Unclean

(Warning – LONG post ahead … )

I recently came across one of the worst examples of “Christian” blogging I have ever seen. (Both to keep the post from spreading further than it has, and to avoid distractions from the main purpose of this post, I will not link to it here.) The gist of this post was an appeal to Christians to return to their disgust for sin.

The author, both explicitly and with what was left unsaid, admitted that many times we cannot “win” a battle of reason, especially when appeals to justice and equality or our Christian call to love are concerned. So … in order to stand up for holiness, it is essential to return to a primal disgust toward what sin actually is. (He then proceeded, in graphic detail, to describe things he saw as sin, all the while appealing to how “disgusting” these actions were.)

Now, the way I am describing this here is such a tame version of the author’s logic that it almost sounds reasonable – or at least defensible. But it was a classic example of how Christians, in their quest for holiness, purity or “set-apart”-ness, can treat people with contempt and as being “less than human” simply because we are disgusted by their actions.

The positive side of this, and the reason for this post, is that this article caused me to finally read a book that had been on my “must read” list for almost a year: Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality by Richard Beck.

And, boy am I glad I did …

While this will be an incredibly simplistic overview of Beck’s discussion, I hope to be able to at least touch on his main points as before I even read the book, I started attempting to practice what I knew it preached.

The central theme of the book is that Christians should treat any feelings of disgust with a sense of skepticism and not allow them to automatically dictate our reactions. He focuses on Jesus’ words in Matthew 9 (and elsewhere) where he quotes the prophet Hosea; “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This is used to show how mercy and sacrifice are opposed of one another.

“Sacrifice – the purity impulse – marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the ‘clean’ and expelling the ‘unclean.’ Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse – holiness and purity – erects boundaries, while the other impulse – mercy and hospitality – crosses and ignores those boundaries.”

He starts by discussing a common saying – “love the sinner and hate the sin” – and shows that while this may sound good at first, anyone who seriously thinks about it will realize it to be impossible. It is “extraordinarily difficult to ‘love the sinner’ – to respond to people tenderly, empathically, and mercifully – when you are full of moral anger over their behaviour.”

Using his expertise in psychology (which is his profession) and a wide variety of research, he shows that disgust is an emotion that exists to erect boundaries – to keep dangerous things from entering our bodies (especially food). If the boundary is ever broken, disgust triggers an “expulsive” reaction that forcibly removes the “contagion” (e.g., throwing up after eating something that tastes bad).

While this is useful when it comes to things like food, when we encounter it in our social interactions, we are placing boundaries between ourselves and people we view as unclean. This makes missional activity next to impossible since we avoid contact and when contact does occur, we tend to expel “unclean” people from our group as unworthy of belonging.

This is especially troubling since judgments based on disgust have been found to play by their own rules and these rules are not based on any form of logic or reason. (The research that prompted his investigation of disgust was something called the Dixie Cup test where people were asked to drink water from a cup. Next, they were asked to spit in a cup of water and then drink that cup. People would not drink a cup of water with their own spit, despite the fact 10 seconds earlier that saliva was in their mouth and would mix with the water they drank from the cup without spit … this illustrates the illogical-ness of disgust. It makes no sense.)

Disgust is closely associated with what is called “contagion”. Contagions are avoided because contact results in “impurity” or infection. Even minor doses of contagions are seen to pollute everything they come in contact with and remain that way permanently. And regardless of how large the glass of water, even one mL of feces introduced will render the entire glass undrinkable – contagion is viewed as more powerful than purity.

This is all fine and good in the world of food and illness, but when attached to behaviours (sin or otherwise), you can see how this would result in viewing a person as disgusting, polluted by their actions and so to be avoided. No matter how much they may be seeking God’s will in their life, the small dose of impurity can be seen to dominate and permanently stain a person.

In Jesus’ life, ministry and practice of table fellowship, we see him not focusing on whether people were clean or unclean (and remember Judaism had God-given laws that dictated what was clean and unclean), but rather attacking the boundary that had been setup to establish that separation and frequently violating Jewish purity laws.

He called on people to show mercy.

… to love.

Love extends boundaries beyond our “kingdom of comfort” and that means feelings of disgust directed toward others need to disappear.

Love requires the removal of disgust.

Beck shows that hospitality is one of the most distinctly “Christian” ways of practicing love and exterminating feelings of disgust.

“Noted as exceptional by Christians and non-Christians alike, offering care to strangers became one of the distinguishing marks of the authenticity of the Christian gospel and of the church.” – Beck quoting Christine Pohl in Making Room

If hospitality is one of our defining, “Christian” practices, there seems to be little, if any, room for disgust in our lives. As Beck says, hospitality is fundamentally an act of embrace. Where holiness (or purity; being set apart) prompts withdrawal, expulsion and quarantine, hospitality seeks to expand our boundaries and embrace others. Hospitality is the fight against disgust, contempt and hatred toward others.

Beck most powerfully points toward what our ideal stance should be when he says;

“… when the ‘will to purity’ trumps the ‘will to embrace’ (when sacrifice precedes mercy), the gears of … disgust begin to turn, poisoning the well of hospitality by activating emotions of otherness. In the desire to secure purity the faith community will begin to turn inward. The moral circle shrinks. The church begins to define its spiritual mission as the regulation of purity boundaries within the membership and between outsiders. Walls … are erected to protect and quarantine the faith community … The community has become curved in on itself.”

What he is saying is that when we place purity/holiness/set apart-ness ahead of a desire to embrace others (friend, enemies and sinners alike) we become inward focused and lose our sense of mission in the world. The church ceases to be the church. We lose track of our call to reach the world with the love of God.

We become moral police erecting boundaries for entry and forget our primary call is to invite the poor, the wretched, the sinner, the blind, the sick, the bad and the good. We are told to invite everyone to the feast.

Sin may be sin, but God was not so disgusted by my sin that he could not embrace me and so I will fight my own instincts to ensure my ‘will to embrace’ is not ruled by emotions of disgust at the sins of others.

No matter what I may feel about certain sins or activities, disgust can never be a “Christian” starting point.

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