Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why Christians Have Problems Loving the "Unholy"


Like most children, I loved to visit zoos. One day my dad took me to the Philadelphia zoo. It was a lot of fun until dad had a disgusting experience. A massive tiger faced us. Then, with front paws raised, it soaked dad in urine.

At church, a group of us are looking at Richard Beck’s book titled, “Unclean.” Philosopher, Doug Olena introduced the topic in the last two weeks. Our impulse is to avoid the unclean and expel that which is disgusting. But Christians are called to serve people that society considers unclean.

Beck draws heavily on disgust psychology. In psychology, “Dr. Disgust” is Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. Rozin has studied disgust for decades. It’s fascinating for many reasons. Disgust is of course an emotional response with a recognizable facial expression. Though the classic disgust face can be seen in babies rejecting anything distasteful, infants soon learn more about that which is distasteful, yucky, gross, and unclean in their culture. And of course, infants soon learn that some people are considered unclean—folks you should not associate with.

Disgust Prompts Avoidance & Rejection

Many religions focus on living a holy life. Writings, places, and people are sacred, holy and set apart from that which is unclean and unholy. Christians are encouraged to be pure in heart and avoid immoral conduct, including association with immoral people. But Christians are also called to be merciful, love neighbors, and touch the lives of those deemed unclean.

Here’s the tension—how do you love the unclean? 

Must people be washed—baptized—before their lives are worthy of being touched?

It’s not hard to find religious people who act more in accordance with disgust-avoidance patterns than with love-approach patterns. Perhaps worse, disgust also prompts people to actively reject those considered unclean and immoral. It’s love— that overcomes disgust. And love is a key ingredient I would add to Beck’s thoughtful analysis.

The smell of burned bodies was a particularly disgusting image that remained in the memory of one Vietnam Veteran who kept an angry distance from the love of others for years.

Fear of losing employment keeps some clergy inline as one protestant leader warned his denomination against saying anything supportive of gay marriage. The language of disgust peppers the online Christian discussions of same-sex relationships.

The callous reference to body parts in a video of a Planned Parenthood worker evoked powerful disgust responses by many--especially those who find abortion abhorrent (WP story).

In the language of science, an understanding of love comes from studies of attachment. Like a fetus attached to mother by an umbilical cord, most children attach to their mothers for years. You can almost see the length of the emotional cord when you watch toddlers explore a new playground. There’s some walking back-and forth as children figure out what’s a safe distance.

Attachment continues into adulthood. Homesickness hits college students after parents head for home. Loving couples miss each other when separated—especially if outside of texting range. Great marriages are built on a strong and secure attachment or bond of love.

Love Conquers Disgust

Loving parents change dirty diapers—often considered disgusting! Health care workers learn to suppress a disgust response—even a vomiting response—when presented with horrific injuries (I’ll spare the graphics).

Christians find in the gospel stories a consistent pattern of Jesus touching those considered unclean. Many, like Mother Teresa, have been inspired to devote their lives to those who’ve been rejected. Images of Pope Francis hugging people not fitting images of cultural beauty circulate on the web. Many sponsor the needy through programs like World Vision.

The disgust impulse is a powerful force separating some people from others who appear different or threatening. And love is a powerful force that brings people together as if they were part of the same family and deserved care and respect.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON


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