Adopted children of God

This is one time when I find a religious argument rather attractive – although in fact it’s not really a religious argument as such, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any supernatural truth claims. The claims are in fact ethical and secular, but they are made more persuasive, emotive, convincing to believers because they are attributed to Jesus. And this version of Jesus is indeed vastly more attractive and moving than the usual one, and it’s certainly more attractive than the threatening demands of the established churches to be allowed to continue to exclude a despised group. As Simon Barrow points out. The churches seem to have lost the plot, if they think excluding despised groups was Jesus’s pet project.

Despite continuingly emollient words about service and conscience, the church message to the prime minister is still crystal clear: “allow us to discriminate against lesbian and gay people, or we pull the plug on ‘our’ adoption agencies”. This kind of threat is not quite what Jesus had in mind, I think, when he said, “suffer the little children to come to me”…These words were, tellingly, addressed to people who had acquired a habit from religious authorities of putting their own interests ahead of the most vulnerable. Children were usually last in the pecking order in Jesus’ society, which is why he singled them out as exemplars of God’s special concern for those at the bottom of the heap. That’s the gospel. The Catholic Church, like many historic religious bodies, is not at the bottom of the heap…Still seeing its future as a powerful stakeholder, the church naturally struggles with the deliberately marginal ethos of the early Christian movement, and instead is tempted towards policies which enshrine positional arrogance over pastoral care. It has lost its Christian bearings and opted instead for what John Kenneth Galbraith called the deception of “institutional truth”.

And it has not always and everywhere been conspicuous for its tender concern for the people who are at the bottom of the heap. Children in Irish industrial schools come to mind. So do women imprisoned by the church in ‘Magdalen’ laundries, also in Ireland. Victims of paedophile priest join the queue. Maybe the church should worry more about that than it does about its perceived right to go on excluding yet another despised group.

Ironically, one of the key terms the Epistle to the Ephesians uses to describe those who belong to the church is “adopted children of God”. The point is that people belong to the family of Christ not because they are good, worthy, rich, of the “right” family line, ethnicity, gender or theological persuasion. No, they are “in” solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, and they are a sign of that love. This makes the church anti-exclusionary by nature, rightly understood.

I don’t know how true that is (how well it reflects some original nature of the church or of Chistianity), but I do find it rather moving. But I also immediately compare it with the cold, harsh, unloving treatment of children at Goldenbridge – which was not just an absent-minded habit, but a matter of policy – and I marvel at the gap between the ideal and the reality.

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