July 10, 2020

Mercy not Sacrifice (2): How do we view the “unclean”?

the human condition. Photo by renu parki at Flickr. Creative Commons License

We are thinking through Richard Beck’s illuminating book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. In our first post, we introduced his suggestion that disgust psychology can help explain the ways we view and treat other people. Beck’s focus in this study will be on the church, and answers to questions like:

  • Why do churches, ostensibly following a Messiah who broke bread with “tax collectors and sinners,” so often retreat into practices of exclusion and the quarantine of gated communities?
  • Why is it so difficult to create missional churches? (p. 1)

Beck, referencing studies on disgust psychology, argues that the “logic” of contamination thinking is akin to the fanciful reasoning of more primitive magic, which “tends to override reason.” Of course, such thinking grows out of some legitimate purposes, but when applied to situations where it doesn’t belong, it finds people making causal connections where there are none in reality.

The following, citing excerpts from Unclean, looks at a few of the ways contamination logic views that which it deems “unclean.”

I’d like to focus on four principles of contagion as have been described by Paul Rozin and his colleagues:

  • Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity.
  • Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the
    pollutant confer harm.
  • Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object.
  • Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable.

Contact.

Imagine I take out of my closet an old cardboard box. I want to show you something inside the box. I open the box and pull out a sweater. The sweater is old and somewhat ratty. It hasn’t been washed. I tell you that I was given this sweater by my grandfather who had an interest in World War II memorabilia. My grandfather acquired this sweater as a part of his collection. This sweater was owned and worn by Hitler. It’s from his actual wardrobe. After Hitler’s death many former Nazis took mementos from Hitler’s life. Apparently, there is a thriving black market trade for authentic artifacts or articles once owned, used, or worn by Hitler. The sweater I’m showing you was worn by Hitler the week before his suicide. It hasn’t been washed since. You can still see his sweat stains.

Would you, I ask, like to put the sweater on?

Research has shown that many people refuse to try the sweater on. More, people report discomfort being near or in the same room with the sweater. A wicked fog surrounds the object and we want to avoid contact with it.

What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away.

Dose Insensitivity.

[We] don’t think of something as being “a little” contaminated. “Dosage” is irrelevant. A small amount of contamination doesn’t compute. Something either is contaminated or it’s not. Consider the examples. In my church tradition small changes to worship practices, seemingly irrelevant, became huge sources of conflict. Like a drop of urine in a bottle of wine the small change—the polluting influence—ruined the acceptability of the worship. Changes to worship were dose insensitive.

Consider also how dose insensitivity drives the logic of ethnic cleansing. If, as the Nazis believed, Jews were polluting influences then dose insensitivity demanded complete elimination and extermination. The existence of a single Jew was too much to stand.

Permanence.

The judgment of permanence is characterized by the attribution that once an object becomes contaminated, nothing can be done to rehabilitate the object….Once polluted, always polluted.

…The judgment of permanence [is] important when we consider sins that are uniquely structured by purity metaphors. As we will see, when moral infractions are governed by a contamination logic the attribution of permanence — once polluted, always polluted — is imported into the sin experience. Such sins become emotionally traumatic due to the judgment that permanent, non-rehabilitative ruin has occurred. As a consequence, these “contamination sins” carry an enormous load of guilt, shame, and self-loathing within the church. After these sins people may “give up,” morally speaking, as some “pure” moral state or status has been irrevocably lost or ruined.

Negativity dominance.

The judgment of negativity dominance places all the power on the side of the pollutant. If I touch (apologies for the example I’m about to use) some feces to your cheeseburger the cheeseburger gets ruined, permanently (see above). Importantly, the cheeseburger doesn’t make the feces suddenly scrumptious. When the pure and the polluted come into contact the pollutant is the more powerful force. The negative dominates over the positive.

Negativity dominance has important missional implications for the church. For example, notice how negativity dominance is at work in Matthew 9. The Pharisees never once consider the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners. Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.

Negativity dominance is problematic in the life of the church because, in the missional moment, when the church makes contact with the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity. According to the logic of negativity dominance, contact with the world defiles the church. Given this logic the only move open to the church is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. In short, many missional failures are simply the product of the church following the intuitive logic of disgust psychology.

