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.”
- 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.
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.
[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.
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.
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)