The desire to be right is something everyone has. Sometimes this desire can turn into fundamentalism, which seeks to separate those who are right and those who are wrong. Fundamentalism can pop its head into any system, such as sports fans who separate the “true fans” from the “bandwagon fans.” Often, this is found in the political and religious realms, which can seek to separate conservatives and liberals, and is used to polarize people into one camp, while deeming the other as the enemy.
As I have found myself shifting from a religiously conservative, evangelical upbringing towards a more progressive form of Christianity, some details of my beliefs have changed, but my desire to figure out who is in and who is out has not. In the past I had thoughts such as, “you can’t be Christian and support homosexual marriage.” Now, I have recently had thoughts like, “you can’t follow Jesus and not support the LGBTQ+ community” as if my opinions precisely represent the will of God. As I reflect on this aspect of my personality, I am struck with the understanding that I do not actually get to choose who is in the kingdom of God and who is not.
A brief overview of Acts 10 and 11 would go like this: Peter had a vision where God told Peter that the unclean animals, which were a metaphor for Gentiles, are no longer unclean. Then some people showed up and escorted Peter to Cornelius’ house. While he was there the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles and Peter baptized them. When the Christians in Judea found out, they were like “WTF Peter, what’s up with that?” and Peter was like “it’s not my fault, the Holy Spirit came on them.”
There is a lot to get out of this narrative, but it also sets up the storyline for the rest of the book. Later, Paul took up the position of protagonist, became an Apostle to the Gentiles and spent a lot of time defending Gentile inclusion into the kingdom of God, a theme also present in Paul’s letters.
From my current progressive perspective, I like to focus on how the kingdom of God moved towards inclusion in the first century and how that sets a trajectory for our current age. However, part of me, the one that wants to divide people into the “in” and “out” groups, likes to focus on the way many forms of Christianity today are not living up to my understanding of the original mission of Christianity.
Something that has hit me recently is the fact that there is a group I often overlook in Acts 10 and 11: the Christian leaders who were resistant to the inclusion of Gentiles (something ordained by God), but were nevertheless still Christian. Their beliefs were wrong and possibly harmful to those who were deemed “other,” but they were never the enemy. Peter and Paul worked with them and tried to bring them to terms with what it means to be Christian. Some people got onboard and others did not, but they were still always on the same team.
This is something I need to work on myself. I am upset and damning of others who do not hold the same beliefs as me and it is often much easier to paint them as the enemy than to see them as a person who is on the same team. A lot of this has to do with my own pride and assurance that my opinions are right. Often, I justify my pride, because I think some beliefs are dangerous to people that I believe are marginalized. However, someone else might see my inclusion as having eternal consequences and feel my beliefs are dangerous in light of salvation. Both are forming their beliefs and action out of real concern for others.
Often, it is easier to write a person off as “other” than to work with them in a way where both become better. If I believe someone to be the enemy, then I have no obligation to work with them. However, this is contrary to the example given in the New Testament.
This does not mean we should let theology go unchallenged. The misuse of Christianity from both the conservative and liberal sides have brought an abundance of destruction in its long history. When we stop allowing others to voice their perspectives, we run the risk of solidifying our fundamentalism. Openness to other views is the only way we can we can keep our own beliefs in check and stop seeing others as the enemy.
And yet, I’m publishing this article the day before the election, which has a long history of division. This year is no different. There is real alarm on both sides that is derived from real concerns based off value systems. Often, we use reductionistic catchphrases like “Marxists” and “white supremacist” to broadly categorize people we disagree with into one large group of the “other.” Although these terms can be descriptive for some people or ideas, it removes the nuance that is present in every point of view.
As Christians, we are called to be unified. That does not mean that we are always in agreement with each other, or that some ideas should not be challenged and corrected. It will require both sides taking a step back from our pride and certainty to realize that God is the only one who gets to establish who is in the kingdom. Every time we think we have it figured out, we risk allowing our fundamentalism to replace God.