Book Review – Inclusivity: a Gospel mandate by Dairmuid O’Murchu

I found this book stimulating and challenging. Dairmuid O’Murchu presents an appeal to rediscover, and keep at the centre of our spiritual lives, the essential Gospel command of an inclusive attitude of welcome, forgiveness, unconditional love and acceptance. The challenge is reinforced from two complementary angles. First, from the evidence of Jesus’ encounters with the excluded and marginalised in the Gospels; and secondly, from the realisation that living with the open and inclusive attitude demonstrated by Jesus is the only way to find genuine resolutions to the ever more serious problems of our world.

O’Murchu shows a more progressive and creative approach to theology than I have personally been used to, drawing on the work of other contemporary theologians. In his concluding chapter, he expresses the hope that his reflections may be of help (amongst many other groups) to people who find themselves excluded from the church in some degree, including gay and lesbian Christians. Sure enough, I found myself rediscovering biblical passages which I thought I knew well, through an interpretative method which brought out unimagined new possibilities. Just to mention one striking example (pp107-109): the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8 / Luke 7. There are clues in the text which suggest the servant may have been the centurion’s lover. Yet we may never see these interpretative possibilities if we are blinded by prior assumptions about Jesus’ ethical stance.

The book presents many different themes, which are treated in a fairly concise way: is religion the preserve of a chosen people, or open to all?; the demand to love our enemies and the constant temptation to water it down; the “kingdom” as a Companionship of Empowerment rather than an exercise in domination; Jesus’ frequent and radical breaking of the rules of social exclusion; and so on. The theme of the “kingdom” as Companionship of Empowerment is a recurring refrain, and one which I especially warmed to. “The Companionship of Empowerment makes a double shift: from power over to power with, and from unilateral domination to communal collaboration” (pp53-54).

It has slowly dawned on me over the years that one of the greatest challenges to human flourishing is when those with power seek to impose their views on others rather than to enable others to contribute in their own right. Parents often struggle to let their adolescent children take responsibility for themselves. Teachers sometimes prefer to dictate their own answers to complex problems rather than allow their students to explore other approaches. One ethnic group being too blind to perceive the complementary wisdom of another culture. Jesus’ version of kingship is emphatically not one of domination and imposition, but one of eliciting from each her/his distinctive and creative contribution within a community of love and respect.

For those readers who are sceptical about some of the more radical interpretations, there is not always a great deal of evidence to convince. Yet I think this is a fair trade-off for a book of its kind. Many themes are covered whilst reference is frequently made to further reading to fill in the details. Furthermore, the broader range and creativity of biblical interpretation which contemporary hermeneutic theory allows, comes at a cost. The more possibilities there are for interpreting a text, the greater quantity of evidence would be required to verify a particular interpretation. There are indeed, as O’Murchu discusses, ancient texts which did not make it into the canon of Scripture to be considered. But frankly, the textual evidence is thin when it comes to persuading the reluctant.

As a result, the other pillar on which such creative interpretation rests is an appeal to wisdom from non-biblical sources. If Christianity has any truth and value for our time, it must be an effective and fruitful faith which heals the real wounds of our planet. It is never easy disentangling the historical Jesus from the interpretations of the authors of the New Testament, but O’Murchu observes that we must even be prepared to disagree with Jesus, if we find his position to be imperfect or compromised. After all, if he was truly fully human, he must have been prone to making mistakes! The author’s open perspective also has no hesitation in drawing on the complementary wisdom of other religious traditions, surely an essential attitude in our time.

On several occasions the author breaks into poetry in order to express deep and complex human realities. I found this very effective, and it reminds us that most religious writing is poetical / symbolic / parabolic and not just a dry presentation of “facts”.

O’Murchu does not pull his punches and not everyone will agree with the detail.  But the context is an impassioned consideration of desperately important themes. Contemporary Christians must grapple with the Gospel mandate of inclusivity if they are to be relevant in the years to come. A recommended read!

Edward Bruce

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