Books! Brandan Robertson’s “True Inclusion”

True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace
By: Brandan Robertson
Publisher: Chalice Press (Sept 11, 2018)
Paperback and Kindle: 128 pages

Reviewed by Stephen Schmidt

I have a confession. I picked up Brandan Robertson’s new book with a bit of skepticism. After all, I’ve been a part of an inclusive church for nearly a decade. And by “inclusive” I mean, we’re mostly LGBTQ — legitimately: we have a number of trans* people who often get overlooked in the mostly “L” and “G” parts of the community — and we even have a few straight couples as well.  (“Look at us. We’re cool!”)  What could this young pastor tell me, tell us, that we don’t already know?

But, as I was soon to discover, scattered through the pages were many things I had not heard or considered before. This was gonna be an interesting read!

As you might expect, setting up his premise of the need for inclusion, the opening chapters present plenty of information about the emotional and spiritual harm churches inflict on people by not including them. Most of us in the LGBT+ community have probably been on the receiving end of that. It’s ugly. And the scars can last a lifetime. We know.

But inclusion isn’t just about LGBTQ people. It’s about women, and racial minorities, people with disabilities, people with divergent beliefs and theologies, people of a different color, cultural background, the “clean and unclean” — anyone who is “other” than a reflection of those who hold power.

For the Bible tells me so

Brandan marshals plenty of biblical support for the idea of inclusion as a key Christian principle. It begins against a backdrop of Hebrew exclusion, labeling and separating the “clean” and the “unclean.” But Jesus ignored those distinctions. He hung out with those who were not welcome in devout religious situations: the prostitutes, tax-collectors, Samaritans and Syrophoenician “dogs” and other “sinners” who fill the Gospel stories. And then the struggle in the Early Church over embracing non-Jews into fellowship recorded in the Book of Acts. Peter’s famous vision where God commands him, “do not call unclean what I have made clean.” This becomes a defining moment in the new faith movement, and the Apostle Paul runs with it: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female — all are one in Christ Jesus.” These are famous passages every kid who grew up in Sunday School knows, but Brandan shines the spotlight on them. These are the heart of the Gospel, he tells us: tearing down the walls that separate, and bringing people into unity even in all their diversity.

So we should let our our rainbow flags wave high.

Except, wait! Another eye-opener by the author: that beautiful, multi-colored flag doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone in the LGBTQ community. I expected there’d be mention of racial minorities who often feel excluded in the predominantly “gay white” world. What surprised me though was Brandan’s mention of how his generation, the Millennials, may not view that flag the same way.  People born after 1985 may not feel the safety and comfort of “likeness” under that flag that many of us Gen-X and Boomers instinctively feel. For us, we finally found “our people.” We had “our space”, a place where we were free to be ourselves and find comfort in people like us. And unknowingly created our own ghettos. The younger generations do not necessarily embrace this same attitude. “There is a growing sense that exclusively or overtly LGBT+ churches are neither necessary nor desired. As LGBT+ people gradually become integrated into every aspect of society, more and more people are expressing a desire not to be identified primarily by their sexuality or gender. … Churches that identify as ‘LGBT+ churches’ or are adorned with rainbow flags actually push away many LGBT+ people of faith.”  Our symbols of “unity” and “diversity” may actually prove the point that we are not.

Huh. Maybe the Church needs to focus on being the Church and less on being an “LGBTQ affirming church.”

And Brandan makes a sobering point we in the church-business need to come to terms with. Being inclusive will almost automatically be a hindrance to church growth. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.) What church isn’t concerned with attendance? It’s not all about ego — there are practical considerations: how far can you reach out to the world around you when your resources are stretched so thin you can barely pay your electric bill in the summer? Having a larger body of believers makes the mission possible. But the hard, cold truth is that people generally feel more comfortable (and hence, will stay) where their beliefs and behaviors are not stretched and where they have a sense of commonality with the person sitting next to them in the pew. People who share the same worldview, who value the same things, … who look like them. “But it’s nearly impossible to create long-term cohesion among tremendous diversity.”  Being a community that reflects the values of Jesus — the man who hung out with people very much not like himself — will cost you and your church popularity. “Truly inclusive churches are never going to be the biggest, sexiest, or fastest-growing churches, and I think we should be okay with that.”  In another place, he asks, “Are we willing to lose members, money, and ‘influence’ in order to be who God desires us to be?”

Sigh. Okay. Chalk it up to the cost of genuine discipleship.

Not just a trendy idea

Oh, and lest we think practicing genuine inclusion is an easy thing, Brandan is quick to set us straight: “Anyone who follows in the path of Jesus is following a costly path. It brings sacrifice and pain, as Jesus made clear throughout his teachings. He constantly implored his disciples to count the cost, … if they were truly ‘in,’ it would consume their lives. It would hurt.” And as anyone who works in ministry knows, it might be one of the single hardest things you do in life. {Throwing cautionary glances at all my young friends who want to be pastors.} Thankfully, “it would also result in a peculiar, subversive sense of joy, peace, and meaning in life.”

This “subversive” nature of Jesus’ whole life and teaching becomes a foundational point for most of the book. That is, Jesus challenged the existing status quo not only of the faith community but of the world itself. Brandan explores this in depth in a chapter on “The Problem of Patriarchy,” one that I tried to skim through but again, got caught up in some of his insights. It was no great revelation to read how the idea of “worshipping in spirit and in truth” would mean that no Temple — and therefore, no temple priests or hierarchy — were needed to mediate between individuals and their God. They had (we have) direct access. And this can be a scary prospect to those who prefer social order. Order is necessary to maintain a functional society, especially in religious settings, and that means there will be those who wield power and those who must submit to it. But removing a physical Temple as a prerequisite for religious life opens the doors to spiritual equality. No one would then be “father” or “mother,” guardians and gate-keepers to God. We were all “brothers” and “sisters” — God alone is Father.

