Mercy not Sacrifice (4): The Act that Counters Contempt
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.
The third post we discussed how “core” disgust (related to oral incorporation) has other manifestations. In particular, we talked about “sociomoral” disgust: our reaction to people we deem contaminated and defiling. The church has always struggled to follow the example of Jesus, who welcomed the company of the “unclean,” with no hesitation about offending the cleanliness/purity traditions of the “righteous.”
Today, we share what Richard Beck says about an emotion closely related to disgust — contempt.
Contempt is generally distinguished from disgust in that it introduces a hierarchical component. Not only do we wrinkle our noses in contempt, we “look down our nose” at the people offending us. (p. 109)
As Beck notes, we may not think in terms of “clean” and “unclean.” However, we are all intimately acquainted with “the social tensions inherent in issues of hierarchy, status, and socioeconomic class” (p. 112) that are more precisely identified by the word “contempt.” He turns to the letter of 1st Corinthians for a case study of the problems that arise in the church because of sociomoral contempt and disdain. Problems in Corinth came into focus during their times of table fellowship, the communal meal that was associated with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
What was going on? The situation is clarified somewhat if we consider aspects of Roman dining practices. As Witherington discusses, it appears that the Corinthian church was treating its communal meal, eaten prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as a private dinner party followed by a convivium (i.e., drinking party).
It was normal practice in Roman dinner and drinking parties to rank guests according to social status. Generally, high status guests ate with the host in a separate room where they were served first and were given the best food and drink. Lower status guests were seated elsewhere in the house, were served last, and were served food of lesser quality.
It appears that the wealthy patrons of the Corinthian church had imported these social practices into the life of the church. During the communal meal the church was segregated, with the wealthy Christians gathered in a separate room with the host. There, food was served (along with after-dinner drinking) with little regard as to the situation elsewhere in the house where the poorer Christians were being served, if at all. Further, the order of service had the wealthier patrons of the church eating first and well into their drinking party before lower-status members of the church had been served in the far reaches of the house. (pp. 117-118)
As I read this, my conversion from Bible-centric evangelical worship to traditional liturgical worship was completed. It is the Lord’s Table that is the center and most significant part of Christian worship. This is where all who come may share in the Lord’s presence and blessing. You might not understand the sermon, but you can come to the Table. The very purpose of the Table is to express the inclusion of the gospel. All are welcome. All are blessed.
In many ways [a Roman] meal was an occasion for gaining or showing social status. And it might be in many regards a microcosm of the aspirations and aims of the culture as a whole. Paul’s attempt to deconstruct the social stratification that was happening in the Lord’s Supper goes directly against the tendency of such meals . . . the sacred tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper is recited specifically to encourage social leveling, to overcome factionalism created by stratification and its expression at meals, and to create unity and harmony in the congregation. (Witherington, quoted by Beck, p. 119)
This is the act that conveys the good news: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the welcome. And this is the act by which God condemns all our contempt for one another.