• Richard Beck. Unclean (pp. 25-30)

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    The whole OT concept of “unclean” is about touching; “unclean” is probably even a bit of a misnomer, since sacred and holy objects were also described as “unclean”. I would say that the whole concept is better to be thought of as “not to be touched”. I am not sure that “negativity dominance” is necessarily the point – touching sacred objects made the thing touching them sacred as much as touching foul objects made the thing touching them foul. I get the impression the aim is to ensure that the “not to be touched” in bad way (dead things, polluted things etc) never came into contact (even at second hand or to the slightest degree) with things that were “not to be touched” because they were holy.
    All the principles of contamination mentioned in the article seem to me to be all part of the same problem: at what point can you say that every last scrap of any possible holiness / foulness that might have adhered has definitely and finally gone?
    The solution in the OT is through ritual cleansing, with water, or sprinkling with sacrificial blood or other ceremonies and practices – any lingering holiness / foulness is deemed cleansed once the correct washing has been performed.
    Divine disinfectant has been applied and we are safe to proceed with past contamination erased.

    • Robert F says

      It sounds a little like the “magic” rituals people with OCD go through to make sure that when they are finished with what they’re doing it is “safely” done.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Including that specifically-religious OCD my church calls “Excessive Scrupulosity”.

        • I recognize the pattern because I had serious OCD in my thirties. Somehow I developed out of it without getting treatment, but it was very bad for a while.

    • David Greene says

      The whole OT concept of “unclean” is about touching; “unclean” is probably even a bit of a misnomer, since sacred and holy objects were also described as “unclean”. I would say that the whole concept is better to be thought of as “not to be touched”.

      I would imagine there are some people who would consider the sweater to be a sacred object not to be touched rather than unclean.

  2. Robert F says

    Negativity dominance is problematic in the life of the church because, in the missional moment, when the church makes contact with the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity. According to the logic of negativity dominance, contact with the world defiles the church

    And yet, so much of the American church is completely immersed in “the world”, its values so overlapping with American national values that there is not much outside the circle of intersection. With regard to the way the church is acting in America and the rest of the world, the revelations of its abuses of children and women, and its alliances with oppressive politics, it isn’t any wonder that the “the world” is beginning to feel that it is defiled by contact with the church.

    • It entirely depends on what you define “the world” as. The easiest definition is “anything I don’t like, or wouldn’t do”.

      • Robert F says

        The term “the world” should be carefully defined by an author before embarking on a discussion wherein it is used in contradistinction to “the church.” I suppose “the church” should be similarly defined before such a discussion as well.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        +1 Or simply “world” = “them”.

        I was listening to someone last week, about a church “intentionally” moving “into” the “neighborhood”. Even the statement “we want to be in the neighborhood”. . . . the undiluted “we”, going “in”, to a ‘there’. Part of me [*1] wants to respond: “oh, your church just turned 20 years old? That is so adorable! Let me introduce you to Ms. Smith; her family has been here for four generations.”

        1.) The issue of clearly perceived boundaries which are invisible from any other perspective.
        2.) The naked condescension in nearly all “missional” speech.

        [*1] Yes, another part of me understands that language is clumsy, everyone’s motives are mixed and require grace. Still – churches need to think more carefully about how they present themselves.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        More like “THEM! NOT US!”

        “I THANK THEE, LOOOOOOOOOOORD, THAT I AM NOTHING LIKE THAT…”

    • Christiane says

      I think the idea of INCARNATION is the response of God to this ‘wounded world”s condition and if you think about it ALL missionaries ‘go forth’ in the same way that Our Lord entered into this world’s condition, in order to heal it.

      So all of the ‘negative’ ideas of being ‘corrupted’ by ‘the world’ seem to get blown out of the water, when you consider that Our Lord ‘assumed’ our wounded humanity to Himself in order to heal it, and if anyone wants to come on ‘mission’ in HIS name, then they need to bear within themselves the Peace of Christ for those who need Him

      something to think about concerning the great and holy mystery of the INCARNATION:

      O Emmanuel

      O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
      O long-sought With-ness for a world without,

      O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
      Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
      Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,

      O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
      Be folded with us into time and place,
      Unfold for us the mystery of grace
      And make a womb of all this wounded world.

