Are There Limits on Diversity?

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By Derek Penwell

Diversity. Good word. I’m a progressive, so I use the word a lot.

But I’m wondering about the limits of diversity. We progressives prefer not to think about the fact that—as much as we like to think so in theory—in practice there’s no way to include everybody.

Ok. There. I said it. You can’t include everybody.


Somebody will almost certainly exclaim gleefully at this point: “See, I knew it! Liberals want to include everyone except those who are exclusivists!”

Believe me, I understand such a satisfied response on the part of conservatives convinced that liberals are just as parochial and exclusionary as those conservatives whom liberals denounce. And I suspect there are cases when they’re justified in thinking this.

I also get why those who sniffily claim to be above such partisan labels (i.e., moderates) see this as proof that liberals and conservatives are merely two sides of the same coin (“Both sides exclude people who disagree, only over different issues. A pox on both their houses.”).

I understand how the phrase, “You can’t include everybody,” sounds coming out of the mouth of a public liberal. But calculating whom we should leave behind isn’t what I mean at all.

I’m thinking about the story of the Prodigal Son at the moment—specifically the party at the end of the story.

Here’s what I’m thinking: You can’t include people who insist on standing outside the party refusing to come in and belly up to the bar because the host has been altogether too undiscriminating about who’s invited.

God throws open the doors and says, “Y’all come! And all means all. The only requirement is that you’re hungry and thirsty—that you want to dance and party with the host. All that can exclude you is insisting that there’s some place you’d rather be.”

There it is. God puts out a spread, and some folks stay away because they want to control the menu, they want a line-item veto on the guest list. Everybody knows you can’t just invite the whole world! Lord have mercy, you start doing that and pretty soon you’re gonna have all kinds of undesirables knocking on the door wanting to be let in.

We’ve developed amazingly ingenious methods, persuasive rationales for why we need to exclude people, keep them from the party. It’s become perfectly acceptable, for instance, to exclude people who don’t:

  • believe the right things
  • love the right people
  • think America is God’s plan for saving the world

On the other hand, I don’t hear much holy umbrage being taken around the issue of people who:

  • think that the way you spend your money is a personal rather than a religious issue
  • live as though sin is always an issue of personal responsibility, and never of systemic imbalances
  • believe that killing your enemies and those who threaten you is a self-evidently justifiable Christian position

Perhaps the parable of the Prodigal Son is seeking to expose our accepted patterns of understanding the world. Perhaps this parable is seeking to point out to us that the ways in which we have construed reality, as often as not, stand in the way of God’s great work.

We’re too often unable to see it because we’ve convinced ourselves that whatever we’re comfortable with, God must also be comfortable with. Perhaps this text wants to say to us that God has plans for saving the world that are greater than our limited vision of what’s important and what’s not, about who is invited to the party and who ought to know better just to stay away … and about who ultimately is hosting the party in the first place.

That may be the most important lesson for the church to take away from the parable of the Prodigal Son—namely, even the most expansive grace imaginable cannot overcome an unwillingness to sit down at the banquet table next to someone you don’t think deserves to be there.

Robert Farrar Capon once said that hell is having God standing at the door continually inviting you to come into the party, while you stubbornly remain outside refusing because you don’t approve of the guest list.

If you think there are people who ought to be kept away from the table, no amount of invitation or welcome can convince you to come take your seat. That’s what I mean.

Diversity has limits not because I would choose to exclude anyone, but because there are people who insist on excluding themselves from the outrageous banquet God is busy throwing.

via Articles – [D]mergent

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

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