Mercy not Sacrifice (3): Of naked savages and crucified thieves

Unclean Kitchen. Photo by darkday 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. 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).

55 thoughts on “Mercy not Sacrifice (3): Of naked savages and crucified thieves

  1. Only through the most arduous training and struggle are a few of them capable to tolerate the divine milieu for more than a brief moment.

    So much for “When I Get To Heaven, The First Thing I’m Going To Do Is…”


  2. when he said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”; he certainly wasn’t describing how it’s experienced.

    Unless you’re one of God’s Special Pets.
    (You know the type…”O Ye of Little FAITH. Tsk. Tsk.”)


  3. He certainly wasn’t describing how it’s experienced, except perhaps after the last step has been taken, from the eschatological perspective looking back. But that’s not where we are.


  4. That’s the trouble with the excerpt from Lewis. It comes across as a once-and-done thing, but it’s not, at least not in this life, and I don’t see how Lewis could know how it works beyond death. It’s not dramatic, it’s not sudden, and it has no feel of the miraculous. The excerpt was describing that last step of the process as if it was the whole of the process, and he was doing that for dramatic and storytelling purposes, I understand. But it gives the wrong impression about how it all works. There is no sudden riding off on a horse like a shooting star into the mountains of sanctity. It’s drudgery, laborious, painful, burdensome. It makes one wonder what on earth Christ could’ve meant when he said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”; he certainly wasn’t describing how it’s experienced.


  5. The hard part is having as much compassion for scoundrels, predators, and bullies as their victims.

    A tall order…


  6. Sometimes you have to do it repeatedly, as i have.
    My confessor is very bored with me.
    Actually, he tells me confession is very boring.

    Sin isn’t creative, he says.


  7. If you know the address of an angel that can do that trick, please let me know via message through CM. I mean, if it were the matter of an instant and be done with it, I’d say “Blast away!” as well, many times for the many sinful habits I’ve developed.


  8. “Then why does Jesus tell us to love our enemies?”
    That they should cease to be enemies.
    What we should hate about “scroundrels, predators and bullies” is that they are “scoundrels,
    predators and bullies”, and all our care should be that they should stop being so, and for their sake as much as anyone else’s. People insist on reading “the wages of sin are death” as if it read “God will punish sinners” when it means what it says – in sinning our enemies are harming themselves and killing themselves as much as they are harming us.


  9. Only through the most arduous training and struggle are a few of them capable to tolerate the divine milieu for more than a brief moment.

    Well, then I’m out. It would take a lot longer than I have left on this earth to learn how to tolerate that level of hurt-so-good, maybe a hundred billion years.

    So where do I sign up for Beelzebub? Or am I already signed up?


  10. Somedays I think I’m just gonna sh*t sideways and die. I wonder if any of you all know God or Jesus at all.

    In her very prescient fantasy/sci-fi novel The Curse Of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold creates a world in which the gods are entirely good, and entirely loving, but because of that they’re the most dangerous entities in her universe. Their slightest touch fills the poor humans with more ecstasy than their poor disorganized nervous systems can handle, and their inevitable withdrawal leaves them crippled; sometimes physically, always psychically. Only through the most arduous training and struggle are a few of them capable to tolerate the divine milieu for more than a brief moment.

    Something like that.


  11. I can handle someone who hurts me, but someone who hurts someone I love, or someone who hurts for the sheer joy of it, because he can… To be able to forgive that requires Godlike abilities.

    Scoundrels, predators, and bullies. If only we could detect them early and isolate them, neutralize their influences. If only I had been around in Jesus’ time. I’d have given those rascals what for, that’s for certain.


  12. I didn’t take it as a “gotcha,” but thought I’d acknowledge the point as a good one!



  13. I agree. To call Jesus a priest is to change the definition of the word and the character of the role it describes. The title and role of priest doesn’t modify the identity of Jesus; the identity of Jesus modifies the meaning of the title and role of priest.

    Yep, no fasting for us Protestants, nope — we eat tripe and onions.


  14. Sorry Rick I didn’t mean it as a “gotcha”. I can’t think of anyone that causes us more disgust than someone that hurts us. I’d say it’s impossible without His help. And even then… *sigh*


  15. “God […] nowhere promised that he would be a universal moral policeman. […] In fact, when God actually showed up in Jesus, he resolutely refused to judge anyone. Far from being on the side of the police, he ended up being done in by the very forces of righteousness who were supposed to be his official representatives.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology

    (I bet you knew that was coming ;o) )


  16. “The ‘priestly impulse’ gets a lot of bad press in current religious thought, but ritual purity was supposed to protect us from God, not God from us.”

    “Protect us from God,” as in “when I see the blood on the door post and the lentils I will pass over you…”?

