Does justice require inclusion and diversity?

The simple answer is “yes” and “no.” However, my emphasis here is going to be on the “no,” simply because I exist in a religious context where that is what needs to be said and heard.

Some years ago, my family played a board game called Scruples. The game involved attempting to guess what another player would do in certain specific and highly dilemma-creating ethical situations.

The game has three kinds of cards that players can use to declare their answers: Yes, No and It Depends.

After a few rounds, we decided to set aside all the It Depends cards because they were being overused.

Of all of my family, I especially often played the It Depends card about my own hypothetical behavior in the hypothetical dilemma-creating ethical situation described on a question card “in play.”

While I do not like the phrase “situation ethics,” I have long believed and still do believe that, in many dilemma-creating ethical situations, how I believe I would act rightly depends on the context.

So, when asked what I would do in such a hypothetical moral situation demanding a decision and response, I say, “It depends,” and what I mean is, “It depends on the context.”

I fear that in today’s American society, and especially in moderate-to-progressive Protestantism (my religious context), many people have come to assume that justice requires inclusion and diversity – but without considering contexts.

“Inclusion” and “diversity” have become mantras in many moderate-to-progressive religious contexts (to say nothing of secular ones). Anyone who even dares to take a breath and hesitate and then say, “It depends,” is written off as uncaring about justice and love.

Years ago, I invited the pastor of a Baptist church that advertised itself as a “liberal church” and described itself also as “an inclusive church” to speak to my classes about liberal Christianity.

He was a well-educated, bright and articulate man who did not mind walking into a class of mostly conservative students and answering their questions about his church and its theology and ethos.

He returned to this gig several years in a row and seemed to thrive on defending his church’s “liberal” and “inclusive” labels.

Some of my brighter students asked him whether his church would “include” a conservative Christian who believed the Bible to be supernaturally inspired, inerrant and authoritative. At least one asked him whether his church would “include” a white supremacist.

In every case, his answer was that it would not; it would help such a person find another church to attend. My students began to look skeptical and some even snickered quietly.

Finally, because no students asked this question, I asked him whether a person could become a full member of his liberal and inclusive Baptist church without believer’s baptism. He said that such a person could not join the church although he or she would be welcome to attend and participate.

Again, the students found this inconsistent with his previous and public descriptions of his church as “inclusive.”

To defend his church’s requirement of believer’s baptism for membership, he appealed to “tradition.” Some of us pointed out that this also seemed inconsistent with his Baptist church’s breaks with tradition.

Does anyone believe that all nonprofit organizations, whether religious or secular, must be totally and unqualifiedly “inclusive” in order to exist in a state of justice? I doubt it.

So, for everyone I know, the answer to whether their church or other nonprofit organization should include “all comers” is always, when pressed, “It depends,” and even, eventually, “No.”

Let’s imagine a nonprofit organization that exists without boundaries of any kind; everyone is welcome to participate, vote and even potentially lead – regardless of their status, beliefs, lifestyle and so on.

I submit that such an organization would be impossible because it would have no real purpose other than inclusion and diversity.

Now, of course, I anticipate the objection from someone that such an organization could have as its purpose promoting inclusion and diversity through meeting people different from them and through dialogue with them.

However, what if someone wanted to join who was adamantly opposed to inclusion and diversity and dialogue with people different from themselves? Eventually such an organization would find a way to ostracize such a joiner; if he or she persisted in promoting exclusion and separatism, that person would be asked to leave.

I return to my response of “It depends.” Whether justice and (in a religious context) even love require inclusion and diversity depends on many factors.

Notice that here I am not talking about government entities or even businesses, although I would argue that even such are never “wide open” to inclusion and diversity without qualifications. I am talking primarily about nonprofit educational, religious, fraternal and charitable organizations.

Some moderate-to-progressive religious organizations are talking as if “inclusion” and “diversity” matter more than anything else, are required by love and justice, and are ends in themselves. My response to this trend is “It depends.”

Let me offer one example where I believe an emphasis on inclusion and diversity can go too far.

One church with which I am very familiar that prides itself on being moderate-to-progressive began to sing during its Sunday worship services a newish hymn titled “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table.”

One verse of the hymn lists the kinds of people who have a “place at the table.”

Although the song itself does not explicitly identify “the table” with the Lord’s Table of Communion, I think it’s safe to assume that identity – although the hymn writer would probably say “the table” represents more than just the Lord’s Table of Communion.

In the church to which I refer, I think it is safe to assume most people automatically identified “the table” in the hymn as the Lord’s Table of Communion. And probably with membership in the church.

Among the people whom the hymn says have “a place at the table” are “abuser and abused.” To the best of my memory, the hymn says nothing about repentance or reform – as a condition of having “a place at the table.”

When I asked the pastor about the hymn, and whether we should really be singing a song that seems to include abusers together with the “abused” at the Lord’s Table, he responded that the song assumes repentance and reform.

I don’t see that it does. If that hymn is to be sung in a Christian church, someone ought to make it clear that abusers need to repent and reform before coming to the Lord’s Table – or even seeking membership. I never heard that said.

I suspect that some may accuse me of nitpicking. I don’t think so.

For me, the fact that that church continued to sing that hymn even after I pointed out the obvious problem with it contributed to my decision to walk out of the sanctuary and leave the worship service – at least for a time – whenever that hymn was sung. I walked out in solidarity with the victims of abuse.

I believe the custom of singing that song in worship is an example of an endpoint of an overemphasis on inclusion and diversity “jumping backward;” to me it was emblematic of where a not properly qualified emphasis on inclusion and diversity can lead.

My point is simply this: inclusion and diversity should not be unqualified mantras; when they become such, the door is opened to a host of problems.

Justice and love do not require total and unqualified inclusion and diversity.

Most reasonable people know this, but it’s all too easy for even them to be seduced into thinking that all the boundaries and barriers that have been in place must all be lowered if not destroyed.

Eventually, insofar as this happens, the organization becomes compatible with anything and everything and then has no real reason for existing.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.

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