Why inclusion is a bad idea
Rev. Jenny Williams (she/her) is an ordained United Methodist pastor who believes the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic witness by speaking into issues of injustice and walking with people marginalized by Empire. Her current attempt to follow Jesus has her focusing on solidarity, not charity, particularly with queer folx and BIPOC. This is her first contribution to the Accidental Tomatoes blog.
Diversity and inclusion.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Institutions keep changing the words to describe the kind of community they desire. Corporate America, the medical industrial complex, and the education industrial complex must be spending a pretty penny on reprinting business cards and engraving door plaques for the directors they’ve employed to foster an environment where everyone feels like they belong.
Usually the process to achieve that goal is expressed in terms of a table. The bigwigs, whether for profit or out of humanity, want “everyone to have a place at the table.”
It’s a terrible idea.
Because those in power fail to see that the problem is the table itself.
White people designed that table.
White people enslaved Black people and forced them to build it.
White people created the menu and made BIPOC cook and serve the food to their guests, who were profiting off their own table manufacturing businesses.
And now. Now? It’s en vogue to invite to that same table all of the people who were violently excluded from it for so long. And BIPOC are supposed to be grateful for a place at this table.
Today’s boss *pulls out a chair*. “Come here, sit next to me, tell me a story of how hard it’s been for you to have been kept from this table. Do this while you eat the food I like and am graciously sharing with you. Sing for us. Dance!”
And thus, white America continues to exploit the people who are covered in sawdust, expecting them to clean up the mess.
The elusive reality for which we can’t find the right descriptors will never come to pass as long as institutional power brokers expect the conversations to take place around the white man’s table.
As long as white people in power sit in willful ignorance of the history of their heirloom tables bequeathed to them by their forebears, they will be nothing more than self-deceived benevolent enslavers.
So, yes, I think “inclusion” is a bad idea – because the terms are set by white supremacy from the get-go.
WE (white people) want YOU (BIPOC) to come to our table.
WE (white people) are including YOU (BIPOC), because All Voices Matter.
Time to flip some tables
Maybe the way to change systems of white supremacy is to dismantle the tables. Maybe the way to change these systems is to put all the tables in the burn pile.
I suspect the answer at this juncture lies somewhere in the idea that entirely new tables need to be built, with white people taking direction from BIPOC table designers and offering to provide the labor to assemble them, resisting the temptations to stamp our names on the underside of the table and claim credit for the new design.
I don’t know. I’ve never been part of corporate America.
But what I do know is the Church.
And the white mainline Protestant Church in America has her own version of this reality.
Those who value “inclusion” are kind of stuck on the word diversity, but to it we’ve added new words as we’ve traveled our linguistic trajectory toward the ideal community:
Cis-het, able-bodied white people in the Church are replicating the mistakes of corporate America by inviting “others” to “the table” for conversation about, and the study of, “inclusion”…acting like those “others” should be grateful for the invitation, and assuming that “others” want to sit at that table.
Much of the effort toward “inclusion” in the mainline Protestant Church in America is rooted in a white supremacy and patriarchy we refuse to see.
You know what Jesus does to these Church tables?
He flips them.
He flips tables from which one group exploits another.
Flipping the tables is an act of grace because it disrupts the dynamic of power, liberating both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Faithfully following Christ entails living into a reality where there’s no us (table owners) and them (those we’ve kept from the table).
Christ erases those distinctions.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Who invited you, anyhow?
The table central to our lives isn’t owned by any of us.
It’s Christ’s table.
Who sets the menu? Christ.
Who creates the guest list? Christ.
Who provides the food? Christ, humbly.
What is offered at the table? Abundant love and life.
In the United Methodist Church’s liturgy of Holy Communion, the Invitation to the Table says, “Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”
Everyone is invited. No humans are doing the inviting. All receive an invitation from the Divine Issuer.
It’s a standing invitation to a feast of grace for which we prepare again and again to eat.
People who think they own the table prepare to come to Christ’s table by confessing that we really would like to edit down that guest list, please, and also can’t we do seating arrangements with those fancy little place cards, and who gets to sit at the head table, at the left and the right of Jesus?
We confess our assumption that everyone will enjoy using our grandmother’s silverware because it’s been in the family for generations.
Flipped tables are the symbols of a reversal that is inherent to the gospel, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The word repentance is loaded with the baggage of coerced confessions, but it literally means a turning from one thing to another.
Repentant table owners live into the reversal of overturned dynamics by willingly taking last place.
Being repentant means that we get up from our table in the Big House with its stained glass windows and go find Christ’s table[i].
Congregations’ love of brick and mortar makes it hard to conceive of the existence of a table for which we didn’t have a capital campaign or affix a plaque commemorating the donor and therefore can’t call our own.[ii]
We’ll find Christ’s table if we remember our roots as nomadic people who are not tied to buildings but are recipients of the moveable feast of manna from heaven.
Where might Christ’s table be located?
Maybe at step show or pow wow.
Maybe on a tatami mat or at a quinceañera.
Maybe at a drag show.
Maybe in a soup kitchen.
Maybe on Discord.
Repentant table owners find the courage to humbly ask if it would be okay to sit silently at those tables for a little while.
Replacing the idol of inclusion with friendship
The Head of the table tells us that he came not to call us servants, but friends.
“In breaking bread with our neighbors,” Craig Wong writes, “Christ transforms strangers into friends…not projects”.[iii] Inclusion is an idol founded on furniture which doesn’t foster fellowship but forsakes the friendship that Christ so freely offers.
In friendship we find a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet.
In friendship we eat and listen and practice the humility of Christ.
In friendship we adjust to our new reality as guests at a table not of our own making
Thanks be to God for these gifts.
[i] White supremacy yields an environment where no one in the CCM industry pipeline recognized the problem with producing a song in the early 90s called Big House, in which a term commonly used to describe an enslaver’s house or, more recently, a prison, is employed as a shorthand for God’s “house with many rooms.”
[ii] I once saw a plaque which said “In memory of” [a deceased church member] nailed to a Communion table, where the words which ought to take center stage are Jesus’: “In remembrance of me”.
Feature image by Oswin Schönfelder via pond5.com