The Churches and the Margins
I’m fascinated by denominational and religious differences. So much so that I wrote a book about them. And as a Baptist teaching at a Catholic university, I get to dwell on them quite often. My takeaway so far is that we invest too much in these differences, especially because we have a Highest common denominator to unite us: the teachings and example of Christ.
Scripture is full of exhortations and advice about how to be Christian in a fallen world. Some of it is challenging even in isolation: loving our neighbors as ourselves and turning the other cheek. Other passages establish themes, and it is one of those I wish to explore here.
Christ’s parables of the prodigal son and the lost sheep tell us that we have a duty to seek the margins and welcome people in from the margins. He repeatedly sends his disciples out into the world. He repeatedly tells them not to worry, not to be afraid. Despite condemnation from established religious authorities, He set an example by befriending, dining with, and defending those marginalized by his own community: criminals, prostitutes, lepers and the traitors collecting taxes for the occupiers.
My discipline, sociology, has its limitations. But one of its strengths lies in how powerfully it can describe and understand the margins. It can draw maps for the faithful who dare go there and can also hold mirrors up so that we may scrutinize ourselves. In one of my classes this week, we’re reading a book about the religiosity of single mothers on welfare. Some are so ashamed of their poverty and unmarried status that they don’t go to church anymore. They cling to their faith, reading scripture and praying in unnecessary isolation. It’s a tragic situation that poses a challenge to all Christians: are our churches truly welcoming? Can people see us from the margins?
Having studied all kinds of Christians and reflected on the Gospels, my strong impression is that being Christian shouldn’t be about huddling and looking inwards or building walls and policing boundaries. That only obscures the people who really matter and keeps them away. I once challenged a Quaker I met at a conference about how her denomination could send pacifists into the military and into war as chaplains. Her answer was to ask me “where would Christ not go?” I couldn’t answer that then and I still can’t. Denominational differences only mean so much in light of Christ’s example.
So, what should a Christian university do when it encounters a neighbor that has something important to tell us about the margins of society? Shouldn’t it be welcoming, even if that neighbor says ugly things, even things as vile as the sores on a leper’s face? I think so. To recoil and to banish shows them our backs, not our faces. It risks confirming every prejudice and fear that estranged neighbor may have formed against Christianity. It creates detours and roadblocks for others who might approach from the margins. It may even push some of our own out. If we have a chance to bring a stranger, a neighbor, in even if just for a few hours, we should take it. A university founded as a refuge by a refugee must take extra care that its sanctuary doesn’t become a bushel over its light. How can we export the Mount’s goodness from seclusion? As Christians, we should be fearless in the face of difference, engaged with the world and above cancel culture.