The (Potential) Harm of Language of Purity and Holiness...

(This is the transcript of a presentation that I gave in November of 2015 at Inside Out Chapel at Oklahoma Christian University. I have left it unedited for this reason.)


How should the church think about the way that it uses language about purity and holiness and more specifically the ways that the church uses language of impurity and sinfulness? The unreflective use of this kind of Christian language not only has the capacity to be pastorally insensitive but deeply wounding and harmful. In fact, it can be the unreflective use of explicitly Christian language that drives people away from the Christian faith.

This week at Inside Out Chapel we will explore the ways in which our language needs to be mindful of the ways that trauma, suffering, and sin done to us (as opposed to sin done by us) should reshape the way we speak to one another.

Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul:

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23, NIV)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18-19, NIV)

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
(1 Corinthians 6:18-20, NIV)

Or consider this more lighthearted section from the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards:

Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards with great Weight and Pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend & plunge into the bottomless Gulf, and your healthy Constitution, and your own Care and Prudence, and best Contrivance, and all your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock. Were it not that so is the sovereign Pleasure of God, the Earth would not bear you one Moment; for you are a Burden to it; the Creation groans with you; the Creation is made Subject to the Bondage of your Corruption, not willingly; the Sun doesn’t willingly shine upon you to give you Light to serve Sin and Satan; the Earth doesn’t willingly yield her Increase to satisfy your Lusts; nor is it willingly a Stage for your Wickedness to be acted upon; the Air doesn’t willing serve you for Breath to maintain the Flame of Life in your Vitals, while you spend your Life in the Service of God’s Enemies.

Both Scripture and church history are filled with this kind of language about sin and the looming punishment of death and damnation. But not only is this kind of language to be found in our history and in our texts but it is found in the life of our churches and even here at OC. And what I want to argue and explore briefly is that this is rooted in our inability to recognize the pervasiveness of trauma and suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. And that ultimately a recognition of the sheer magnitude of suffering, brokenness, and trauma in our own lives and all around us should serve to radically reorient the way we engage Christian language about holiness, purity, and sin.

The theologian Miroslav Volf (who will be on campus this Spring!!) in his incredible book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation speaks of various types of exclusion. As a framework for today I just want to briefly highlight two of these: Exclusion as abandonment and exclusion as indifference. Listen to how he describes these:

[Another] form of exclusion is becoming increasingly prevalent not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World, but also in the manner in which suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting “creators of high value” to the rabble beneath them. It is exclusion as abandonment. Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business (Luke 10:31). If others neither have goods we want nor can perform services we need, we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them so that their emaciated and tortured bodies can make no inordinate claims on us. (pg. 75)

Volf continues on to talk about exclusion as indifference:

Strangely enough, the havoc wreaked by indifference may be even greater than that brought by felt, lived, practiced hatred. … Especially within a large-scale setting, where the other lives at a distance, indifference can be more deadly than hate. Whereas the fire of hatred flares up in the proximity of the other and then dies down, the cold indifference can be sustained over time, especially in contemporary societies. … [We] reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass – I must pass – by each without much concern. The indifference that made the prophecy, takes care also of its fulfillment. (pg. 77)

Finally it is in the conclusion of this section that Volf names what we fear to even consider:

We exclude also because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps. (pg. 78)

We find ways to exclude as a way of protecting the world that we have sought to make for ourselves. And for Christian communities, one of the primary ways we do this is through our constructions of holiness, purity, and sin.

I want to stop here and talk about the world, not the one we try to maintain around us by boundaries and practices of exclusion rooted in our construction of holiness, purity, and sin, but about the world as it really is "out there" and in this room.


I am about to briefly explore just a glimpse of the trauma and human suffering that is all around us and for most of us (this is part of the myth, that trauma and suffering are the exception) some or much of this is a part of our own story. I want to urge first of all that you take priority for self-care here. If you need to leave (and you need an excuse to head to the cafeteria early) you are welcome to do so. If you need to seek help and care for something that has happened to you there are a number of us in this room that will do all that we can to make sure that happens as quickly as possible. For those of you who feel a “disconnect” from this talk about trauma and suffering, I ask that you pay particular attention because if this is not a part of your story it is undoubtedly a part of many people’s story whom you know and love. Think of this as an opportunity to learn how to be a redemptive instead of indifferent presence in the world and in their lives.


Prevalence of Domestic Violence in the United States

  • On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.
  • Women ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence.

Violence and Young People

  • 15.5 million children in the United States live in families in which partner violence occurred at least once in the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred.
  • Approximately one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

Sexual Abuse and Assault

  • By the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been victims of sexual assault by a peer or sexual abuse by an adult.

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Fleeing Violence

  • According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees there are some 45 million people who are currently either refugees, asylum seekers, or are displaced from their homes by war and violence. Nearly 8.5 million of these refugees are from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan.

