The word “ostracize” comes from a practice of the world’s first democracy. Each year, the citizens of Athens could vote to conduct an ostracism—a writing on shards of pottery, or ostraka. Citizens would write the name of a man considered a potential threat to the state, usually somebody with enough power to become a tyrant. A person named by a sufficient number of citizens would be banished for ten years, not punitively, but preemptively. Such was the fate of the great military hero Themistocles, who defeated the Persians and saved all of Greece. In Athens, they did not take chances.
Human societies have always practiced some form of ostracism—often preemptively and always for protection against perceived threats. We are social animals, but we are also scared little mammals governed by our fears. Consequently, we often withdraw our society, and our protection, from those we consider dangerous. It’s how scared little social animals have always done things.
The fears that lead to ostracism are legion. We fear physical contagion, moral contagion, corruption, power, weakness, disease, deviance, and the displeasure of the gods. And we have a long tradition of ostracizing (or worse) lepers, adulterers, heretics, disabled people, sick people, and anybody who, for any reason, we imagine capable of bringing divine wrath down on our communities.
One of the most sinister reasons for casting people from our midst—and one that lies at the heart of many others—is the fear of having to re-evaluate the core assumptions that help us make sense of the world. Some societies, for example, believe that a soul can only inhabit a unique body that has been designed for it. Identical twins seem to violate this belief by splitting a single soul into two bodies. Consequently, twins must be killed (or allowed to die) lest they allow a soulless body to wreak havoc on the community.
This is also the main conflict in the Book of Job. Job is cast out of his society and rejected by his comforters because they do not want to have to rethink one of their principle beliefs: that God rewards good people with good things and punishes bad people with bad things. Belief in divine rewards and punishments structured much of the ancient world. The very existence of a person like Job—a righteous man suffering profoundly—was incompatible with this world view. It was easier for Job’s best friends to reject him and drive him away than to reevaluate their core beliefs. This sort of thing happens all too often today.
One guy who never did this was Jesus Christ. The New Testament, in fact, goes to great length to show Jesus interacting with—and not rejecting—nearly every category of human being that his society had determined to ostracize. He heals lepers, forgives adulteresses, interacts regularly with prostitutes and tax collectors, and even has some good words to say about Samaritans. For a Palestinian Jew in the Roman world, this is a pretty complete list of people not to hang around with.
Several people have told me recently that it is a serious mistake to see Christ’s abundant love as an acceptance of sinful behavior. This is absolutely true. But it is just as serious a mistake to confuse the need to disapprove of sin with the need to expel people from our society. It is completely possible to love the sinner, hate the sin, and not cast anybody from our midst.
This, in fact, is precisely the charge that Christ has given to those who would be his disciples.