no meaning without challenging and transforming the systemic injustices that are taking place in the church.
Inclusive Vision from Excluded People
From the experience of exclusion and denial, the excluded groups are capable of offering solutions for building an inclusive society. We often think that the poor have nothing to offer; it is only the rich who can offer! Influenced by the capitalist ideology, Christians often think that marginalized people have nothing to offer as they do not have money. No money means dependent and incapable of doing missions. These negative and wrong perceptions have often resulted in viewing socially marginalized people as objects or recipients of the Christian mission. Many philanthropic or humanitarian initiatives are guided by such attitudes. People who give more money are respected and we think that they are the ones who are contributing to and doing God’s mission. This kind of elitist and prosperity theology rule the church today. The poor have survived for centuries even without the support of the rich. Even today they will survive as long as they have the land. Another sad reality is that the poor are seen as timid and incapable of articulation; they are to be taught. We never consult them on how to solve their problem. We think we have a solution. Such understandings have failed to acknowledge the potential of the marginalized people in the church and society. People who have not experienced exclusionary injustice cannot offer a new vision of life. The church will not be able to realize what it meant to be an “inclusive community” unless we listen to the voices of the people in the margin.
The greatest gifts excluded people can offer to the world is they can expose how the injustices inflict pain, suffering, and humiliation as they have first-hand knowledge of what it meant to be excluded. God reveals among the marginalized people, not because they are weak by choice or paternalistic compassion, but primarily because their lives point towards the urgent need for repentance and transformation. The marginalized people testify that it is not material and financial resources, but solidarity among people, respect of different gifts, love and sharing, and affirmation of diversity is what we need today in building an inclusive community. Justice is the basis of an inclusive community, but not money and material support. If the rich and people in power stop unjust practices and corruption, the poor and the whole world would experience peace and harmony.
Therefore, marginalized and socially excluded people should not be viewed as those in need and despair. They are indeed capable of standing against all forces of injustice. Through their struggles for life, justice, dignity, and rights for themselves and all, they are the living testimonies of the presence and power of God in their lives. For example, persons with disabilities are promoting the values of sensitivity, passion, and partnership. They are redefining that a society without recognition and inclusion of the gifts of persons with disabilities, the church will remain disabled. Similarly, people living with HIV continue to sensitize different forms of stigmatization in the church and society. The Dalits and other discriminated communities are calling churches and communities to resist those cultures and practices that discriminate, exclude, deny, and dehumanize millions of people. They expose the sins of the caste system and cry out to dismantling the unjust caste system. The indigenous peoples are advocating the value of the interconnectedness of life, the interrelationship between human and ecological justice in the context of threatened earth in particular. They are telling that an affirmation of the integrity of God’s creation is the basis of justice. The young people in disadvantaged situations are resisting the wrong policies that deprive them of opportunities for education, employment, and participation in planning for their future, and the vulnerable migrant workers, through their struggles for human rights, dignity, and justice, are challenging political and legal systems that deny them basic human rights in the name of national interests. In all such expressions and actions, the churches today can discern new possibilities of action as well as new ecclesial self-discovery. They challenge us to work towards new patterns of inclusiveness, sharing, and transformative action.
Therefore,envisioning church from a socially excluded perspective demands not only binding the wounds of the victims or offering actions of compassion, but also calls the churches to confront and transform the unjust structural forces which cause denial, suffering, and deprivation. Thus, prophetic action involves both comforting the victim and confronting “the powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12). It demands a radical spirituality of continual struggle and commitment for the transformation of those sinful social structures and liberation of the victims. Without transformative action, churches would be a mere expression of service, subtly serving the interests of the oppressive and exploitative powers by covering up their complicity. We are called to engage in dismantling oppressive systems such as patriarchy, racism, casteism, xenophobia, and other discriminatory and exclusionary practices.