One of the most important and influential books I have read in the last decade is Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.
Along with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Beck’s book pulls back the curtain on some fundamental reasons why we think and act as we do. Beck focuses on religious communities and the impulses that motivate them with regard to protecting the purity of the group and/or welcoming the “other” (the “unclean” stranger) into their midst, whereas Haidt concentrates on our political tribes and the impulses that drive them.
The key scripture text to which Beck refers is the following story about Jesus from Matthew 9:10-13.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ [emphasis mine]
Mercy is the impulse to welcome: to cross boundaries, to set aside our natural “disgust” for that which is outside our bounds of “acceptable” and to invite the other to participate in relationship with us. In this case, Jesus showed mercy to “tax collectors and sinners,” welcoming them and eating with them, whereas the Pharisees did not. They did not understand how Jesus could violate the boundary between what they saw as “clean” and “unclean.” They lacked the bold imagination to see that mercy itself can be transformative.
Sacrifice, on the other hand, is the impulse to purify by excluding that which is “unclean” or by somehow “cleansing” it through a purification process. The Pharisees could not accept the “sinners” because their behavior violated the standards of the Pharisaic community (which they saw as God’s standards). They would not be accepted into Pharisaic circles unless and until they got their act together. Until then, no contact was allowed for fear that the Pharisees themselves would become “contaminated” and find themselves unclean. Jesus, however, had no such scruples. He had the imagination to believe that welcoming sinners might have the opposite effect — the unclean would become clean! This is the very point of incarnation, a point the Pharisees and multitudes of other religious communities have missed.
I want to work through Beck’s book again and, along the way, to share some of its powerful insights with you. Today, here is an overview of what “disgust” is — that impulse we all have to separate ourselves from the unclean and to expel it from our midst.
First, disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors the borders of the body, particularly the openings of the body, with the aim of preventing something dangerous from entering. This is why, as seen in Matthew 9, disgust (the psychology beneath notions of purity and defilement) often regulates how we think about social borders and barriers. Disgust is ideally suited, from a psychological stance, to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries. Similar to core disgust, social disgust is triggered when the “unclean,” sociologically speaking, crosses a boundary and comes into contact with a group identified as “clean.” Further, as we will see in Part 2 of this book, the boundary-monitoring function of disgust is also ideally suited to guard the border between the holy and the profane. Following the grooves of core disgust, we experience feelings of revulsion and degradation when the profane crosses a boundary and comes into contact with the holy.
Beyond functioning as a boundary psychology we have also noted that disgust is an expulsive psychology. Not only does disgust create and monitor boundaries, disgust also motivates physical and behavioral responses aimed at pushing away, avoiding, or forcefully expelling an offensive object. We avoid the object. Shove the object away. Spit it out. Vomit.
This expulsive aspect of disgust is also worrisome. Whenever disgust regulates our experience of holiness or purity we will find this expulsive element. The clearest biblical example of this is the scapegoating ritual in the Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16), where a goat carrying the sins of the tribe is expelled into the desert. The scapegoat is, to use the language of disgust, spit or vomited out, forcefully expelling the sins of the people. In this, the Day of Atonement, as a purification ritual, precisely follows the logic of disgust. The scapegoating ritual “makes sense” as it is built atop an innate and shared psychology. The expulsive aspect of the ritual would be nonsensical, to either ancient or modern cultures, if disgust were not regulating how we reason about purity and “cleansing.”
The worry, obviously, comes when people are the objects of expulsion, when social groups (religious or political) seek “purity” by purging themselves through social scapegoating. This dynamic—purity via expulsion—goes to the heart of the problem in Matthew 9. The Pharisees attain their purity through an expulsive mechanism: expelling “tax collectors and sinners” from the life of Israel. Jesus rejects this form of “holiness.” Jesus, citing mercy as his rule, refuses to “sacrifice” these people to become clean.
• Richard Beck. Unclean (pp. 15-16)