Certain kinds of people simply cannot be part of the people of God.
Making such a judgment is not based on bigotry. It is simply based on the story of God in which the people of God are defined in particular ways. These definitions demand that some are out while others are in.
This is a blanket term for the people living in the land that God gave to the people of Israel through the wars of Joshua. They are excluded from participation in the people of God.
One way they are so excluded is in multiple warnings not to allow daughters and sons to intermarry with these indigenous peoples. Such liaisons might lead the Israelites astray to worship gods other than Yhwh.
But there is only one way to make sure that no such commingling occurs: kill them all. “You must devote them to complete destruction,” says Deuteronomy 7:2. Make no covenant. Show no mercy.
Jesus rejects her not because of bigotry, but because the Word of God has assigned her a place in the story. She cannot belong.
She wants an exorcism: “Lord! Son of David! My daughter is badly demon possessed!”
Jesus rebuffs her: “I was only sent to the sheep. To the House of Israel.”
She continues, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus rebuffs her again, “Look, dog. It is not right take bread from the children and throw it to such as you.”
Ouch. Jesus knows her place. And so, it would seem, does she.
“Yes Lord. And, even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the tables of their masters.”
And then, finally, he relents. Finally he is willing to extend transgressive grace. Finally he is willing to allow that this woman who by all biblical rights should be excluded and even killed, might be embraced in the onslaught of the kingdom of which Jesus, Son of David, is king.
“Oh woman! Great is your faith! Let it be as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.
You see, the strangest things happen when we actually know real people. We start to discover that those whom we thought were beyond the pale of God’s grace and mercy might actually be entrusting themselves to it at that very moment. And that relationship has the power to change us.
Yes, I would say it had the power to change Jesus. As Jesus was in the midst of inaugurating the reign of God, and discovering in the process who would and who would not be a part, he found rather against his will that the grace of God could not be cordoned off from even the Canaanites.
Jesus was changed, not because he had been a bigot, but because a relationship showed him that the kingdom of God was not contained as he had previously imagined.
The story had changed.
Embrace of the Gentiles
Of course, if Jesus can be at the center of this kind of transformation, his followers certainly can as well.
When God made covenant with Abraham, God was quite clear: the only way, at all, ever, to be part of the people of God is to be circumcised.
If anyone remains uncircumcised?
He “will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.” — God
But this was only for a time, right?
“My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”
You don’t get to eat the defining meal of the people, Passover, without being circumcised.
So Jewish people might be excused for thinking that their exclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles is not a matter of bigotry. It’s a matter of principled adherence to the Word of God.
But then… the kingdom of God bursts beyond the bounds of the circumcised.
Peter has a vision, yes. But it is when he musters the courage to go, to relate to a Gentile, and then observes that God has accepted them through the gift of the Spirit that Peter is finally converted.
In that personal interaction, Peter sees that God has worked. And he no longer can hold to his own position. Not because he was a bigot, but because a new moment has arrived in the story.
Paul will say a similar thing in Galatians. “You received the Spirit. God worked miracles among you.” Their experience tells them that they don’t have to be circumcised, don’t have to keep food laws, to be part of the people of God.
In the unfolding narrative of God and who belongs to God’s people, the move from exclusion to embrace has been marked by the inclusion of those who had previously been excluded due to the theology, principles, and narrative of scripture.
In his review of two books that argue for full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the people of God, Tim Keller asserts that if a person’s position on inclusion is influenced by relationships then their opposition was based on bigotry.
And when I see people discarding their older beliefs that homosexuality is sinful after engaging with loving, wise, gay people, I’m inclined to agree that those earlier views were likely defective. In fact, they must have been essentially a form of bigotry. They could not have been based on theological or ethical principles, or on an understanding of historical biblical teaching. They must have been grounded instead on a stereotype of gay people as worse sinners than others (which is itself a shallow theology of sin.)
This is simply untrue.
The history of God’s people is one in which we have cultivated deep and rich theological positions based on the principles and teachings of scripture, only to have God demonstrate that those principles have to be abandoned because it is a new moment in the story.
Opposition to inclusion of Canaanites and the uncircumcised isn’t based on bigotry, theologically–God underscores that Israel is no better than the rest, but God chose them anyway.
And yet these theological and ethical principles were overcome by the grace of God and the surprising eruption of the Kingdom of God.
Experience Matters (i.e. The Wesleyans are Right)
We should never imagine that the fact that relationships change our theology indicates a weakness in our theology or ethics. On the contrary, we should question any theology or ethics that does not change in the face of relationships. This is what it means to be both human in general and a part of the body of Christ in particular.
It is easy to hold forth unwavering strength as the sign of integrity and correctness, but such strength has sometimes been the strong pillar around which the unstoppable flow of the kingdom has poured forth.
Keller makes five or so arguments against the books he is reviewing. I will probably touch on his review a bit more, because it’s getting some good traffic, makes a couple of good points, and makes a couple of points that perhaps enable people to too quickly find relief in their cherished position being upheld.
The argument against experience falls into this latter category. It is precisely the experience of gay Christians, loving, faithful, and full of the Spirit, that should make us wonder if we have been wrongly continuing to draw lines of demarcation that God has begun to take down. Experience alone cannot answer this question (here, too, the Wesleyans are right!).
But we cannot allow a pious-sounding appeal to a theology or ethics that lies, allegedly, outside of experience to keep us from exploring the significance of what we have learned in relationship with those who, alongside us, address Jesus as the promised son of David and Lord of heaven and earth.