Unclean: Contamination and Contagion...

Perhaps most intriguing in this chapter is the introduction of "magical thinking". This is the idea that there are some certain types of psychological responses that don't really "make sense" and who's logic seems to be counter-intuitive and yet still remains valid to the individual. "Why is that disgusting?" someone might ask. Magical thinking would respond, "I don't know, but it just is." This magical thinking typically carries an element of permanence. Once the fly has been in the soup, or the feces have touched the cheeseburger there is nothing that you can do to rehabilitate it to a state of being clean. This brings us face to face with the theological and social implications of contamination and contagion.

...people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away. What we see in this example is how disgust psychology regulates how we reason about and experience aspects of the moral universe. Disgust psychology prompts us to think about evil as if it were a virus or a polluting object. When we do this the logic of contamination is imported into moral discourse and judgment. … We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust. (25-26)

We now have four features of disgust psychology that we see at work both in our own thinking and its implications for both our theological reflection and ecclesial practice:

A Boundary Psychology: Disgust is a system that monitors boundaries. Disgust regulates the act of incorporation and inclusion.
Expulsive: Disgust is a violently expulsive mechanism. In mild forms disgust simply prompts withdrawal and avoidance. In stronger forms disgust involves violent rejection, expulsion, or elimination.
Promiscuous: Due to disgust’s developmental peculiarities (i.e., its sensitive period), culture can link disgust to a variety of stimuli, many unrelated to food. Consequently, disgust is often found regulating moral, social, and religious experiences.
Magical Thinking: The contamination appraisals involved in disgust are characterized by magical thinking, which overrides reason and logic. Consequently, when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience magical thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church. (26-27)

Beck goes on to cite four principles of contagion that are helpful for understanding the various facets of this construction as they apply to our categories of sin and social inclusion/exclusion:

Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity.
Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm.
Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object.
Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. (27-28)

Beck's conclusion to this chapter is to point out that in Matthew 9 Jesus confounds all of these "rules"…

What is striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine. (30)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
While this chapter has helped us think more deeply about the psychological mechanisms in-play in our theological presumptions and ecclesial postures we find at the end of this chapter a serious undermining of just that framework. With Jesus and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God the rules of contamination and negativity dominance at the least are called into question, and at most are suspended entirely. For Jesus, it is not the impure that pollutes the blameless, it is the redeeming power of God that transforms brokenness into wholeness, impurity into purity, exclusion into restoration.

So my primary hunch here is that this idea of negativity dominance ("If they come in with us, we will be tampered…") must be at the very least reevaluated, especially as it pertains to relationships among people of other Christian traditions. The difference in this situation than from other boundaries that are set up for self-preservation (e.g., not eating rancid meat) is that this framework includes the person of Jesus Christ. In him, the polarity is reversed. So what does it mean for us to think about people who have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through Jesus to not be "contaminants" that will make us impure, but instead as conduits of redemption for our increasing wholeness. It seems to me that this is the primary implication here. God the Father through the accomplished work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit uses others to aid us in our journey of "being saved" (e.g., 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18) and to expel them as "unclean" is to do harm to everyone involved.

So a couple of questions to consider…
(1) What if real, tangible unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ across Christian traditions is not merely a part of the world believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be (John 17), but that it is actually an indispensable part of our salvation as well?
(2) Why is it that we can handle larger doses of contaminants from within our own traditions than we can from outside of them?
(3) Who are the "tax collectors and sinners" that the "religious elite" (a.k.a. the Church) has marked as "unclean" in Chandler and how can we invite them to the table?