Who is ‘in’, and who is ‘out’? The very worst things in human history have happened when those who have an inkling (but cannot name it) say and do nothing to confront a looming problem or set ideas about identity and belonging. When good people do nothing, the poisonous lie that is built-in to an idea grows in power but dare not or cannot yet be named. Those with vested interests, of say; personal safety, safety of loved ones, influence etc., keep their heads down. Neighbours begin to snitch on neighbours and hey-ho, Dawkins’ memetic ideas gone awry in catastrophic ways leading to the very worst of 20th century atrocities. Dramatic yes, but sadly all too true.

During the 1970s a man named Paul Hiebert identified that when people come together to solve problems, they often have a “closed circle” philosophy, or what he called a Bounded Set. A bounded set thinker asks the question – Do you believe as I believe? This almost inevitably becomes a divisive question because it separates those who are in from those who are out, limiting people who are allowed to work on the problem/idea to those who sign off on an agreed upon belief.  Hiebert was looking at group problem solving but whether it’s political, religious, or some other type of personal conviction—unless you believe what we believe, you can’t work on the problem.

Hiebert saw examples of a different (more productive) way to look at problem-solving relationships. It is an open philosophy he referred to as a Centred Set. A centred set has no boundary that defines who is in and who is out, a porous boundary if you like in which people can come and engage from any position or opinion, and leave again when done. The questions that determine if you are part of the problem-solving group are – Do you care about what I care about? Do you want to solve the problem we identify? This philosophy (at its best) works because it is inclusive of multiple ideas, positions, and focuses on the matter at hand— solving the problem.

There is something pathological at the heart of bounded sets and it is why there is a deep, but sometime poorly articulated resistance to them from those who sense danger in them. The bounded set is destined to atrophy and stagnate or becomes cult-like (they hate us and we don’t care) over time but for the cultural assimilation through birth and upbringing and the attractiveness of belonging to those who are hurting (gang culture). It is powerful but in a malignant, tyrannical way that is unsustainable. Given sufficient oxygen this kind of bounded-tribalism wreaks havoc but ultimately fails because they become too exclusive. Once the ‘enemy’ have been segregated, silenced or removed the only fuel is internal and the knives turn in the way. The circle keeps getting smaller, and more people are found to be on the wrong side of the ideological set.

One of the key challenges facing Christians throughout time is the answer to the question: What would Jesus do? I propose that the solution to the question will be shaped greatly by whether ones pre-disposition is toward bounded or centred approaches to life’s challenges. So the question becomes, what is Jesus’ approach to this conundrum, bounded or centred?

I am not going to answer that directly, we should all work out our own salvations etc. Rather, I bring to mind a few examples: The woman caught in adultery, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the healing of the unclean and leprous, the approach to the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I could go on with ease. Wherever there is assumption that righteousness is wedded to power, religiosity, public standing, reputation, wealth, health, ethnicity etc., Jesus confronts it for the lie that it is and stands alongside the marginalised in the story.

People arriving in the name of whatever power, under the letter of dubious laws, to take away friends and neighbours under the cover of dawn. It has a sinister thin-end-of-the-wedge feel to it. That is why, a people sensing that this treatment of human beings, irrespective of where they were born, or from whence they came is so wrong that they would lay down their bicycles in front of a van, rally an improvised but powerful group who end chanting “let our neighbours go!”. Something powerful was being articulated in that protest. Even more so in the subsequent release of the two men. “Let our neighbours go” was not only prophetic, speaking truth to power, but it was demonstrably Jesus too and will no doubt have consequences. Whatever your view on the events, it was powerful indeed and was a reminder to me of the Lords words for us all in Matthew’s Gospel –

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Matthew 25:35-36


Charles Maasz