      O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
      O tiny hope within our hopelessness
      Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
      To touch a dying world with new-made hands
      And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

      (Malcolm Guite)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        To someone familiar with the concepts of “Deep Time” and “Deep Space”, INCARNATION keeps an infinite God on a one-to-one human scale.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Spot on.

    Also overlooked in a great deal of “moral” systems is Vanity.

    “””the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity… contact with the world defiles”””

    This, it really leaves no way forward.

    • Christiane says

      it might be worthwhile to pursue some idea of Christianity as a ‘transcendent’ force in this world and that people who followed Christ might be more able to be of service if they did two seemingly paradoxical things at the SAME TIME:

      First, that Christians went forward out into ‘this world’ as if they had just gone through Pentecost and were somewhat fearless and intent on serving others in Christ’s Name, coming from a position of positive encouragement and strength and GOOD WILL

      AND,

      Secondly, that Christians remained internally calmed and at peace so that ‘this world’ was not so ‘fearful’ and ‘offensive’ to them that they lost track of who they were as being sent out ‘to serve’ and not to judge’
      and that Christians did not feel so easily ‘slighted’ and could carry within themselves the peace of Christ that leads to a calm spirit of equanimity . . . not so much ‘re-acting’ as ‘acting’ positively to instead ‘come along side’ troubled people and take time to patiently listen to them . . . it is said that ‘God is present in the listening’ and it is His Presence that Christians want to carry with them out into the world

      in short, I don’t think Christians SHOULD feel so ‘threatened’ and ‘offended’ as some have portray themselves to be;
      but instead ‘go forth’ with good will in order to serve others in ways that ‘point to Christ’ and be something of a calm voice in the midst of the chaos that is ‘this world’ with all of its wounded. . . . and then for Christians to USE the forces that are needed in order to serve troubled people: patience, kindness, etc. (the fruit of the Holy Spirit)

      I doubt such Christians would need to use ‘manipulative’ or ‘controlling’ tactics or attempting to shame a troubled person, but to instead use some form, in some way, whatever is best at the time, of HUMILITY in service . . . as One Who showed how it is best done when He knelt and washed the feet of those He was serving and dried them gently with a towel . . . .

      yeah, I wonder if we know anything better to do than how Christ modeled for us Himself when He was here among us, with the heart of a Shepherd, He looked out on the multitudes of ‘harassed and helpless people’ and felt for them an age-old Kindness ?

  4. Robert F says

    For one thing, I don’t like or wear sweaters. Then you take a seventy-five year old one out of an old box, it is ratty-looking and unlikely ever to have been washed, who knows what kind of vermin it’s infested with. Quite apart from the Hitler stuff, I wouldn’t try it on. It could literally be carrying viruses and disease, regardless of any question of evil. This sounds like a poorly designed experiment.

    • Robert F says

      I mean, why would it be assumed in this experiment that anyone would normally want to put on a sweater if given the chance, apart from filthiness and Hitler? The designers of the experiment probably like sweaters themselves.

      • Christiane says

        it’s almost as if the fear of touching an object that belongs to evil out of worry that one will be made evil

        is the REVERSE

        of the old concept of touching a ‘holy relic’ belonging to a saint and conveying ‘blessing’ to us when touched

        🙂

    • “It could literally be carrying viruses and disease,”

      Nope, not after 75 years in a dry box.

    • –> “It could literally be carrying viruses and disease, regardless of any question of evil. This sounds like a poorly designed experiment.”

      Ah, not so. If you flip the idea — say, make it a sweater that Jesus once wore — people would FLOCK to wear it. So I believe there’s something behind this premise, that clothing once worn by certain people might be seen as “evil” or “good” (or in Jesus’ sweater’s case, “holy” perhaps).

  5. I’ll take a sweater over a shirt and tie (talk about “interfering with God’s wonderful system of breathing”) any day.

    • I don’t wear ties, either. I do wear shirts. No ties, no sweaters. I do wear shirts.

    • Now if they had pulled a black pocket tee out that box, I might try it on, if it were in decent shape, not too many holes.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Pullover sweaters are my “winter uniform”.

