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Gated Community? Religion Often Decides Who’s In and Out

Borders are interesting concepts that have been around since the dawn of creation. Borders are those barriers that we construct to keep those we want out, out. Nations have borders, and in our current political climate, there is much discussion about keeping our borders more secure, making sure that not just anyone comes through them.
 

But nations are not the only entities that create borders. We as individuals create property borders that mark what is ours and what is not. Particularly in societies, like our own, that value personal property, we often build fences around those borders to ensure our privacy and to let those around us know that what is inside the wall belongs to us and not to them.

 

But societies often create borders within their social structures. We create borders and barriers to prevent us from community with others who are not like us. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, class and economics are all borders we have created that keep others at a distance from us.

 

Yet perhaps the most entrenched borders that we find in human existence are the borders established by religions. These have a long history dating back to the ancient world when the sacred spaces of a temple represented the barrier between the profane and the sacred.

 

For example, the Jewish Temple is known for the walls that separated various courts. The court of the Gentiles, the outermost court, was designed for the Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, but they could go no further. The court of the women created places where the women could enter, but they could go no further into the temple. And those with infirmities and diseases were forbidden from any part of the temple due to their impurity.

 

We also know from reading the stories about Jesus’ encounter with those considered to be unclean that he was often chastised by the religious leaders of Israel for his association with them. Whether he was in the company of a leper, a person under demonic possession or a woman of disrepute, Jesus was always condemned by the religious leaders for crossing the religious and social borders that separated what they established as pure and impure.

 

Indeed, Jesus was confronted with a borders-and-barriers mentality wherever he went. A society structured on strict class systems, especially those based on religion, is so ingrained in keeping those barriers and restrictions that it finds a person like Jesus, who crosses those barriers to make contact with those on the outside, troubling and threatening.

 

Or to put it another way, Jesus faced a religious society in which there were insiders and outsiders, and it was those on the inside who determined not only who was inside the borders, but perhaps most tragically, who must remain outside the borders.

 

Mark picks up on this insider-outsider mentality that humans have toward others, especially when it comes to religion, and makes it an underlying theme in his Gospel. Mark takes this theme, however, and turns it on its head. In other words, Mark communicates through his narrative that those who think they are insiders are actually outsiders, and those who think they are only outsiders become insiders.

 

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Of particular importance for this theme is the way the disciples are often portrayed as outsiders. These 12 men, who seem to be insiders who are privy to some private moments and private teachings of Jesus, appear, at times, not to understand Jesus fully. Though they believe they are insiders, they sometimes act more like outsiders, and at points they express attitudes or superiority and exclusion.

 

This attitude among the disciples is expressed by John in Mark 9, when he comes to Jesus enthusiastically telling Jesus that he has stopped a rogue exorcist from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He tells Jesus that he stopped this person because “He was not following us.”

 

However, if we read John’s statement carefully, we may determine that John’s concern seems to be whether one can be a legitimate follower of Christ without being part of the group of 12 – the insiders. In other words, John wants a Jesus that has borders, a Jesus whose name and authority is only allowed to be used by those approved by the insiders. John wants a Jesus who prevents just anyone from serving in his name.

 

In our own Christian pilgrimages, we have all run across this kind of attitude and perhaps we have occasionally played the role of John in our own relationships with others. It is very easy for us to take positions of theological certitude, construct our religious fences and designate those on the outside as outsiders in order to make sure they remain outside the borders.

 

The fact is, however, if we continually draw the borders in such a way as to exclude others because they are not joined to our way of thinking and believing, then we have not truly sought to follow Jesus.

 

Rather, we are seeking to be followed. When we exclude others because they are not following us, we fail just like John. Claiming to be insiders in the Jesus movement, we expose ourselves as outsiders.

 

John sought to place limits on Jesus in an effort to say who could serve him. By doing so, he drew borders around the community of faith as a way of stating who is inside and who remains outside.

 

But Jesus, by being true to his example of welcoming the young child in this same context, and by declaring that the rule of God is a movement of welcome and embrace, was breaking down the walls and borders of separation that prevented those called outsiders from a life with God.

 

Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.