    The “express image” of the Father in Christ still does not square with the priestly tradition. Despite my appreciation of EO’s ontological perspective of sin/redemption I still can’t get past how OT it is in favoring the priestly side of the argument.

    I guess I’m stuck with tripe and onions?


  17. There are a lot of things about childhood that I don’t wish to relive. Your comment elicits a recollection of some of the jumbles of confusing thoughts that go through all of our minds.


  18. I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.

    “Off so soon?” said a voice.

    The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.

    “Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see.

    I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came -which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”

    “Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit-an angel, as I now understood.

    “Of course I would,” said the Ghost.

    “Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.

    “Oh-ah-look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.

    “Don’t you want him killed?”

    “You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardlv meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

    “It’s the onlv way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

    “Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here-well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

    “May I kill it?”

    “Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”

    “There is no time. May I kill it?”

    “Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please-really-don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

    “May I kill it?”

    “Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

    “The gradual process is of no use at all.”

    “Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

    “There is no other day. All days are present now.”

    “Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”

    “It is not so.”

    “Why, you’re hurting me now.”

    “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”

    “Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”

    “This moment contains all moments.”

    “Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me-before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”

    “I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”

    The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.

    “Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yes. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams-all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent____”

    “Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.

    “I know it will kill me.”

    “It won’t. But supposing it did?”

    “You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

    “Then I may?”

    “Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”

    Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.

    ” Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

    For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands.

    The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man-an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard.

    At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks.

    Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled .


  19. Right on, brother! In my city there was a “black” municipal pool where we’d see kids splashing and having as much fun as we did in our “white” one across town. We didn’t think twice about all the white kids peeing the water. But we are all fish in this world. And we all swim in the same water. But we pretend we don’t pee in ours, and “others” woud pollute our pristine world. It’s an illusion we assure ourselves with as we are content to swim because.ours is better filth.


  20. My parents were bigoted and held racist views, though they didn’t espouse an explicitly racist belief system. The first time as a child that a Black waitress served me food at a restaurant my family stopped at while we were traveling on vacation, I had a bad and visible reaction of fear, no doubt fear of contamination. As I remember, the waitress was gracious in her response, conveying in some simple ways — which I cannot specifically remember —- what she shouldn’t have had to, that she was just a human being like me. My parents for their part were at least aware enough that my reaction was unacceptable to be mortified and embarrassed by it, and apologetic to the waitress.

    I had a similar reaction to a slightly older white girl who was missing her left arm below the elbow a few years later when my parents joined a lake club in the summer so that we could go swimming. In fact, after I saw her there on one of our first visits I wouldn’t go swimming in the lake when she was there, or even when she wasn’t for fear she would show up. I was afraid that by being around her, or in the water with her, I would somehow lose one of my limbs too, and I was repulsed by her as a result. I was afraid of contamination. My parents couldn’t understand why I, who loved to swim, wouldn’t swim and didn’t even want to go to the lake until they somehow figured it out — I don’t remember how — a month or two later. They didn’t know how to deal with it once they figured it out. Part of it was no doubt my childhood-long sense of my own monstrosity and freakishness, and the foolish idea that by being in proximity to this girl my condition would get worse.


  21. Christ used the Good Samaritan to teach that a person who was NOT ‘of the Mosaic Law’ understood the meaning of ‘and who is my neighbor?’

    in that parable, we see a Samaritan stop and render assistance and MERCY to a fallen victim of robbers somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho;
    so Our Lord distinguishes between those who bear ‘labels’ that have here-to-fore determined ‘purity’ and ‘acceptance’ from the actual living out of the giving of mercy and kindness to a fellow human person, regardless of ‘who they were’ and regardless of the ‘Samaritan’ label of the good man who rendered aid to the wounded victim.

    So it began that Our Lord tried to teach ‘the difference’ between them what talked the talk and moved past the victim hurrying on to their own prayers and concerns;
    and them what walked the walk, and stopped and felt compassion for the wounded man and helped him and cared for him, a good man having no ‘Mosaic Law’ credentials to credit him with ‘acceptance’ among the pharisees of that day.

    Fast forward two thousand years, and still we look not at the ‘fruit’ of the Holy Spirit in others but at our own ‘coded’ signs for ‘acceptance’, short-hand for who is ‘right’ and who is ‘saved’ and who is ‘worthy’ in our own sight;
    and we wonder why our world is so chaotic when the ‘leader’ of the free world holds up a bible in front of a Church, having to gas and torment protestors to clear the way to elevate that book above his head. We wonder . . . .


  22. I guess you’re saying that we need to detach from our pollutants, and attach to Christ. If that’s the case, I’m in deep dog pollutant. I can’t even say for sure where or what all my pollutants are. And some of my pollutants I really like, the way an Englishman might like tripe and onions.


