To Belong, or Not to Belong?

Many of you don’t know this, but I’m trying to work on writing a book. The book I’m working on has a working title of “No Outsiders”, and in it I am trying to focus on what I believe God would like me to share from insights I believe He has given me over the years about the question of belonging within the Church of Christ. I believe it to be a trickier and more important topic than it might first appear to be.

Sure, the question of whether or not we “belong” somewhere is important to all of us. But for the church, I believe it is absolutely critical to the mission for which the church was created–the mission of, as we’re going, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that this critical mission is being hampered by our understanding (or, rather misunderstandings) of whether or not the church should embrace the “outsider”, and if so, how.

Over the next number of posts, I’d like to run through the basics of what I hope will be my upcoming book. I long to hear your thoughts and feelings, critiques, and praises…I’m hoping that blogging about this will help sharpen the end result to a fine, fighting edge. To that end, I thought I’d start off with trying to define what it means to be an “outsider”. So here it is, the first rough draft of what I hope will be a much more substantial offering:

“One could simply define the outsider as the person who is, for whatever reasons, kept “out” of another human societal grouping. If we were to accept this definition, then we would have to acknowledge that there are two basic reasons why one might become an outsider. One of those would be that a person might choose to be an outsider. I, for example, have chosen not to become a follower of Islam. I have also chosen not to become part of the local curling club (though I might like to do that at some point). Although those two examples clearly exist on different planes of importance, it is evident that my not “belonging” to those groups is my choice. For the purposes of this book we will almost completely ignore this kind of “outsider-ness”, taking it as clear that this is the kind of “not-belonging” that no one really minds, and with which there is no significant problem. 

Of course, there is another way in which anyone can “choose” not to be a member of a group, and thereby make themselves into some kind of “outsider.” It is possible, for example, for a manager of a business to defraud his employers of money, breaking company policy, and thereby opening himself up to being forcibly removed from employment there. In this way, the manager’s “rebellion” against the norms of the group to which he belongs is very likely to result in his becoming an “outsider”. Though the manager has not chosen to leave the company directly, the actions which he chose to undertake resulted in his no longer belonging. This kind of “outsider-ness”, which we will call “the rebellious outsider” is certainly more significant to our discussion in this book, and so we will focus on it to a degree within each chapter. The rebellious outsider, however, is still not the major focus of this book, and so the vast majority of what follows will focus on the next type of outsider: the “outcast outsider.” 

The outcast outsider is the person who, not through a kind of clean liberty, nor through a rebellious act (or set of acts) is kept out, or cast out of a particular societal group. Often these outcast outsiders are kept away from societal groupings in spite of their own desires. Our focus in this book will be those who are often outcast outsiders in the western world at large, and how the western church tends to relate to them (or not). As an example, we will look at those who are economic outcast outsiders—those who do not “belong” in certain societal circles as a result of their available wealth (or lack thereof).  

One of the things we must keep in mind, and preemptively deal with before we move on is the fact that, as presented above, the issue of what kind of “outsider” a person is appears to be very clear. It seems to be an either or. Either you are not an outsider at all (in any negative way, that is), or you are a “rebellious outsider”, or you are an “outcast-outsider.” That is very rarely the case in reality, though. The vast majority of the time we can assume that there is more at play than a simple not/either/or. It could well be said, by some middle class people, that the wealthy are “outsiders” to them because those same wealthy people have exploited the middle class in various ways to get to the point where they have the wealth that they do. Therefore, it could be said by the middle class person, “The wealthy are not “outcast outsiders” to us. Instead they are “rebellious outsiders”—their acts have made it so that they deserve to be cast out from among us.” It could even be true that a particular wealthy person has made those “rebellious” choices against the social mores of the middle class, and that, therefore, they have been correctly excluded from middle class society. Additionally, the wealthy person in question may have no desire to associate with middle-class people, in which case the wealthy person would consider themselves to be a “free-will outsider”—they have no desire to belong to the particular societal group, they do not miss that association, and they are perfectly content without it. Lastly, it is almost inevitably true that the reasons, causes and motivations which lie behind the wealthy person’s “outsider-ness” amongst middle class folk involve some things that were none of their doing, and some things which they had done which could be legitimately considered as morally wrong, selfish or corrupt (for example, they may have inherited a significant portion of their wealth, and they may have chosen to squeeze every dollar of profit they could out of their businesses on the backs of the regular, everyday employees). 

As we can see, the question of how it is that someone might be an outsider is not as simple as we have portrayed it in the previous two sections. I hope, however, that you will bear with me as I attempt to acknowledge this complication here and in other sections of the book—especially those dealing with the question of various “categories” of “rebellious outsiders.” 

The truth is that, since this book seeks to deal with the question of belonging from a biblical standpoint, we can receive some help with the complications here from Jesus in His dealings with the outsiders. Jesus, we believe, understood human beings better than anyone else ever could. As the Creator of humanity, and of each human life, and as the Sustainer of all human life, and further, as a human being Himself, His depth of insight into humanity could never be characterized as naive. And yet, as we will see in Chapter 2 particularly, Jesus again and again seems to give the “outsider” the benefit of the doubt. Not that he believes the outsiders to be purely “victims” of an evil society, but rather that, while acknowledging each person’s responsibility to an appropriate degree in the question of their belonging, He treats them as though they belong on some fundamental level. In other words, Jesus’ default approach to people seems to be to welcome them into community first—regardless of their past, their attributes or their rebelliousness. 

As we go through some categories of outsiders, we’ll need to keep these complications in mind. We’ll also have to keep in mind that often, just as people are not purely victims, perpetrators, or non-participants, so to people are often not “just” outsiders in one way only. Many people who are economic outsiders, for example, are also treated as “mental” outsiders because of their struggles with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.”

Please, please, please feel free to comment!