The worldwide Anglican Communion has responded to its crisis over social questions like homosexuality by issuing an ultimatum to the US-based Episcopal Church. The American church has, in essence, been ordered to change its ways--or else. Or else what? That wasn't specified, but it is clear that, despite words of reassurance by its Presiding Bishop, the thrust of the ultimatum is an attack on the social justice initiatives in this area by the American church.
When considering these events within that denomination, I am reminded of Robert Funk's book Honest to Jesus, in which the author devotes a fair number of pages to analyzing the characteristics of Jesus's parables. One key point that he emphasizes is that Jesus, over and over again, both through his parables and through his lifestyle of conviviality at an open table, preached a religion in favor of the outsiders in his society. He calls this "the paradox of Jesus--outsiders are in, insiders are out."
He points to several incidents that the Gospels report from Jesus's life that further confirm that this was his stance. In contrast to the ascetic John the Baptist, Luke quotes his Q source as reporting that Jesus said, "For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Funk explains that this "glutton and drunk" epithet is a reference to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and represents a serious charge levied against a "disobedient and rebellious son".) Similarly, Mark 2:15-16 reports that Jesus attended a dinner party at the house of a recent recruit, and "many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him"--something that, according to this story, angered the Pharisees, who symbolized here the intolerance of religious authorities.
Funk points out that Jesus's identification with the outsiders
throws light on another saying: "I swear to you, the toll collectors and prostitutes will get into God's domain, but you will not." Here Jesus is speaking to religious authorities of some sort--the keepers of the social codes.We see this gatekeeping by the self-proclaimed "keepers of the social codes" in modern society as well--within elements of the Anglican Communion, as well as in other churches that continue to take reactionary positions on homosexuality.
Funk goes on to cite various examples from Jesus's parables that further illustrate his identification with the outsiders: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the parable of the dinner party, and the parable of the good Samaritan. Funk concludes,
In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus' world the few very rich and the many very poor knew their places. The social distance between them was mediated by brokers who dispensed favors bestowed by patrons on compliant peasants and peons. In contravention of the social order, Jesus was socially promiscuous: he ate and drank publicly with petty tax officials and "sinners," yet he did not refuse dinner with the learned and wealthy. He was seen in the company of women in public--an occasion for scandal in his society. He included children in his social circle--children were regarded as chattel, especially females...and advised that God's domain is filled with them.Somehow, something went horribly wrong in the history of Christianity after Jesus died. Those who claimed to be the followers of a man who opposed gatekeeping turned around themselves and erected their own gates. Those who claimed to follow a man who broke down the walls between insiders and outsiders now defined themselves as the new insiders. They set up an institutional hierarchy, not unlike the institutional hierarchy that Jesus stood in opposition to. While Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was granted to the outsiders rather than the gatekeepers, many of his followers turned that notion inside out.
John Spong wrote in Born of a Woman that,
...life-denying prejudices have been perpetuated throughout history as official "Christian" positions, buttressed by an appeal to the literal Bible. Included on that list would be the rejection of left-handed people as abnormal, the enslavement and segregation of non-white people as sub-human, the violation and murder of gay or lesbian people who are labeled sick or depraved, the repulsion from the sanctuaries of the church including the burial office of those who have committed suicide, and the rejection and excommunication through canon law of divorced persons regardless of the circumstances leading to the divorce. It always seemed strange to me that something called the Word of God became in fact again and again in the life of the church a weapon of oppression. But that is the judgment of history.Here we are seeing this phenomenon playing itself out again in the debates taking place within the Anglican Church. Who will stand for the outsiders? Clearly not those conservatives within that denomination. It is time for those who follow Jesus to remind themselves that, as in the parable of the dinner banquet, those who are supposedly the least deserving are the ones who will be invited to the table.