We hear a lot about how the church needs to reach out to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. That shouldn’t be too surprising given our Lord’s example of ministering to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers of his day. Nevertheless, there’s something very curious about the way in which Christians identify the marginalized today.
Nine times out of ten, these exhortations from American Christians focus on a very small and very familiar subset of minorities. Many say our churches needs to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Others say we need to seek out racial minorities–usually blacks and latinos. Single women, of course, also frequent the list. These, they say, are the outcasts of society that our wicked churches have neglected.
But are they really?
See, the lepers of Jesus’ day were bywords and outcasts. They were the people everyone deliberately kept at a distance. They were the ones people loved to mock and were consequently ashamed or afraid to associate with. Jesus was often condemned for spending time among the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the lepers he encountered. The Pharisees and other people of high repute were aghast that Jesus would eat with sinners.
That is not at all what we observe with respect to the usual list of popular minorities today. They receive the world’s accolades, not it’s scorn. The fixtures of our society go out of their way to affirm and praise them. They make haste to tell everyone when they include one in their organization. They take turns patting each other’s backs for their willingness to be sycophants. It’s a stark contrast to Jesus’ day, when none of the big authorities were telling him that they needed to do a better job with their Samaritan outreach.
And yes, this kind of false praise for these groups is even the case in more conservative church bodies, and yes, even with the alphabet people with whom there is usually the most friction. To be sure, orthodox Christians do insist on repentance for sexual sin, as is proper. After all, Jesus affirmed Zacchaeus for making amends, he told the woman caught in adultery to leave her life of sin, and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable went home justified because he confessed himself a sinner. As much as theological liberalism tries to paint Jesus’ teachings here as hatred, they are nothing of the kind. Nevertheless, conservative Christian are generally so desperate to be seen as hating the sin but loving the sinner that they often fall off the other side into flattering the sinner.
We never see a dynamic like that playing out in Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. To put it bluntly, if you can use your ministry to a particular minority as a means of virtue-signaling to society at large, then those who belong to that group are ipso facto not modern lepers.
So who are the true lepers of today? Who are the ones to whom we would never say “you sit here in a good place” when they enter our churches on Sunday mornings? Who would we never want to deliberately associate with because we’d be afraid of what society would think? Likewise, what do we call people when we want to dismiss what they have to say, like how Jesus was called a Samaritan? With what do we tar and feather them when we want to warn others to keep their distance? Who does no one of good repute ever stand up for? Who does absolutely no one use to signal their virtue and compassion because they are held in universal contempt by polite society?
Incels. Incels are today’s lepers. They’re widely seen as pathetic at best and dangerous creeps at worst, and so people recoil from them. It’s a term of scorn that’s used almost exclusively as an insult. People don’t want to risk being associated with the term, and when it gets wrongly applied, most men will start getting defensive right away.
And yet, I have never encountered a congregation that publicizes how incel-friendly it is. I have never seen prominent Christian publications calling on the Church to start welcoming incels because they’re so marginalized, despised, and excluded from normal society. And “incel” is indeed the label people try to associate with any man who tries to call out society for the recent changes in sexual customs which have facilitated the rapid growth of this group of young men. In other words, if you actually address an issue that incels are concerned with, you run the risk of being associated with them.
Incels aren’t our society’s only outcasts, of course–just a good example because they’re the platonic ideal at the moment. Qanon devotees and other conspiracy theorists could also be a timely choice with everybody warning us to stay away from them. Racists and sexists have been deliberately ostracized for a long time now, though the way the terms are becoming undefined means that’s already on its way out. (Arguably, you might even count “housewife” for the way most people sneer at the label and most women fight tooth and nail to avoid it. But housewives tend to be very good at building their own small societies, so the “outcast” part is pretty blunted once they get going.) Really, there is no shortage of marginalized groups that people don’t fall all over themselves trying to affirm.
If Christians, congregations, and para-church organizations really wanted to be Christ-like in the sense of ministering to the outcasts and the downtrodden, those are the kinds of people they would be reaching out to despite the condemnation they would receive for associating with them. But they don’t really want to be Christ-like. They only want to be seen as Christ-like.
Christ, however, was never trying to be seen as Christ-like. He was simply fulfilling the calling his Father gave him by ministering to those to whom he was sent–including the blind, the deaf, the lame, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the gentiles, the Samaritans, and every sinner. We should imitate him by doing the same. Not by starting some program to target some marginalized group or another. And certainly not by seeking the praises of men. But by ministering to those whom God has placed in our lives, and going to those to whom we are sent, no matter what boxes they might check.