PTSD and Moral Injury from War

  • Everyday 22 veterans of war commit suicide.
  • We knew in the 1960’s that a deployment in combat of more than 250 days (a little more than 8 months) would virtually guarantee what we now know as PTSD and/or Moral Injury. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the average deployment has ranged from 10-12 months with total deployments usually accumulating closer to 25 months per soldier.
  • The symptoms and affects of PTSD are stronger and more resistant to treatment in what it known as “secondary PTSD” which is experienced by spouses and children of veterans with PTSD and/or Moral Injury.

Trauma and Human Suffering whether from violence, abuse, neglect, poverty, disease, or your connection with people who have or are experiencing these things is inescapable. It is literally everywhere.


So what does this have to do with how Christians talk about holiness, purity, and sin? It has everything to do with how we speak about these things. It is the difference between the church or this campus being a place of healing and redemption or a place of further suffering and alienation from God and from the church.

So I want to start with sin. And there is much that can and should be said, but I will limit myself to just this one insight: We have an overabundance of language to talk about (and be mad about!) sin that we ourselves commit. But we have little, if any, language that is helpful for exploring the ways in which sin is done to us outside of our own agency.

What I mean is this: The church has never really struggled to say, “Don’t sin! Seriously, stop it! And if you aren’t sure what we mean by that here is list after list after list of what we mean by sin!” And what has happened is that in our language about sin we commit we have connected it, often times without thinking, to pain and suffering. “The wages of sin is death.”

But how do we talk about sin when it has not been done by us but has been done to us? Now, I know some of you are saying, “Well if you are a victim of something you are not guilty of anything!” And in a sense you are absolutely right. But what I want to tell you is that many who are the victims of trauma and human suffering do not or cannot make that distinction.

Just think about the text from 1 Corinthians 6 that I read earlier:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”

Texts like this are used to emphasize abstinence, sex only in the confines of marriage, and our explanation of this text and the text itself are filled with language of purity, holiness, and sin.

But how is this text heard by someone who has been the victim of sexual violence or abuse? How is this seemingly “straightforward” reading complicated by the vast amount of literature that shows that particularly in religious communities, the victims are held in secrecy by the language and pressure of sin, shame, and the public disgrace of having lost their purity?

Or how do victims of all sorts of trauma and abuse hear texts like this one from 1 Peter 3:12:

For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.

Do you see where the unreflective use of Christian language and theology can itself be harmful? Where when we are careless with our words or with the way we speak about the “realities” of life, or the “expectations” of God, or the “cost and punishment” of sin, or the “importance” of purity and holiness, can in fact serve to alienate people from the love of God?

This movement, to read Scripture, and to examine the life and witness of the church in light of the pervasiveness of trauma and human suffering is a massive project. One that I think is not only helpful, but is absolutely mandatory if the church ever hopes to be the bearer of redemption and reconciliation in a world in which we are increasingly aware of the depth and consequences of suffering.

But this is not a project for which there is an easy answer, nor a quick cure which can be administered in a brief talk.

So what I want to do is to make a couple of assertions and then spend our last few minutes, if you would like, in conversation.

Three things that I think are really important based on what I have said so far that might suggest a way forward:

  1. Our churches (and our own lives) will be absolutely shaken to the core when we finally grasp the degree of trauma and suffering both “in the world” and in our churches. This will be a great season of lament and despair.
  2. We will then (and only then) be in a position where we can begin to engage Scripture and theological reflection in a way that can leverage the immense resources and wisdom of the Christian tradition to perhaps the most pressing and challenging barrier to people’s ability to respond to the love of God made visible in Jesus.
  3. The church will no longer be the people who “minister to the broken.” We will be the people of God, who ourselves are broken, who live our lives of ongoing redemption in full display so that the world might know the unstoppable love and power of God.

Human life is complicated, human sexuality is complicated. Our bodily experiences, our engagement with the world, our pursuit of God, our experiences of love and of violence, our hopes and fears, our dreams and our nightmares, our very being is complex and mysterious. And it is in this mess that God relentlessly pursues us.

And it is for this reason that the church must find better words to speak about the life of God and our response to the person of Jesus in a broken and hurting world.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a wonderful New Testament scholar writes in his newest book The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art this about engaging Scripture in light of the actual experience of our own lives and those around us:

Rereading and reinterpreting Scripture in the light of human experience that at first appears to be dissonant with Scripture – finding texts that formerly were not seen, discovering new dimensions of commonly read passages, relativizing those texts that do not accord with God’s new work – is not a form of disloyalty to Scripture. To the contrary, it is loyalty of the highest sort, for it is driven by the conviction that Scripture truly is God-inspired, truly does speak God’s word to humans, when it is passionately and patiently engaged by those listening for God’s word as well in human experience. But neither are these new readings and understandings of Scripture ultimate; they are also subject to revision in light of what God’s Holy Spirit is doing among human bodies in the world. (pg. 50)

Finally a line from the Rule of Benedict:

The default for a disciple is silence. When we stop talking, we become better
listeners.

So here are a couple of questions for the last part of our time together:

  1. Have you ever seen or experienced language about God that you found to be harmful or alienating?
  2. How might your world change if you better understand the deepest pains and fears of those around you?

In closing, I want to offer a Franciscan blessing and prayer:

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God's creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.

Amen.