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. Do we view them through the lens of sacrifice — that is, with a purity filter that sets boundaries, excluding and even expelling those we deem “unclean”? Or, do we use the filter of mercy, which follows the impulse to welcome, leading us 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 post two, we looked at what it’s like to look through the purity filter, to see the world through the lens of clean vs. unclean. This “contagion logic” is concerned about contacting that which is unclean, even minute amounts of it. There is a sense that the unclean contaminates the clean, and therefore contact must be avoided. All the power is on the side of pollutant.
Disgust psychology starts with the core element of food, “the psychology of oral incorporation.” It protects us from taking things into our bodies that poisonous or otherwise harmful. But disgust moves into other realms of life, like the “sociomoral” disgust that is the focus of this book. Beck cites the example of Charles Darwin, in a quote that shows the movement between the two:
In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. (pp. 73-74)
Note how Darwin is revolted by the man who made contact with Darwin’s food. The man is described as a “native” — the scientist views him as part of another group. Darwin also calls him a “naked savage.” Note how the man is diminished to something less than fully human by these words. Darwin sees himself higher on the evolutionary scale than this “savage.” His “naked” appearance only further confirms the scientist’s judgment that this man has no business touching Darwin’s food. It’s disgusting to him. He can see with eyes that the man’s hands are clean, but his revulsion about who the man is overwhelms any rational evaluation. For this “human,” who is viewed as “less than human,” to touch Darwin’s food is viewed as disgusting, perhaps toxic.
To Charles Darwin, this “naked savage” was like the “tax collectors and sinners” in Matthew 9.
The problem was that a class of people—“tax collectors and sinners”—were understood to be, intrinsically, a form of pollution. Strongly, these people were waste, contaminants, vectors of contagion. Thus, contact with these persons was prohibited if one wanted to maintain a stance of holiness and purity. (p. 75).
Beck relates this to the story of Peter in Acts 9-10. He notes how, even with the consistent example and teaching of Jesus, the problem of sociomoral disgust continued to hurt the early church.
It is clear in Acts 10 that the gospel message was not making its way into the larger Gentile world because uncircumcised Gentiles were regarded as a source of sociomoral contamination. Given this crisis God moves decisively in Acts 10, arranging a meeting between Peter, the Jew, and Cornelius, the Gentile. In a vision to Peter, God dismantles Peter’s sociomoral disgust psychology.
…Peter’s vision of unclean animals is an excellent illustration of the psychology of disgust and nicely illustrates how core and sociomoral disgust fuse and mix, just as we saw in Darwin’s story. When asked to eat the “unclean” animals, core disgust is the presenting problem for Peter. That is, issues of food and food-aversions are being discussed. But the issue, Peter eventually discovers, is not about contaminated food, it’s about contaminated people. Core disgust is the surface level problem, but sociomoral disgust is the deeper issue. What is striking about this story, in light of the empirical work on disgust, is how psychologically sophisticated it is, how disgust is being uprooted at its psychological base. In Peter’s vision God dismantles the contamination boundary between Jew and Gentile so that the gospel message could break forth into the entire world. (p. 76-77)
One way of describing Jesus-shaped spirituality is to say that Jesus consistently favored the prophetic tradition over the priestly tradition in Israel — viewing people through the filter of mercy rather than the purity impulse.
However, it took the church a long time to start getting this. To be honest, we still haven’t gotten this. Two weeks ago I wrote a piece about how our understanding of “grace,” limiting it as a concept about individual soteriology, led us away from seeing “grace” as God’s act of “inclusion.” In grace, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Per John Barclay, grace in the NT is “about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries,” welcoming people formerly viewed as unclean, not to be touched.
Grace was Jesus, becoming incarnate, reaching out to people throughout his life and ministry, with no hesitation about offending the cleanliness/purity traditions of the “righteous.” His death was the ultimate act of inclusion. There Jesus identified with all humans, joining them in their death. Furthermore, he specifically represented the least of humans on the cross, crucified between two thieves, himself considered a blasphemous criminal.
No more “disgusting” scene can be imagined than that. From this we should learned, as Peter did, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 20:28).