"Unclean" and the Unity of the Church...

This summer I, along with other church leaders in my community are embarking on an important and complex journey. Together, (some of us for the first time) we will be discerning and learning what it means to express the visible unity of the church in our community. To aid us in that task we are launching together into an important book that begins to get at the heart of the boundaries that seperate us.

Richard Beck, who serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written a challenging and important book for anyone who is in church leadership called Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

The blurb on the back of the book reads as follows:

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Echoing Hosea, Jesus defends his embrace of the "unclean" in the Gospel of Matthew, seeming to privelege the prophetic call to justice over the Levitical pursuit of purity. And yet, as missional faith communities are well aware, the tensions and conflicts between holiness and mercy are not so easily resolved. At every turn, it seems that the psychological pull of purity and holiness tempts the church into practices of social exclusion and a Gnostic flight form "the world" into a "too spiritual" spirituality. In an unprecedented fusion of psychological science and theological scholarship, Richard Beck describes the pernicious (and largely unnoticed) effects of the psychology of purity upon the life and mission of the church.

This book, primarily written to deal with the inner psychological challenges of local communities of faith (a.k.a. local congregations) is being read and interpreted in a different light in this project. Together with a number of other pastors and church leaders in my community we will be reading and interacting with the psychological and theological implications of this book as they relate to our (evolving) relationships with one another across lines of Christian traditions.

All church bodies (local, regional, or denominational) struggle with the implications and outworkings of purity psychology. Think about it this way:

If we (whoever that is: person, family, church, tradition) are right (or at least the "most right"...because none of us would claim to be perfect, right?) then "they" are wrong (or at the very least less right). This means that we must erect some sort of boundary or barrier to prevent them from tainting the purity of what we know or who we are.

Notice how one-sided such a posture is. "We" must keep "them" out, unless of course they are willing to leave where they are and join us. There is only one way in, and it's OUR way.

Jesus faced this situation more than once in his ministry, but perhaps never as clearly as the story that we read in Matthew 9.

   9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

  10
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

  12
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:9-13, NIV)

In this brief moment we see clearly the implications of these boundaries of purity. The Pharisees have said, "There is only one way for God to be happy with you, and that is if you are with us." Jesus defies such artificial and destructive boundaries.

In the ancient world (and still to this day), people believed that if you were clean (pure) and you came into contact with someone or something which was unclean (impure) that the uncleanness was transferred to you and you lost your purity. But things are different when Jesus is in the equation. Look at this story from Matthew 8:

  1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4, NIV)

Notice the difference? When Jesus touches this man it is not he who is made unclean, it is the leper who is made clean. But the leper's request to be made clean is much more than a request to be cured of his leprosy. It is a plea to Jesus to make his whole life brought back into order. It is a plea for redemption both of his body and his place in the worshipping community of Israel. This is a transformation of mind, body, and soul.

This tension, the fear of becoming unclean, and the reality that the purity of Jesus is not ruined by the impurity of others but is itself transformed is captured in Jesus' powerful quotation of the prophet Hosea:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

What are the implications of this for Christian communities? What does this mean for the life of churches especially as it relates to people of other Christian traditions? Why does Jesus (and the prophet Hosea) put mercy and sacrifice in tension with one another, can't we have both?

These and many other questions will be explored here as we embark on this journey together.

This project, these questions and this book have all been brought to the front by an upcoming conference this summer, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

This summer at Rochester College the implications of "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." will be explored by a number of scholars, theologians, and practicioners who are asking these questions in the day to day life of their faith communities.

One of the keynote speakers this summer will be the world-class Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. There are few if any scholars who have had such a wide influence on both Old Testament scholarship and simultaneously the faith and practice of the church. He has written a ton of books, commentaries, and scholarly articles. The tension of Mercy/Sacrifice was one of the major themes of his important book, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.

Richard Beck serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written two books including Unclean and his newest book, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. He also writes at his award-winning blog, Experimental Theology.

 

 

If you're interested in attending Streaming you can get more information here. In the meantime check out Richard's books and come back as we enter into this very important discussion for the faith and practice of the church.

Here are a couple of videos from Richard about the upcoming Streaming conference: