Jesus, Purity, and the Unclean: Who Affects Who?

January 26, 2016

Categories: Purity

I have written before about the Christian focus on purity and cleanliness, and why I think this is a problem. To sum it up, I think our focus on purity and cleanliness hurts our ability to engage with and love others. It puts up a strong boundary and keeps us separate.

The focus on purity and cleanliness is connected with the emotional reaction of disgust. The disgust reaction compels us to expel and stay away from whatever it is that caused the reaction. From an evolutionary perspective, this reaction was adaptive. In ancient times, if we didn’t stay away from someone who had a disease, for example, we might catch the disease ourselves and die. It was important to keep separate, clean, and safe. Disgust helped us do that.

I suppose there are still components of disgust that help us today. The disgust I feel when I see moldy cheese in my refrigerator helps stop me from eating it and getting sick. However, over time our disgust reaction has ‘spread’ and now we feel disgust toward all sorts of things—even whole groups of people. For example, some people feel disgust toward homeless people, people who have AIDS, gays and lesbians, or people from certain racial/ethnic backgrounds. The disgust reaction works similarly—it expels those individuals from our space, our lives, and our communities. It keeps us separate and safe from [whatever it is we associate with that group].

But this reaction is antithetical to love. Love involves inclusion and letting people into our space, our lives, and our communities. We can’t expel and love at the same time.

When Jesus began his ministry, the religious leaders of his day were very focused on purity and cleanliness. The targeted groups were different than they are today (e.g., lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes), but the reaction was the same. The religious leaders kept their distance from unclean people. The fear was that if they came into contact with unclean people, this contact would make them unclean.

Jesus did things differently. He engaged, touched, and shared meals with unclean people all the time. Instead of separating and staying away, Jesus engaged and moved toward. Instead of erecting a boundary, Jesus broke down existing boundaries and connected. Instead of turning away in disgust, Jesus turned toward and loved.

Jesus viewed contact with lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes differently than did the religious leaders of his day. Instead of being afraid that contact would make him unclean, Jesus used contact to influence and effect change. Instead of being changed negatively by the people he came into contact with, Jesus changed them in a positive way.

My sense is that we often act like the religious leaders instead of Jesus. We’re afraid of engaging and connecting with people we consider unclean because we think they might negatively affect us. They might mess up our tidy lives and communities. However, by separating ourselves, we lose out on the opportunity to be like Jesus and engage and love a world full of people in need.

Discussion: What do you think about the focus on purity and cleanliness? How important is it to protect your lives and communities from messiness? How important is it to engage?


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