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Thinking Out Loud

The Inclusive Reign of God

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 01, 2013

Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” remains one of the most disturbing characters in American fiction. Certain of the divinely sanctioned orders of creation, she stands in her doctor’s office directing long suffering Claud (and by implication everyone else) precisely where he should sit. The short story is told in a manner absolutely determined to shock and offend any sensitive soul who reads it, told as it is in Mrs. Turpin’s voice, her racism, classism being only two of her ugly biases. If there was such an ideological category as “otherism,” Mrs. Turpin would  hold it fondly in her ample bosom. Mrs. Turpin, we are told, believed she “was protected in some special way by Divine Providence.” And nothing could trouble her sense of entitlement (a character trait she possessed long before that word became current).

Nothing, that is, could trouble her well-ordered worldview until her revelation.  O’Connor describes it: “A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through the field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” In her revelation, all of humanity is marching toward heaven, but the first are last (not just in a Bible story, but really!), and the last are first (whether they deserve it or not, you can almost hear Mrs. Turpin say!), and her whole system of how people should be ordered into classes and races is overturned. To her utter and complete astonishment, she and Claud are mixed in with all the others. Mixed in! And, looking at Claud and her marching along singing, “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (O’Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 508)

Fred Craddock once preached a sermon about the “dirtiest word in the English language.” He asked the startled congregation again and again, “Do you know what the dirtiest word in the English language is?” Finally, he came out with it: “exclusive.”

I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Turpin, in O’Connor’s tragic-comic story, would not see herself as in league with dirty words. I even suspect that she would not have seen herself as particularly exclusive. But, of course, it is obvious to the reader that she is. Seldom does any Mrs. Turpin recognize her own exclusivity.

There are those in our culture – not least in our religious culture – who reject the notion of inclusivity as a fad inspired by political correctness. And it is true that there are also those who wield a battle axe of exclusivity in the name of being inclusive. One of my British colleagues, for example, has told me that the only people that do not fit in a pluralistic society are those who have monistic allegiances. He seems to have missed the irony of his position. And there are those who, for the sake of inclusivity, would demand that everyone conform to their political or theological worldview.

But there is something deeply theological at stake in the notion of inclusivity. It requires all of us to locate the Mrs. Turpin in us (not in someone else). And it requires the Mrs. Turpin in us to be subject to “revelation.”

Nobody I know of has written more eloquently of the theology of inclusivity than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Recently I was re-reading a section of her study, God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), and I would like to share that with you today:

“The reign of God, not the reign as we might be inclined to design it, is the stuff of Christian life. Like the laborers in the vineyard, or the prodigal son, the reign of God’s making may offend our common sense notions of how much should be given to whom, what is fair labor practice, who should come first. The parables of the kingdom shake us out of our self-deception that the reign of God is our reign. At the same time, when we are the laborer come late, or the wasteful son, these stories are the good news of our salvation.

“Those who come first in God’s reign do so not because of their own merit, but because of God. To fulfill the providential plan of God foreordained from before all ages, God must overturn and conquer the social, political, economic, racial, sexual stratifications that we ourselves have invented as means of control over others. In Jesus Christ, God heals divisions, reconciles the alienated, gives hope to those who have none, offers forgiveness to the sinner, includes the outcast. In the end God’s love and mercy are altogether inclusive, accepting the repentant master as well as the repentant slave. If anyone were to be ultimately excluded from the reign of God it would be because he or she had set up himself or herself as the final criterion of who should be included in God’s reign. Still, the exclusion of even a single person is contrary to God’s providential plan. In the end only the barriers to eternal and universal communion are excluded from God’s reign: sin, death, and despair.” (God With Us, 388).

What separates this vision of inclusivity from mere political correctness is as wide a gulf as the distinction between social or political revolution and theological revelation. The object of revolution is almost inevitably the substitution of one ruling class with another, the exclusion of some in favor of others. Revelation blesses all even while it judges all, and it judges us all principally in our failure to bless. Revolution leaves Mrs. Turpin either as an “insider” or an “outsider,” depending on which side wins. Revelation leaves her – well, I’ll let Flannery O’Connor tell us where revelation leaves her:

“At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.” (509)


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