  6. Christiane says

    we are looking ‘outward’ for what is evil and what ‘will contaminate us’, but we can be at times the authors of our own contamination as we are ALL sinners upon whom God looks, and we are ALL needing to pray:
    “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”

    want to point the finger ? might be better to look in the mirror first

    what keeps us from self-examination? pride? hubris? ‘I’m saved and you’re not’ . . . contempt for ‘that other sinner”? Our Lord holds up a mirror for us to look into and He asks of us to LISTEN and to UNDERSTAND His words of wisdom. . . . . we are all wounded, we all need grace, we all seek God’s mercy

    “10 Jesus called the crowd to Him and said,
    “LISTEN AND UNDERSTAND.
    11 A man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it.”
    12Then the disciples came to Him and said,
    “Are You aware that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”…”

    (from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 15)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > what keeps us from self-examination? pride? hubris?

      Never under estimate Apathy and Exhaustion.

      • Christiane says

        sounds like a bad case of ‘acedia’ (the demon of sadness)

        it requires a bit of help to overcome, but it is possible to work beyond it

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Why do churches, ostensibly following a Messiah who broke bread with “tax collectors and sinners,” so often retreat into practices of exclusion and the quarantine of gated communities?

    * Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity.
    * Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the
    pollutant confer harm.

    * Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object.
    * Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable.

    And with Eternal Hell as a motivator, results in serious levels of OCD, obsessed with keeping your nose squeeky-clean to pass the Great White Throne Litmus Test.. 24/7/365. Especially if you’ve been catechized to view Holiness in NEGATIVE terms (“Thou Shalt Nots”).

    The Altar-Call Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation is a very SELFISH Gospel. To the point of Ayn Rand or Donald Trump levels of Selfishness.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      P.S. Dose Insensitivity and Permanence are also the basis of the “One-Drop Rule” of Race Purity.

  8. This warrants the sweater song.

  9. Burro (Mule) says

    ,

    And he called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, Hear me all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man. 16 If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    17 And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable. 18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; 19 because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught? This he said , making all [sex acts] clean.

    Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Did Dr. Beck address the sexual component of ‘purity culture’ or did he not. Knowing and respecting Dr. Beck as I do, I know he wouldn’t be one to shy away from the difficult questions. My issues are not that I consider sodomy or cunnilingus ‘bocky’ (although I do), but rather something along the lines of ‘the liturgy is not being performed correctly and will not display the proper glory’. Not a capital offense but not something you want to celebrate either (vease: the Confederate monuments).

    Christian moral theology as regards to sexual congress prior to the past forty years was well-defined and for the most part acceded to. Since the uncoupling of sex and reproduction we have been in uncharted territory. I am not fond of the principle of “love wins” in this arena since it has been my experience that there is nothing more inconstant or mutable than human affections.

    • We’re not at a point in the book where Dr. Beck deals in any depth with purity culture or any other particular manifestation of uncleanness. Aside from a few examples, Beck is simply setting forth what those who study “disgust psychology” have found. Disgust psychology is rooted in human responses to food, called “core disgust,” which then extends to judgments we make in other areas.

    • “I am not fond of the principle of “love wins” in this arena since it has been my experience that there is nothing more inconstant or mutable than human affections.”

      Which is just as, or even moreso, applicable to cis-hetero relationships. And New Testament theology is actually ambivalent about the idea that marriage/childbearing is the ideal for all.

      • Robert F says

        As an Eastern Orthodox I’m sure that Mule doesn’t believe the New Testament holds hetero marriage/childbearing as the ideal; after all, monasticism is prominent in his tradition. But maybe Mule does think that married heterosexual intercourse, and perhaps even the missionary position, is the Christian and Biblical ideal for all who are not monastics, while “sodomy or cunnilingus” are right outside the camp for married heteros and everybody else alike. As for myself, I’ve never been able to find the Kama Sutra in the Holy Bible.

        • “As for myself, I’ve never been able to find the Kama Sutra in the Holy Bible.”

          Try the Song of Solomon. 😉

          • Robert F says

            A wonderful poem of love, but not an instruction or how-to manual.

            • Iain Lovejoy says

              Song of Songs 7:2: “Your navel is a bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” Bearing in mind that “navel” is a well known euphemism for a part of a woman somewhat further down. This is a direct reference to cunnilingus in the Bible.

