By Rev. Erik Swanson
One of the intriguing conversations that underlies some of the political unrest over the last several weeks and months is the question of who should be included or excluded in what. Who should be included or excluded from having health insurance? Who should be included or excluded in the power structure of our country? Who should be included or excluded from this country? Should your skin color or religious background or part of the country that you live in exclude you or include you as a valued voice and participant in this country? Part of the pain caused last weekend in Charlottesville was because of the hate speech that included messages that the US should only belong to white folks, and when people shouted anti-Jewish sentiments some people thought that meant only Christians. Unfortunately I know that some of this separation of who’s in and who’s out is based on misguided religious teaching. This is where we must stop and take a good and faithful and honest look at our beliefs as well as our behavior because God’s name and God’s will are very often used to rationalize so much of human behavior from really good things to really awful things. Once one group thinks they are chosen by God or have some divine mandate or some God given specialness to them without the balancing humility they often become empowered to take actions that clearly are not an embodiment of God’s ways. They can claim inclusion for those like them and exclusion for those not like them. We can see that with the religious influence in hate groups that allows them to clothe themselves in God language yet clearly behave in ways that do not embody the ways of God. A key aspect in all of this is the very basic understanding of whether God is inclusive or exclusive.
One theologian that I read this week said that an inclusive understanding of God is not debatable, it is urgent. He was saying that it is imperative for this world and all its peoples to get to an understanding of God’s inclusive love for everyone because we are on a scary path to destruction if we can’t. We must get to a sense that God is able to embrace all people, but one of the most complicated dynamics over time has been seeing and knowing God as God actually is and not as we project God to be. We tend to project our fears of the ‘other’ and our discomfort of other cultures and nationalities right onto God. That doesn’t mean that is who God actually is or that those are God’s true understandings. We must find ways of starting from God’s heart and God’s vision and not just our own. If we can hold onto the reality of God’s love for all of us then that alone can start the healing work of smashing barriers and upending bad theology. If we can realize that whatever we have been taught about the ‘other’ may not actually live up to how God is seeing that ‘other’ then maybe we can begin to see folks with holy sight, maybe we can begin to treat them with the respect and dignity and hospitality that God longs for in us.
The golden rule of ‘love God with all you are and love your neighbor as yourself’ lies at the very center of Jesus’ foundational teaching, and it can only be viewed as one of the great statements of an inclusive God. This teaching forces us to love across barriers that this world and its cultures erect. This teaching requires us to put aside petty differences and work past big differences to embrace one another in a common humanity that is far greater than our small mindedness and our egocentric understandings. At its center is the amazing connection between loving God and loving your neighbor. Please understand this this doesn’t mean the one physically living next to you, but really is more rightly understood as the ‘next one’. The next one that you run into, the next one that you talk to, that neighbor is the one you are to work to love. Amazing, transformative and rarely embodied by people because it is hard…but it is right and it is true. And it necessitates loving those that are not like us, loving those who believe differently than we do.
When we look at some roots of racism there can be religious thinking behind those roots. I think we need to face that if we are going to heal as a nation and a world. In the traditional teachings of the church there has often been an undercurrent that God is exclusive in the sense of loving some and not loving others, of welcoming some and not welcoming others, of saving some and condemning others. I am convinced this is more human perspective and not God’s!
Why do you think that the Good Samaritan is such a powerful parable? It is because the Samaritan behaves in a way that is in direct opposition to the cultural norms and the racism or at least the classism of that time that would have excluded him from helping the man, he overcame his own xenophobia or fear of the other to embody care for a stranger of a supposedly hostile group of people. Jesus holds him up as an example to which to aspire. The Christian Scriptures are full of examples and citations of teachings about loving the other and having compassion for them, and that points clearly and powerfully to the understanding of God as one who embraces us all and longs for us to embrace us all as well. Let’s work on this together, for the sake of us all.
Erik Swanson graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity in 1998 and a concentration in Spiritual Formation. Upon graduation, he was called as a pastor of the Colchester Federated Church in Colchester, CT, where he ministered until 2003. He moved to Crookston, MN and was a co-founder of the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH). In 2006, he returned home to Saratoga, CA and was called as pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church, where he has been working to build and deepen the community ever since. Over the years, Westhope has become an intentionally contemplative and spiritually vibrant ministry. He has a degree in the art of Spiritual Direction from the Spiritual Life Center in Bloomfield, CT, and has spent a year studying sacred community while living in the ecumenical Taize monastery in Taize, France. Rev. Swanson has become a sought after teacher, spiritual director, speaker, and retreat leader, teaching on Spiritual Formation and the art of bringing an awareness of the Holy to all parts of life. He is currently working in partnership with the City of Saratoga as an organizer for Living Room Conversations and is chair of the Saratoga Ministerial Association.