Jared Witt l August 25, 2016
Last week, I wrote about Christianity’s angry cousin, who goes by the same name. The existence of an angry cousin makes it difficult both for people who identify as "Christian" and for people who don’t to define what exactly we’re talking about when we use that word.
I realize that I stand right on the edge of hypocrisy by suggesting that one version of Christianity might be more Christian than the other. But given the current state of our culture, it has become impossible not to acknowledge that there is an essential difference between the Christianity of Mother Theresa and that of, say, Pat Robertson. It’s complicated, because, as a Lutheran, I’m obliged to acknowledge that everyone is a mixed bag. I’m sure Mother Theresa had her bad days, and Pat Robertson has his good ones, and it's not really about us and how good we are in the first place. But at some point, it becomes unhelpful to try to deny, for the sake of Lutheran correctness, that there is a very real distinction between one sort of Christian whose main goal is to be loving, and another, whose main goal is to be pure.
By “pure,” I mean the drive to keep one's self and one's environment unmixed, uncontaminated, simple, homogeneous. And it’s not just Christianity that is susceptible to it. Any public movement or energy, which stands firmly against the mixing of certain persons or things but cannot cite a convincing rationale as to why, is at its core a purity religion. The theological term for the sub-rational set of taboos, which every purity religion keeps, is defilement code: the list of all that which we don’t mix together, whoever we are.
The most hot button taboos, concerning the things that we, of a given generation, don't mix, might have to do with women in the work place, school integration, immigrants of a certain nationality, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, Americans and soccer, the Nickelodeon cartoon “CatDog.” They’re pretty interchangeable. And the purity religion will substitute one for the other as it becomes harder to sustain the old one in the face of popular opinion. But there always needs to be at least one. As Batman requires The Joker, the drive to be pure requires that which would contaminate. Otherwise the defilement code no longer suffices as an explanation for why everything isn’t perfect already.
Now, anytime Christianity gets mixed up in this drive to be pure, it will always turn into what I’ve called Christianity’s angry cousin. The trouble is that we live in a heterogeneous world full of all kinds of strange humans, and animals, and other things with which we must relate. So, where purity is the highest value, there will always be some kind of cutoff or denial of relationship. If we all lived in our own private vacuums, maybe purity wouldn’t be so bad, but in a world where we actually have to relate to one another—more than that, where the very atoms that make up our being are constantly being recycled through every other being—the will to be pure and the will to love very often require opposite behaviors.
Jesus clearly recognizes the conflicts that arise between purity and love, so he opts for love every time. That’s pretty much the main thing about Jesus. The one exception, which proves the rule, is the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose pleas for help he initially tries to ignore because she is a gentile—i.e. someone who doesn’t mix with his group. But she cleverly reminds him of who he is and what he’s about until he changes his position and opts for love once again (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28).
The main thing about Christianity’s angry cousin, when all is said and done, is that he always opts for purity over love. And since the drive to purity, unhindered by any higher motivations, always means disassociating from all those who might contaminate with their impurity, it will always become necessary to condemn the impure group to oblivion. That is the only lasting and ultimate disassociation. Walter Brueggemann calls this “the final solution” of this sort of religion, conjuring the Nazi’s efforts to “purify the race” of “Aryans” in Germany.
Now most of Christianity’s angry cousins are not willing to go this far in their drive to be pure but only because, thank God, most people are far less consistent in following through on their belief systems than the Nazis were. Hence, why these purity Christians are normally content to put off the “the final solution” until the afterlife but putting it off forever is out of the question. The reckoning must happen at some point.
So given that he spent his entire life choosing love over purity, Jesus would seem an odd role model for the angry cousin. Why not choose…I dunno…say…LITERALLY ANYONE ELSE WHO EVER EXISTED rather than the one guy whose whole thing was contradicting purity religion? Maybe the fact that this purity religion calls itself Christian is an inevitable result of Christianity having been a watered-down, majority religion throughout the western world for so long—all kinds of cultural nonsense was bound to fall under the same denominational umbrella. Or maybe there is some dark paradoxical truth that whoever or whatever is most right in the world will always be the exact thing that gets coopted and distorted by what is most wrong—what Martin Luther meant when he said, “Whenever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel right next door."
Regardless, if you’ve been paying attention, you can see how artfully this angry group has to either skirt around the inconvenient subject of Jesus entirely or turn him into a “Cosmic Christ,” a disembodied figure whose will for the universe contradicts almost everything about the earthly Jesus.
I’ll continue this line of thought next week.
If your logical brain feels like it has been doing mental gymnastics to keep up with me so far, I assure you that your intuitive brain already gets all this. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have any interest in reading the blog of a church brewery, what some still see as a dangerous contamination of the pure with the impure.
Since those are two things that I’m not particularly worried about mixing,
Cheers and peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.