Yesterday, we were talking about Richard Beck’s book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. In the comments I promised I would give some real-life instances of how I’ve seen the “psychology of disgust” play out in Christian communities.
Let me reset the theme by quoting something Beck writes early in the book:
I was often told that I should “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Theologically, to my young mind (and, apparently, to the adults who shared it with me), this formulation seemed clear and straightforward. However, psychologically speaking, this recommendation was extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. As any self-reflective person knows, empathy and moral outrage tend to function at cross-purposes. In fact, some religious communities resist empathy, as any softness toward or solidarity with “sinners” attenuates the moral fury the group can muster. Conversely, it is extraordinarily difficult to “love the sinner”—to respond to people tenderly, empathically, and mercifully—when you are full of moral anger over their behavior. Consider how many churches react to the homosexual community or to young women considering an abortion. How well do churches manage the balance between outrage and empathy in those cases? In short, theological or spiritual recommendations aimed at reconciling the competing demands of mercy and sacrifice might be psychological nonstarters. Spiritual formation efforts, while perfectly fine from a theological perspective, can flounder because the directives offered are psychologically naïve, incoherent, or impossible to put into practice.
Here are five real examples from my own experience of how Christian people commonly let “sacrifice” triumph over “mercy” — how, as Richard Beck puts it, “empathy and moral outrage tend to function at cross-purposes,” and how we often let our aversion to sin and/or the perceived “uncleanness” of our neighbors control the game when it comes to relating to them. Since these things happened in congregations in which I was involved, I know that the people described here have been taught well and understand that believers are called to “hate sin but love the sinner.” But deeper impulses are keeping them from practicing love and participating in missional living.
These are simple illustrations from everyday church experiences, not dramatic headlines from the media about hot-button issues. These events happened in good, solid evangelical congregations. I don’t doubt that situations like these are replayed daily in thousands of similar churches across the U.S.
I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about them.
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Five examples of the psychology of disgust (as discussed by Beck) in church situations:
1. Parents pull their children from the children’s and youth programs in a church. The leaders are trying to reach out to more un-churched families and these parents don’t want their own kids influenced by the outsiders’ children.
2. A small church is interviewing candidates for its pastor position. One of the most qualified and likeable candidates used to lead a ministry that reached out to gay students at a university in another town. Several church elders reject him out of hand and refuse to consider him because they say he might attract gays to the church and they don’t want the families of the church exposed to them.
3. A crisis pregnancy center that was started by a local congregation asks for people to take an interest in young, needy women as part of a new program they are starting. Though church members support the ministry financially, no one agrees to become a mentor or have the women and their children to their homes regularly. The director tells the pastor that this has been an ongoing problem for the ministry. People will give dollars but won’t get personally involved. She’s even been told many would prefer the women find another church to attend.
4. Several families approach their pastor and tell him they are leaving the church because the new families the church is attracting are from a part of town that is of a lower socio-economic level and they don’t like mixing with them or having their children around theirs. They don’t feel at home in the congregation anymore.
5. The elder who directs a large church’s sports ministry is interviewed and asked why the church started the program and built their large, impressive facility. He tells the paper that when his child was in a community sports league, the coach yelled at the team and his boy was exposed to behavior and language he thought was unacceptable. He wanted to start a program in which no children or families would have to endure that.