Rowan Williams on the Outsider ala Luke


Rowan Williams, writing in Christ on Trial in his chapter on the Lucan narrative, describes the “reversal” theme of the Kingdom of God (which figures quite strongly in that gospel) thusly (lightly edited and with Americanized spelling):

“God’s transcendence is in some sense present in and with those who do not have a voice, in and with those without power to affect their world, in and with those believed to have lost any right that they might have had in the world. God is not with them because they are naturally virtuous, or because they are martyrs; he is simply there in the fact that they are ‘left over’ when the social and moral score is added up by the managers of social and moral behavior. Or, to put it a bit differently, God appears in and through the fact that our ways of arranging the world always leave someone’s interest, welfare or reality out of account. We cannot organize our world so as to leave everyone possible a place. We are unavoidably bound to exclusion as we try to give form to our social and moral life.

… So what is Luke telling us through the way he positions God with the outsider? In an important sense, he is not saying anything about right and wrong. If we thought that God was to be found in and with the outsider because God approved of them more than he approved of insiders, we should be falling back into just the mentality we are being urged to forget.

…This is always the irony in movements of rebellion – the creation of new conventions to express an absolute freedom from the old ones, the identifying of new heroes to replace the old role models. … A counterculture is no less a culture because it rejects one set of conventions in favor of another.

No, Luke’s point is in a way much simpler than this. One modern writer has said that God is in the connections that we cannot make, and that tells us something of what is on view here. The person who is ‘left over’, whose place I cannot guarantee, whose welfare I cannot secure, is the person who reminds me of my own limits; and as I acknowledge the incomplete character of my world of reference and my understanding, I may at least see the seriousness of the question about the fate of those not catered for. If in any sense I recognize a claim of care for such people, even if I have no idea how to effect it, I am at least in some way towards perceiving how God lies in the connections I cannot make.” (Christ on Trial, pages 54-56 ABC paperback edition)

Christopher Evans made a point much along the same line last year when he challenged the Episcopal Church to recognize that even if it was unable at the moment to sacramentally bless the same-gender unions, it should at least be willing to admit that said inability causes it moral pain. I think I recall his phrase as being something on the order of “they should not be able to sleep at night…” or something like that.

If it’s of any help to people, please know that I’ve had more than my share of sleepless nights over the past six years.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. It may also remind that God works outside the Church because in God there is no “outside”, something Williams himself is not completely clear about at times. And at times, The Episcopal Church may be paralyzed in proclaiming the Gospel to those who are “left over” as such a proclamation must make room for reception and appropriation of the fruits of Christ’s work to such persons, and The Episcopal Church may not be a place within which this can be done at this time, as I think may in fact be the case at this time in relation to gay and lesbian persons. And I note that it has happened before in regard to this church in relation to enslaved Africans.

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