The Truth About Inclusion Part 2
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
In the last post, I told a story about a music conference led and organized by country music songwriters, musicians, and executives which intended to become more diverse and had some measure of success. Ultimately, the revamped conference was to some degree diverse, but not at all inclusive. Inclusivity refers to a climate in which people feel that they belong, and that they are valued for their unique identities, abilities, and perspectives. In the case we reviewed, the conference attracted diverse participants, but by placing country music performers in most of the teaching and facilitating roles, it communicated an exclusive rather than inclusive message. Because only "country music" artists were considered worthy enough to lead, perform, and teach, implicitly the conference demonstrated an assumption that country music was superior to the other forms of music practiced among attendees.
By now you probably get the point. Many Christian organizations commit the same errors as the organizers of our fictitious conference. These organizations claim that they want to be diverse, and end up attracting racially and ethnically diverse clientele, consumers, students, etc. But if the only people organizing, leading, and teaching are white, what implicit message is being sent? Who feels included when almost all of the invited lecturers, speakers, and experts are white? If the songs being played and performed during chapels, convocations, and at institutional gatherings feature someone playing an acoustic guitar or some other traditionally "white" genre, then what message is being communicated to the non-white people in attendance? If the books being read in classes only feature white authors and protagonists, what implicit assumptions about race are being espoused? How can black, Latino, and Asians feel that they belong and that their identities matter if they don't see their identities reflected back to them in roles that have power and influence? In many Christian schools, universities, and organizations, minorities rarely have the chance to celebrate their culture or experience it being celebrated.
Inclusion in the Early Church
There's a brief story in the Bible about inclusion that will help us envision a way forward. In Acts chapter 6, we read about a problem that emerged in the life of the early church in Jerusalem. The chapter begins, "Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution." The Jerusalem church included Hebraic Jews, or those whose primary language was Hebrew, and Hellenists, who were Greek speaking Jews and probably more comfortable with Greek customs and cultural practices. Most likely, the Hellenists also did not demonstrate the same veneration of temple laws and customs as the Hebrew Jews.
We're not exactly sure why, but the Greek speaking Jewish widows were being neglected during the distribution of food and supplies. Perhaps there was prejudice toward the Greek speaking Christians by the Hebrew Christians (all were Christian converts from Judaism at this time), who preferred to serve their widows first. Cultural similarity and familiarity probably led to a certain type of tribalism or in versus out group dynamics that favored their group over the other. Because the Hebrew Christians were in the majority and in leadership, they had the power and ability to address their own needs while ignoring others. The Hellenists, or Greek speaking widows, complained because they knew that their exclusion was unjust and against God's will.
To put it simply, the early Jerusalem church was diverse, but not inclusive. The Hellenists did not feel like they belonged, nor did they feel valued. They felt marginalized and left out in a community which was supposed to exemplify Jesus' love. To their credit, the apostles did not solve the problem by preaching more sermons about love, as important as those sermons are. They addressed the problem in a practical and insightful way. In verse three the apostles say, "Therefore brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." They show how seriously they responded to the complaints by appointing leaders who would make sure that everyone would be treated fairly. By stipulating that these men had to be honest and full of the Holy Spirit, they demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that the widows were lovingly cared for. Most of the men appointed had Greek names, which may also suggest that they appointed Greek speaking Jews to oversee and manage the process!
The apostles' decisive action must have deeplymimpacted the Greek speaking Jews. By addressing their complaints in such a thoughtful manner, the apostles showed this minority group that their presence was important and cherished within the Jerusalem church. The Hellenists could now bring their entire selves into the community--confident that they weren't seen as inferior but as
co-laborers and brothers and sisters in Christ.
True Inclusion Requires Systemic Change
The early church discovered that systemic change is important for becoming an inclusive organization. When we realize that our organizations are not inclusive, often roles and positions need to be created, people need to be moved, processes need to be introduced, and systems developed in order to communicate to minority groups that they are loved, valued, and appreciated. If the early church resolved the problem of inclusion by addressing and modifying their systems and structures, shouldn't we do the same?