              • Robert F says

                It is erotic poetry, but still poetry; the Kama Sutra on the other hand is an instruction manual, more like “The Joy of Sex” than any part of the Song of Solomon.

              • Robert F says

                I think the last sentence of my reply to Mule is being misunderstood. I was saying that, unlike the Kama Sutra, the Bible does not give a list of recommended or ideal ways of expressing sexuality or having sexual relations with one’s beloved, nor a list of prohibited ways. It doesn’t say, “Do it this way, but not that way,” or, “This sexual activity is ideal, but that one not so much.” I don’t know where Mule gets his idea that “sodomy or cunnilingus” are deficient or perverted sexual activities, but it’s not from the Bible.

                • Norma Cenva says

                  If sex (the non-harmful and non-violent variety) and its whole melange of variation was all that big of a bugaboo to the Almighty, he’d have done better to make it (sex) no more sought after and enjoyable than getting the wheat and barley crop in.

                  • “he’d have done better to make it (sex) no more sought after and enjoyable than getting the wheat and barley crop in.”

                    #snark Fortunately, the Church stepped in and covered for the Almighty’s lamentable lapse in that regard. #snark

        • Burro (Mule) says

          Mostly this.

          I am certain Dr Beck will deal with this issue. I will wait until then.

          • Robert F says

            Beck wrote the book back in 2011, when he was still mostly oriented toward progressive Christianity. He only started in-depth re-exploration of traditional Christian theology in the last couple years. You may find what he had to say about the issue disappointingly “Woke.”

  10. Burro (Mule) says

    Not surprised to be moderated these days.

  11. Doesn’t Beck rather overthink all this? Couldn’t you just boil it down to –

    Other people are icky.

    • Christiane says

      LOL

      🙂

    • David Greene says

      Yes, the sweater is icky even if it was not Hitler’s. I mean, you gotta have a control group for an experiment like this.

      • Rick Ro. says

        As I pointed out earlier, though, if it was JESUS’ icky sweater, people would flock to wear it.

        • Not on your life.
          It would require veneration of the highest degree. And the temple priests would parade it around once a year on the feast day of the Holy Cardigan. Touching it would surely lead to death, excepting of course for those within the holy of holies.

          • Rick Ro. says

            This comment is hilarious! A bit Monty Python-ish. I can visualize Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, etc. dressed up for this.

            Bravo, flatrocker.

    • Stephen, no I actually think most of the rest of us overthink things. We assume that our moral objections are based on rational arguments, but much of the time it is really rooted in emotional responses like disgust.

      • Why didn’t God make us Vulcans? Our evolutionary heritage is, to put mildly, a MASSIVE impediment to achieving Christian morality.

        • Robert F says

          God didn’t make us Vulcans because Vulcans have pointy ears, and you know who else has them…I mean, besides elves and hobbits.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Speaking of evolution and Vulcans…

          One reason I tend to waver on “evolutionary theory” is because: Why don’t we have wings??? I mean, wouldn’t we be AWESOME if we had developed wings somewhere in the millions of years we’ve been evolving? (Please note: this thought is partially made in jest, partially in seriousness.)

  12. Rick Ro. says

    I keep coming back to the idea of “what if this was the clothing of Jesus we were talking about.” Reminds me of the story of the “unclean” woman in Matthew…

    Matthew 9:20-22 “And suddenly, a woman who had flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment. For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.”

    Again… contact with the “holy” looks a lot different than contact with the “icky.” People will do a lot of “contact” with the things they think bring some holiness (drink the wine, eat the bread, touch the hem of his garment).

    And I still marvel over Jesus’ willingness to “contact” (aka touch) those deemed unclean. Would he put Hitler’s sweater on? No doubt. He did a lot worse than that when he decided to come to earth to live with us, sweat with us, touch us, poop with us, die with us.

    • anonymous says

      ‘God WITH us’

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I keep coming back to the idea of “what if this was the clothing of Jesus we were talking about”.

      There is a reason why Jesus is never physically described anywhere in the Gospels. If there was a description of his clothing, we would have a Godly style of dress becoming a Litmus Test of Salvation.

      Mohammed was once described as sleeping on his side with his right hand pillowing his head; this ended up getting pushed (by the usual suspects) as the only truly Islamic sleeping position.