  23. I don’t believe that question is fully answered. There’s much more to it. I have my theories which I have verbalized a few times but tend not to anymore. Suffice it to say that I think your question is valid. There are plenty of disturbing NT references to contend with without even looking at the rage of the Old Testament. Who we become in Christ is part of the mystery. The fuller formation of Christ in the church is what it comes down to. It always goes back to picking up our cross and following. Christ in us, the hope of glory.


  24. –> “When I was a kid growing up in middle class suburbs we often had a community pool that we belonged to. The demographic was solid white. When I first saw a black kid in the pool I thought he might somehow affect the water.”

    Same here. Same exact experience.

    “These were the ‘innocent’, unedited musings of a child…. my parents were not outwardly, verbally racist. In fact they were the opposite.”

    Ditto. In fact, at my mom’s memorial I told everyone that one thing I appreciated about my mom was that I never, ever, heard her say a racist or bigoted thing, and thus I had no “racist parental baggage” to sift through as I matured into an adult.

    –> “That says something disturbing about the subtlety of this message in the culture…”

    Yes. And read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” for his take on the “subtle messaging” that we all grow up with, including racism, and some studies done regarding this. Fascinating read. Very enlightening.


  25. I don’t understand how degree of attachment to pollutants would make any difference. A little would seem to be as obstructive as a lot. What matters is our awareness or unawareness that the attachment is there, whether a little or a lot.


  26. When he washed the Apostles feet… that moment must have brought so many different “what the?” “how the?” “why the?” thoughts.

    By the way, Chaplain Mike… does Beck get into foot-washing in his book? Talk about “unclean,” that’s about as worse as human contact with “unclean” gets, yet Jesus lowered himself to that… with great intent.


  27. “ritual purity was supposed to protect us from God, not God from us.”

    The problem is, scoundrels can just as easily hide in ritual/priest work as they can in “ally ally in-come-free”


  28. Jesus doesnt care about our pollutants, but our pollutants care a great deal about Jesus. It depends on how attached we are to them.


  29. >The priestly work was to ‘scratch out’ the uncleanness, to restore the image, to reconstitute the nature.

    I think of that as the Jesus work, since he is ultimate priest as well as ultimate prophet. As far as being “protected” from God (I once heard R.C. Sproul say that this is exactly what Jesus’ death on the cross does, protect us from God — although Sproul meant God’s wrath, which is not what you say I know — still, it’s God that you both agree we need to be protected from), Jesus is God, and as Torrance said, there is no God hiding behind the back or in the shadow of Jesus waiting to spring out at us.


  30. I comfort myself with the thought that those confined to Hell will have finally succeeded in making themselves Less Than Human in the same way that the Nazis viewed the Jews or Cletus views Tyrone. That will be torment enough.

    Like Cronenberg’s Fly putting the barrel of the shotgun to his temple, Hell may be a final act of mercy.


  31. The ‘priestly impulse’ gets a lot of bad press in current religious thought, but ritual purity was supposed to protect us from God, not God from us. When you move from a legal to an ontological view of sin, which most of you have by now anyway, it makes more sense.

    The priestly work was to ‘scratch out’ the uncleanness, to restore the image, to reconstitute the nature.

    One problem I have with the ‘ally ally in-come-free’ view of the apocatastasis is that it might work if we were all basically ethical Midwesterners, or New Republic liberals, but somewhere, somehow, the tears of the 11 year old sexual trafficking victim has to be accounted for, and made right. That is priest-work, not prophet-work, and my intuition tells me that what we call ‘the Afterlife’ and what theologians call ‘the Intermediate State’ will be composed of precisely this.

    So, don’t ‘Rest In Peace’, but ‘Pray In Power’


  32. How do these concepts relate to the ultimate exclusion/judgement of the unclean – hell, in any form? And what are Christians to make of the numerous verses in the NT that indicate it is God/Jesus who is the ultimate arbiter of this final exclusion?


  33. This us/them, good guys/bad guys concept becomes ingrained in the psyche of growing children. When I was a kid growing up in middle class suburbs we often had a community pool that we belonged to. The demographic was solid white. When I first saw a black kid in the pool I thought he might somehow affect the water. These were the “innocent”, unedited musings of a child. That says something disturbing about the subtlety of this message in the culture because my parents were not outwardly, verbally racist. In fact they were the opposite. With a mind primed to see through that prism based on a simple physical difference, how virulent will that ‘us/them’ become when fed by religious zeal? I, for one, know I must continuously search my heart on all these fronts – physical, socioeconomic, cultural, religious, political, whatever it may be. The impulse to exclude is strong. That’s not to say there is no place for differences but hopefully the differences create menageries not encampments.


  34. Given how “uncleanness” is so embedded into the warp and woof of the Mosaic Law, small wonder that, as the Apostles and the author of Hebrews came to better understand things, they saw Christ as fulfilling and *obviating the entire Law* on behalf of believers.


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