As our nation celebrates the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us will hear his speeches broadcasted, attend lectures or rallies, visit memorials, and consider his impact. In a pluralistic America, the place of Rev. King's Christian faith is debated and sometimes overlooked. Was it merely a facade for him to unite the country around a civil religion? Was it one of many religions he could have trusted in order to work for equality and peace? Or was it essential to his confidence and cause?
It's commonplace to hear accusations against Christianity for being too exclusive. It's too preachy, it focuses too much on beliefs, and its beliefs tend to divide and exclude, rather than unite; it talks too much about its own uniqueness, and not enough about what it shares with all other religions. It has been a historical force for conflict and strife, rather than peace. Many of these accusations have their historical justifications, from which Christians can humbly learn. The example of Rev. King offers a helpful antidote in the realm of politics. To consider biblical Christianity, however, also presents a Christ that transcends these accusations in order to offer real hope to all people, rather than simply providing counter-arguments ("no, Christianity is really just peaceful and uniting and affirming!").
Perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture come from Jesus' ministry, quoted in Matthew's gospel: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matt. 11.28-30). Clearly, Christ offers to take the burden all of us struggle with, and makes the only qualification the presence of a burden! Put another way, the only qualification to come to God is to know that you cannot meet any qualification that would make you worthy!
Understood in this way, grace relativizes all of our differences such that "God is no respecter of persons", and Paul can announce wonderful news of universal peace and unity in Christ, such as: "Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, . . . [having] reconcile[d] us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility." (Ephesians 2:13-16); "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
Christ's offer of forgiveness and salvation is perfectly inclusive because it is based entirely on his work. The beneficiaries of such grace - what the church is called to be - therefore have no reason to boast in their own superiority (be it financial, educational, social, cultural, racial, etc.) since they know their greatest asset is pure gift. The more "religious" a Christian becomes, the more humble, sacrificial and loving she desires to be.
The irony of this inclusion is that it simultaneously and necessarily excludes everyone who does not come to Christ and trust him alone for salvation. If you are in a sinking ship, and a lifeboat is offered, your only responsibility is to cling to that lifeboat. If you don't believe your ship is sinking, you will have no reason to seek out a lifeboat. Does that mean the lifeboat is divisive? Is it exclusive (in the negative way we use that term) because it will only save those looking to be saved, those open enough to admit they need saving? Or, is not this exclusion precisely the factor that makes its salvation worthy and secure in the first place? Consider two different reactions to the statement, "there's a lifeboat" - 1. "Only one? Ugh." 2. "There's one! I don't have to look anywhere else? Hallelujah!"
No other religion or worldview considers salvation as 100% gracious in this way, and yet that is precisely what makes them all more exclusive than Christianity, not less. If I have to save myself from the sinking ship in any way more than admitting that I'm sinking, then my salvation will be based on my own strength, and the hierarchies become inevitable. The irony of the critics of orthodox Christianity is that in trying to be more inclusive, they actually become less. They propose what Christian theology calls "works-righteousness", which means that something we do or achieve can merit salvation (or whatever term is given to salvation, such as happiness, paradise, nirvana, purpose, etc.). That inevitably throws the burden back upon ourselves, offering no real hope or mercy. It further oppresses the oppressed as well as offers false hope to the "achievers" and successful of the world.
The universal offer of Christ is totally exclusive so that God can truly be a refuge for the brokenhearted, oppressed, and weak - that is, ALL those "who labor and are heavy laden." His exclusivity is his assurance in an uncertain world. Only then can we find peaceful rest within our souls and our communities.