9-5-17 - Exclusion?

We love to talk about how inclusive church should be. But In our gospel passage this week, Jesus suggests conditions for exclusion. He lays out a process for dealing with conflict in the community of faith, by which someone who has inflicted hurt might participate in repentance and reconciliation. He also provides a contingency for those occasions when the offending party is unable or unwilling to be reconciled: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

On the face of it, this approach seems realistic, if harsh. If trust has been breached in the community, and attempts at repair have failed, perhaps wholeness can only be gained by isolating the offender. No doubt this teaching gave rise to the practice of shunning and excommunication in some Christian groups. Separating an offender from the community at large can be an act of punishment or protection, or both. It is also an act of aggression, even if warranted, as in the case of an abusive spouse or parent whose presence in the community would make it impossible for the survivor to feel safe.

I wonder, though, if Jesus meant something else entirely. The way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to eat with them and heal them, invite them to repent and to join his community. The people he seemed to have no desire to be in relationship with were the "holy men," the religious leaders. Is Jesus inviting us to go deeper into reconciliation than is comfortable? Is he suggesting we open ourselves to the Other who has hurt us, to see her wounds and distorted perceptions, reach across the divide with love that has the power to transform?

That is an intriguing read of this passage. As a strategy, it leaves room for growth, where distancing and isolating offenders does not. I knew a church in which a seeker was found to have been viewing internet pornography involving minors. He complied with law enforcement when discovered, entering willingly into the justice process and into therapy, hoping to find deliverance from this compulsive behavior. But people in the church were unwilling to have him around, except under very stringent guidelines – rules which ensured he could never become part of that otherwise loving community in which he might have found healing and transformation. I believe safety for all could have been ensured without this degree of exclusion – but we’ll never know. He did not stay long under these strictures, and neither he nor his wife continued their exploration of the Christian life. And some members of that church missed an opportunity to expand their capacity to love the sinner – and so to experience God’s love more fully.

Of course, each situation demands its own discernment. Reaching out must be accompanied by true honesty, within safe boundaries for those hurt. I think of the Truth Commissions set up in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid. Reconciliation was forged not by burying grievances, but by bringing them into the light, speaking them in truth and clarity, with the perpetrators there to hear the effects of their actions and invited to repent. Healing for victims can happen without the repentance of perpetrators, but when you have both, there is ground for deeper engagement, deeper community.

Think of someone you have shut out of your life or community because of harm they have caused.
Can you imagine reconciliation on any level? If so, pray for a vision of how. If not, can you pray for that person to be healed and even blessed? When someone is blessed, she is much less able to hurt.

None of this is easy, nor simple. But I believe it is the Good News which we are called to live.

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