It’s a cool concept, but the implications of this are reinforced at the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist, Communion, where all in Christ’s family may gather at the table, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or even “holiness” standard. This radical act of opening up the table — the sacred place in Middle Eastern culture — declared the dignity and equality of each person present. This place, where we centuries later still offer the bread and wine, celebrates the heart of the Good News: all are welcome, all are included. And even though those are exactly the words we declare every Sunday before opening the altar, the realization that this is the fruit of seeds Jesus himself planted during his lifetime — dining with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners,” and then officially instituting this practice among his disciples — once again reflects that this idea of inclusion is not just a nice politically-trendy theme. It is very much at the core of Christian belief and practice.

The Slippery Slope

In chapter 6, “The Ingredients of Inclusion,” the author deals with a topic that anybody who has tried to open the church doors wider has been confronted with by those who resist the movement: “the slippery slope.” That becoming more open, “tolerant,” and accepting in one area will just lead the church farther away from traditional, conservative theology in other areas. The author describes his own history of insisting that he was in every way the same conservative Christian he’d always been, just more accepting in the areas of women in ministry and LGBTQ relationships. That re-examining certain restrictive passages in Scripture was not an all-out threat to the whole order of church doctrine.  But the truth is, once we begin reading Scripture more with the eyes of grace, it will indeed be a slippery slope — but not backwards into the gates of hell, as our more cautious brethren would have us believe. It’s a journey in greater depths into the message of Jesus and the heart of God. We may begin with wrestling and reinterpreting those famous six “clobber passages” of Scripture that seem to condemn LGBTQ children of God, but if we are sensitive to the Spirit’s leading it will ultimately lead to an entirely different way of reading and applying Scripture.  “Until you are willing to dive headfirst onto the so-called ‘slippery slope’ and allow the wind of the Holy Spirit to guide you to new theological terrain, you will never be truly inclusive.”

In other words, this is fair warning to those who begin the journey of inclusion. It is a journey, not just a simple single step. It will transform you, if you let it. You’ll find yourself — for better and for worse — in the company of fellow travelers who are re-examining everything they’ve been taught (and have taught). Taking a step toward genuine inclusion is the “gateway drug” to a lifetime of deconstructing and reconstructing everything you thought you knew.  And once you begin, you’ll never see things the same way again. And there’s a price to pay for that, of course. You’ll soon-enough find that you no longer find home in “traditional” theology. You’ll be on the edge, the fringe, of most mainstream pastors and churches. (But isn’t that where Jesus was?) And in the process you’ll discover an even deeper, more authentic walk with Jesus.

Robertson considers this all part of the process of biblical “repentance.” He asserts that, like so many concepts that have been ingested wholesale from tradition, we’ve misinterpreted this foundational idea. Going back to the root meanings behind the Greek word most often translated in the New Testament, metanoia, he believes it really involves “expanding one’s mind” — that is, opening oneself up to God to new ways of seeing and living. Or, citing a motto from the Protestant Reformation, “The Church is reformed and always reforming.” As the people of God, we cannot allow ourselves to become stagnant, to lock ourselves into just one way of thinking simply because that’s “how it’s always been”.  That is not the way of repentance, not the way of inclusion, and not the way of the Spirit.

Inclusion IRL

Then, in the final chapter, moving beyond the ideas and Scriptural underpinnings of inclusion, Brandan includes interviews with five pastors who’ve done the work of inclusion and can give real-world wisdom on how it works. He asks questions like, “What does it mean for a church to be inclusive?”, “How did you come to understand the importance of being inclusive?”, and for me two of the biggest questions: “What is the biggest barrier to inclusion?”, and “Is there a cost to becoming inclusive?”

At first the answers can seem daunting. The cost can be high (redefining your identity, losing people who believe you’ve lost God, losing offerings and income, losing respect and reputation in the community and with friends and family). But the good news for many who have already begun taking these bold steps outside the comforts of traditional (limited) theology and practice: you’ve already experienced much of this. You’ll likely read these answers with a twinkle of sarcasm in your eyes, “no kidding.”

Robertson concludes his book again with images from the Bible: the creation of man and the scattering of the nations, through the final chapters of Revelation where the nations are regathered before the Throne of Christ. This is the mission of the Church: the regathering of those pushed aside, the tearing down of walls that separate. It’s the work of inclusion. It’s obviously not an easy task, but one that ultimately brings “the full glory of God in the midst of our expansive diversity.”

True Inclusion is a relatively short book with about 130 pages, but full of insights and challenges to traditional ways of thinking, shining a light on a core message of the Gospel that has been overlooked for so many centuries. Turning the final pages, I was glad I overcame my initial skepticism and took a chance on this book and this young pastor. There is a lot to absorb, even for someone who thought he’d “been there, done that.” And it was well worth it.

Brandan Robertson is an author, pastor, social activist and speaker. He serves as Lead Pastor of Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, CA, and is the author or contributing author to five books, including Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light (2016) and Our Witness: The unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians (2017). He is a frequent contributor to blogs and journals, including posts here on IMPACT Magazine.