I typically read alot of books, and while many are good I don’t usually comment on them. However, I was recently challenged by Richard Beck in his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck discusses why we as Christians find it so difficult to be around “sinners and tax collectors.” In so doing he challenged my own thinking and has caused me to reexamine how I relate to others. What follows is a short examination of the book.
Why do churches, ostensibly following a Messiah who broke bread with “tax collectors and sinners,” so often retreat into practices of exclusion and the quarantine of gated communities?” (1) This question is one of the precipitating questions that led to Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck wants to know why is it so difficult to create missional churches; communities that are willing to leave the safety and security of the church steeple and live among and dwell with the world? Why do we shy away from “sinners and tax collectors” and instead only fellowship with those who are like us, normal church people? Or to phrase the question differently, how do churches balance holiness and mercy? How do you create a culture where holiness and discipleship are expected while still granting acceptance and mercy and forgiveness to those who are struggling to live holy lives?
Beck addresses these questions not by having a theological discussion but a physiological one. Beck specifically examines the physiological notion of disgust and how it affects how we experience and treat others. Disgust is an inherent psychological feature within us that determines that some things are repulsive and need to be avoided while other things are fine and can be embraced. Disgust functions in two ways: as a boundary to monitor borders of what is welcome to come in the body and as an expulsive to push away or avoid offensive objects. Beck believes that this notion of disgust, which is typically related to the body, also functions in human interactions. Societies have determined that certain actions are offensive and so we avoid them and anyone who participates in them. Or, to put it more bluntly, churches have decided certain actions or sins are offensive (they disgust us) and so not only are the sins to be avoided but the sinners are to be avoided. Because of this inherent notion of disgust, Christians have difficulty accepting those who are different from them, especially those who are not as holy as them.
Beck has discussed an important barrier for churches. Many churches and Christians cognitively know that all sinners should be accepted and welcomed, yet in practice find it hard to be welcoming of others. Instead churches shy away from those who are different or who struggle to maintain holiness, or at least certain outward displays of holiness. (For instance pride and greed do not cause disgust but adultery and pornography do.) The problem may be partially caused by disgust psychology that is taking place on a subconscious level. In order to combat this notion churches and Christians must constantly be reminded of the words of Jesus “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and must actively strive to see and love all human beings the same no matter race, social status, or holiness level.
It is interesting that Beck believes this is best done through the Eucharist. In the weekly observance of the Eucharist, churches are able to welcome all to a common table. In the weekly observance of the Eucharist we are all washed by the blood and made pure in God’s sight. In the weekly observance of the Eucharist we partake of the body and blood of Christ and become one community centered on Jesus. The Eucharist becomes the defining moment of the assembly as week after week, year after year, generation after generation, Christians are gradually renewed and transformed into the image of Jesus who welcomed and ate with all and none were unclean.