Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
- Matthew 9:13
Mercy and sacrifice reliably come into conflict due to the reciprocal nature of love and disgust, the psychological dynamics governing exclusion and embrace. Consequently, the church cannot sidestep the tensions in Matthew 9 as a mere logical error or false dichotomy. Whenever the church speaks of love or holiness, the psychology of disgust is present and operative, often affecting the experience of the church in ways that lead to befuddlement, conflict, and missional failure.
- Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality
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Richard Beck’s book, Unclean, could be an important discussion starter for the church today, caught as she often is in the tension of trying to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Matthew 9 is a key text for Beck, where Jesus responds to criticism from certain Pharisees about eating and drinking with “sinners” by pointing them to the prophets: “But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’”
Mercy and sacrifice — at first the distinction was not clear to Beck, but he came to see that these concepts represent tensions in Israel’s religious traditions and practices, a tension that is evident throughout the Bible.
Why, I wondered, are mercy and sacrifice antagonistic in Matthew 9? Why is there a tension between mercy and sacrifice? Of course, this tension might only be apparent and situational, two virtues that just happened to come into conflict in this particular circumstance. But the more I pondered the biblical witness and the behavior of churches, the more convinced I became that the tensions and conflict were not accidental or situational. I concluded that there was something intrinsic to the relationship between mercy and sacrifice that inexorably and reliably brought them into conflict. Mercy and sacrifice, I suspected, were mirror images, two impulses pulling in different directions.
…Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries.
The religious leaders in Matthew 9 represented “sacrifice” — Israel’s holiness tradition that created barriers between the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the profane. They criticized Jesus for merely being in the presence of “sinners” because to them contact transferred pollution. A “holy” or “pure” person, they reasoned, would keep away, avoiding contact, erecting social boundaries to prevent becoming tainted or contaminated.
Notice how this language reflects more than a principled position identifying certain behavior as “sin.” There are psychological elements of sociomoral disgust that evidence themselves in our emotional, reflexive responses and in our words.
Thus, we wrinkle our noses, turn away our eyes, utter exclamations of distaste, or feel tension or unpleasant sensations in various parts of our bodies. “That makes me sick!” we say.
Our words also reflect this impulse. Hindus called the lowest caste “untouchable” and Israel used words like “clean/unclean” and “abomination” and “detestable” to describe not only behaviors but also people and classes of people. So have communities (of all types) excluded others throughout history, encoding that in colorful language which demeans the outcasts and maintains a sense of disgust in the “pure” group.
Beck’s work in Unclean shows how “we unwittingly import a contamination-based reasoning into the life of the church.”
[D]isgust 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. For example, as noted earlier, we begin to worry about contact. In the domain of food aversion contact with a polluting object is a legitimate concern. But fears concerning contact might not be appropriate or logical in dealing with moral issues or social groups. Worse, a fear of contact might promote antisocial behavior (e.g., social exclusion) on our part.
Richard Beck notes that this logic of contact contains additional elements, such as a sense that even a minimal amount of contact with contagion can cause profound harm, that there is a sense of permanence about becoming polluted — once tainted it is difficult if not impossible to return to “pure,” and that contact has a one-way effect — the unclean pollutes the clean, but the clean cannot purify the unclean.
It is important to realize that this “logic” of disgust psychology is, as Beck shows, “often immune to reason and rationality.” We can tell people “hate the sin but love the sinner” all we want, repeat it in sermons and enshrine it in our mission statements, but in doing so we are essentially trying to overcome deeply ingrained impulses with a slogan.
Disgust is an exclusionary or expulsive impulse: one must either avoid or remove a contaminant for the body to remain healthy. The logic of “sacrifice” (holiness, purity, cleanness) maintains boundaries to protect nefarious infiltration.
Love, on the other hand, is about embracing, not excluding. Love is an inclusionary, receptive impulse. In the marital bed, for example, two become one flesh; that is, persons share the closest possible connections with each other’s bodies. One allows access within the most personal of boundaries so that one’s lover might enjoy intimate contact and sharing.
Indeed, this is the essence of all genuine love. As Beck writes:
The boundary of the self is extended to include the other. The very word intimacy conjures the sense of a small, shared space. We also describe relationships in terms of proximity and distance. Those we love are “close” to us. When love cools we grow “distant.” We tell “inside” jokes that speak of shared experiences. We have a “circle of friends.” “Outsiders” are told to “stop butting in.” We ask people to “give us space” when we want to “pull back” from a relationship. In sum, love is inherently experienced as a boundary issue. Love is on the inside of the symbolic self.
In Unclean, Richard Beck argues that Jesus routinely resolved the tension between Israel’s priestly tradition of sacrifice (holiness, separation, purity) and her prophetic tradition of mercy (love, inclusion, fellowship) by choosing mercy. He chose contact rather than boundaries. Note that in Matthew 9 he did not say, “Go and learn this: I desire mercy and sacrifice.” He went one way and resolved the tension by choosing mercy.
The other stories in Matthew 9 may clue us in on how Jesus could take this position. For example, when he was touched by an unclean woman with an issue of blood, contact with Jesus did not render him unclean. Rather, the contact cleansed and healed her. When he touched the hand of the dead synagogue leader’s daughter — a touch that would render anyone unclean according to the law — the life-giving power of Jesus raised her up. Likewise he touched the eyes of the blind and they began to see.
These examples counter the “negativity dominance” that we naturally give to unclean over clean.
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.
Jesus consistently shows the way of love, not separation. He welcomes sinners into his presence. He disregards established rules of segregation. He lets himself be touched and he reaches out to touch the unclean. And what Jesus touches becomes clean.
This is something much different than “hate the sin/love the sinner.”
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I am fully aware that this raises a host of other questions, and I’m sure some of them will come up in the discussion. We will have opportunity to deal with them in future posts as well.
But like I said, I think Beck’s book could be an excellent discussion starter. So let us begin…