Friday, June 22, 2012

Setting Boundaries? Is it Mercy or Sacrifice?

Painting by Ro Diaz
One of our congregation's core values is that we seek to be an "accepting" congregation.  By that we really mean, we seek to be a welcoming and hospitable congregation, but it does raise a question -- is there anything we won't accept?  Are their no boundaries?  The answer is -- we'll of course, there are boundaries, but, to quote Jesus, "mercy trumps sacrifice."

Earlier in the week I was blogging from Walter Brueggemann's book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.  Dr. Brueggemann was one of two primary presenters at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College.  At the heart of the conversation at the conference was the statement from Hosea 6:6  
  • 6 I desire faithful love and not sacrifice,
  • the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.  (CEB)

It was a premise reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 9 when challenged by the Pharisees for eating with sinners and tax collectors:

 12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “ Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.t I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.   

The second keynote speaker at the event was Richard Beck, a psychology professor  and blogger from Abilene Christian University.  Richard recently wrote a book called Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortalitywhich was the foundation for his lectures.   He begins his book and his opening lecture by discussing "disgust psychology," which serves as a way of regulating behavior and interaction.  It affects what we eat, how we eat, and with whom we eat.  It helps define what is internal and external to our lives and beings.  It also speaks to the kinds of boundaries we set up.  

I'm planning to do some interaction with Richard's book over the next few days, and want to start with an extended quote and some reflections.

  In short, disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust marks objects as exterior and alien. The second the saliva leaves the body and crosses the boundary of selfhood it is foul, it is “exterior,” it is Other. And this, I realized, is the same psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. Specifically, how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean  unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. And it’s very hard, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see this, to both erect a boundary and dismantle that boundary at the very same time. One has to choose. And as Jesus and the Pharisees make different choices in Matthew 9 there seems little by way of compromise. They stand on opposite sides of a psychological (clean versus unclean), social (inclusion versus exclusion), and theological (saints versus sinners) boundary.  [Beck, Richard (2011-03-03). Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (pp. 2-3). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.] 

So, here's the question -- on what basis do you/we set our boundaries, especially in the church.  The Pharisees focused on purity and since a tax collector was considered impure, it was inappropriate to eat with him -- eating with someone was seen as a sign of acceptance/inclusion -- Jesus, on the other hand, saw his mission being one of mercy and thus inclusion.  He drew the circle wider than the Pharisees were willing to allow and they came into conflict.  

So, how do we deal with our own boundary issues?  I'll be adding more fuel to the fire in future posts, but this gets us started on the conversation, especially for those of us who seek to engage the world missionally. 

4 comments:

Kate said...

I think there's also the issue of power involved here, which you didn't seem to address. Jesus talked about how we need to help the orphans and widows who will always be with us, etc. That's more than a disgust thing, that's also inclusion over boundaries of power.

Robert Cornwall said...

Kate,

Thanks for adding this into the discussion. Much of this is an issue of power. I will have to keep this in mind as I move forward!!

Jeff said...

In my encounters with other Christians as an adherent of the doctrines of non-resistance, the radically welcoming Jesus, and a 19th century-style Universalism (you can't get much more inclusive than this) mixed with some process theology I have come to think that there is a great deal of shadenfreude in the church. People don't think of justice as restorative they get angry when you talk about God's mercy -in the end, they would like to see the other guy get his. Along the way, they make sure to tell me that I am going to hell for holding these views too.

Jeff said...

In the last comment I left off.

"if you can't see yourself in heaven with the other guy it's difficult to welcome him in your church."