True Inclusion (Brandan Robertson) - A Review
TRUE INCLUSION: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace. By Brandan Robertson. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018. Ix + 118 pages.
Creating truly inclusive religious spaces is not easy. In fact, it may not be possible to include everyone in order to be inclusive (do you include those who disrupt or could cause harm to the community?). Being of the view that it is important to move toward a place of being as inclusive as possible, I am open to hearing from those who have some experience with this calling. While I serve a congregation that chose, after a long journey, to become Open and Affirming, I know that there is much more to learn. Our pathway proved to be costly, but I think necessary for us to be faithful to our calling. We have moved a long way toward becoming inclusive, but we have a long way to go. Of course, that may be true for all.
Over the past decade or so, more and more resources have emerged that assist in the process of becoming inclusive, especially with regard to creating safe and inclusive space for LGBT+ persons who have largely been excluded from our churches. The book under review, True Inclusion by Brandan Robertson is but one of the most recent expressions. The book is brief but helpful, especially in pointing out where even through best intentions we may fall short of the goal.
The author is currently pastor of Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, a Disciples of Christ congregation that has seen itself as being an alternative form of Christian community. Because the Disciples (my denomination) has a relatively open theology (we're non-creedal and give considerable autonomy to congregations) we are a nice fit for such communities. The author, Brandan Robertson, was not a Disciple when he became the congregation's pastor (and I don't know the current state of his denominational affiliation, but his roots are Southern Baptist). That said, Robertson has been active for quite some time consulting with churches, clergy, and Christian organizations about the journey toward LGBT+ inclusion.
Robertson begins his book by explaining the nature of exclusion, which the path toward inclusion is meant to overcome. Robertson’s explanation is rooted in his own journey from conservative evangelicalism to progressive Christianity. The key to that journey was his own recognition that his identity as a gay man required changes in thinking and practice. As I have said recently in reviews, personal stories are especially helpful in moving the church toward true inclusion. We still must wrestle with biblical texts, but much of that work has been done. Now it is time to listen to the stories of exclusion, so we might discern a path forward.
While inclusion of LGBT+ Christians stands at the heart of the book, Robertson encourages a broader vision of inclusion, linking gender, class, race with LGBT inclusion. For instance, he takes note of the concept of “intersectionality,” which is relatively new (at least in my experience). This concept links race and gender justice. While I found his chapter on patriarchy a bit unwieldy (he seems in my view to connect to many ills to patriarchy), I do agree that race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are linked. Thus, to address oppression, one must address all its components. His example is Anita Hill who faced the public as both a woman and African American. Thus, he writes: to become inclusive is to work to understand the intersectional identities of individuals and to create communities and societies in which they are liberated in every facet of their identity” (p. 63).
Moving back to an earlier point in the book, I found the chapter “Missing the Mark” perhaps the most helpful. In this chapter he addresses congregations that seek to be welcoming, who throw out the welcome mat declaring that all are welcome but may not be ready for everyone who hears the invite and comes. What about the homeless person? Or the gay couple who hold hands or share a quick kiss. Are there parts of the service that some are excluded from? Beyond that, are we ready for those who come to enter the community and whose presence might change the congregation? Is our welcome “shallow and half-hearted.” In that same chapter he speaks of the use of symbolism that many feel might be welcoming, but which in the end might not be. Considering that we recently placed a Rainbow flag by our sign, which caused a bit of consternation, it was interesting (and perhaps disheartening at one level) to discover that such an act isn't necessarily helpful. I hadn’t thought that LGBT+ Christians under 40 might view it with suspicion, suggesting that we’re trying too hard to attract them. What we thought was a sign of welcome might not be perceived as the same. Inclusion is also more than simply having a gay member or having the conversation about inclusion. It requires some active measures. Doing this, however, might not lead to growth. I wish it were not true, but he is probably correct that inclusive communities often do not grow. Why? His answer is that we like to be comfortable, and it’s easier to be in a community where everyone is the same. As much as I might hate the homogeneous principle of church growth theory, there is a lot of truth to it. That doesn’t mean we don’t move in this direction, but don’t expect to become a megachurch.
There were parts of the book where I struggled. I do think that movement toward inclusion will lead to change in one's theology. It is difficult to affirm a narrowly focused vision of God and be inclusive. At the same time, I wasn’t sure where he was going with his discussion of theological change. Can one not hold to a relatively “orthodox” theology and still be inclusive? While I found some aspects of the chapter on patriarchy helpful—especially the conversation about intersectionality—I thought Robertson may have mixed into patriarchy categories that didn’t fit. More importantly, I have problems with a tendency among progressives to make Jesus a modern egalitarian rebel. I think Jesus was inclusive and had an egalitarian vision, but I don't think Jesus of Nazareth was a contemporary progressive Christian. Historically, I have problems with the vision of the early church being fully inclusive and egalitarian, with fully open table, until Constantine came along and messed it all up. Things were much more complex than this vision would suggest. The church became exclusive in its table practice long before Constantine came on the scene, likely in the first century. As a historian by training, my historical radar gets uncomfortable with what I perceive to be sloppy historical uses. That doesn’t take away from the overall value of the book, it’s just an area of concern for me.
In the end, I think this is another helpful resource for congregations that are seeking to follow the gospel and move toward being truly open and affirming of all people, while remaining faithful to that gospel. As for that rainbow flag, I will need to think about it!