Friday, July 06, 2012

Purity or Fellowship -- Which Way?

I want to return to an earlier discussion of the way we deal with purity and welcome that was provoked by my reading of Richard Beck's wonderful book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. This discussion is rooted not only in the book, but Richard's presentations at the recent Streaming Conference at Rochester College.  

Entitled Mercy not Sacrifice the conference took as texts Matthew 9 and Matthew 12, where Jesus comes down on the side of mercy rather than sacrifice (following in the footsteps of Hosea 6:6).  In his book, Beck discusses the ways in which we deal with matters of purity, suggesting that in emphasizing purity, the Pharisees found themselves pulling away from "sinners."  Jesus, on the other hand, emphasizing mercy reaches out to sinners and brings them into fellowship.  

In our own time and place, we wrestle with these same kinds of issues -- purity/sacrifice and mercy/fellowship.  As Beck points out in our Christian conversations liberals and conservatives tend toward one pole or another.  Although he's not trying to make Jesus into a modern liberal Christian (Richard stands to my theological right), he notes that for Pharisees Jesus was a liberal who they believed disrespected the authority of tradition and law. 

He writes:
In sum, liberals will often find appeals to Purity/Sanctity illegitimate (or, more precisely, they will tend to privilege considerations of harm and justice). Conservatives will tend to give these appeals to Purity/Sanctity full consideration and weight and will, frequently, privilege them over appeals to harm and injustice. For example, compare how Jesus and the Pharisees appeal to the various moral foundations in Matthew 9. How do mercy and sacrifice align with the moral foundations? It seems clear, if we follow the voice of Hosea and the minor prophets, that mercy is aligned with the foundations of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. By contrast, sacrifice is clearly an appeal to the foundation of Purity/Sanctity. Given this alignment it can be argued that Jesus is privileging one moral foundation over the other: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In light of Haidt and Graham’s research, Jesus seems to place himself in the liberal position. No doubt this is exactly how the Pharisees experienced Jesus: as a religious liberal showing disrespect to authority and tradition and flaunting the purity codes by eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” [Richard Beck,  Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 61). ]

We needn't always choose between purity and mercy.  There would seem to be a place for limits on behavior.  Surely even those of us on the left side of the center mark don't believe that anything goes?  Paul can say, "all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial."  But where do we draw the lines and doesn't mercy ultimately trump purity?   

One of the places where this becomes an issue is the church's table fellowship.  Beck talks at length about the Lord's Table -- but as we consider the question of purity and mercy, following Jesus' own table fellowship, how open should the Table be?  


Jeff said...

Of course, if we read the healings by touch of the unclean within the cultural context they were written in rather than a modern one, then Jesus transcended this paradigm.

Robert Cornwall said...

Jeff, yes, that is so true. The question then is -- how do we embody Jesus' own acts of welcome.

Jeff said...

This depends on the wider culture. (Some are more touch oriented, use of first names etc.) Personality is also a factor, I am an introverted middle class midwestern white guy (if I have been described as nice and people often are unaware how I actually feel about something unless I make an effort to tell them. I am an INTJ they will often know what I think, but not how I feel). Mostly, I find myself needing to make an effort to know get to know people when they are in large groups -to mingle and to ask how others are doing, moving around and getting to know people in different pews -having a personal plan.