Yesterday during the sermonette portion of services for our local congregation, which has been meeting remotely during the current Coronavirus crisis, a video played to support camp. It is expected that the camps will be open at some point during May, thus allowing for summer camps to be held as expected after this outbreak is over. That is, of course, the current expectation. During the course of the video, the narrator praised the attendance and assistance at preteen camp of preteens, young adults, and parents. As someone who fits in none of those categories but who has helped out with our own local preteen camp for the past few years, I was a bit miffed that the script and narrator had not properly exhausted the possible space of those who attend a preteen camp. I am perhaps a bit oversensitive to feeling excluded in such regards, but in an age of rather fierce identity issues, I know I am not alone in being bothered and annoyed and even offended by those whose clumsy efforts at categorizing people are incomplete and leave large groups of people out.
How is such a thing to be avoided? Technically speaking, the praise of preteens (attending as campers), young adults, and parents leaves out at least two very large groups of people who assist at preteen camp, namely those who help out in the camps as teenagers (a substantial portion of the staff) and those who are not parents and who may not even be married but who help out nonetheless (a smaller group of people, but one I am particularly sensitive to since I happen to be a part of that group). In order to avoid missing groups, one has to be aware of and sensitive to the categories of people that fill up the space of efforts. The fact that this thinking is not often done can be recognized when one realizes that large groups of people are frequently left out when it comes to the categories of people that congregations seek to serve and who, as is the case in the camp video I watched yesterday, they wish to praise. Nevertheless, it is not particularly difficult to exhaust the possible space of people when it comes to one’s commentary.
A glimpse of the ease of exhausting the possible space of humanity and in the importance of doing so can be readily understood from reading Galatians 3:26-29. The New King James Version translates it as follows: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” One of the major points of this passage is to encourage the believers in Galatia (and later readers) that all people are included in the promise that we have available to us adoption into the family of God, and that our belief in and obedience towards God and Christ bring us under the promises and blessings given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob regardless of our background or identity. Identity problems are a major facet of our contemporary lives, but they are nothing new. The early church certainly faced such problems regarding Gentile converts who may have felt that they were left out of the promises and focus that was (and is) placed on the role of Israel as God’s chosen people. Understanding that baptism and obedience graft one into the people of Israel (a truth of the Bible expressed in Psalm 87 and 117 as well as Ruth and Isaiah 56) allows everyone to recognize that they have a part in the blessings and promises of God and that no one is left out. This is a very important matter.
It should be noted that the three groups of people that Paul is talking about are all written of in exhaustive categories that seek to include all of humanity within them so that no one is left out. From this we may understand that the translation of Jew and Greek is incorrect because it is not exhaustive. Frequently in the New Testament translation, Greek should be translated as Gentile to make for a true contrast that includes everyone, for while there are and were non-Jews who were also non-Greeks, the Jews considered all who were not Jews to be Gentiles, and thus the passage contains three exhaustive categories: male-female, Jew-Gentile, and slave-free that properly include with them all of humanity. Even in our age, those who are not male are female (or vice versa), those who are not Jews are Gentiles (or vice versa), and those who are not slaves are free (or vice versa) because those pairs of identities are properly exhaustive. We may say, for example, that all who have a Y-chromosome are male and all who do not are female, properly dividing the space of humanity into two sexes and genders. Likewise, we may say that all people who are not owned by others are free and those who are are slaves, thus dividing humanity again into two categories without exception. The same is, as noted above, the case with regards to Jews and Gentiles, for all who are not one are by definition in the other category. This is important to Paul’s point of demonstrating three ways that all of humanity can be said to be the recipients of God’s blessings and promises with humanity, especially when one considers the groups of humanity that might think that they are excluded by virtue of the way that they have been treated throughout history. Paul’s point is that women, Gentiles, and slaves, three groups of people who Jewish men still thank God that they were not born as, are still recipients of the promises and blessings and identity as children of God with all that entails.
How does that influence the way that we seek to discuss humanity? It is not always as easy as we may think to exhaust the possible space where people can find themselves. If we divide people into rich or poor, we neglect those who consider themselves to be in the middle class. If we talk about people as young or old we may neglect people who are middle-aged. If we seek to list people by national origin we may neglect large swaths of people who do not fit into the categories we list. Only a few categories of people are properly binary enough that we can list them without problems. For example, we may say children and adults because children are those under the age of majority and adults are those who have reached the age of majority and thus between those two categories everyone is included. Likewise, we may say righteous and sinners because righteous people are those who obey and follow God and sinners are everyone else. Wherever possible it is probably best to phrase calls to all of humanity in binary categories that may be readily understood as including everyone, because it greatly cuts against our desire to include everyone when we conspicuously fail to do so because we have not thought out the full space of potential identities for people for to fall under when we seek to list them one after another. A great deal of irritation and annoyance and offense could be avoided if we recognized that it was important for everyone to be recognized and respected and to act accordingly.