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A few years ago, I was part of a theological conference where my friend Pádraig Ó Tuama invited those present to write a haiku about their thoughts and what they were taking away from the experience.

Since my work was primarily around hospitality at the time (and continues to be if truth be told....), images of welcome were forefront in my mind considering the topic of the conference was "Being the Other."  But here's what I came up with:

watercolor art provided by my dear friend Suzanne L. Vinson.  See more of her work at http://suzannelvinson.com/

watercolor art provided by my dear friend Suzanne L. Vinson.  See more of her work at http://suzannelvinson.com/

Now when I look at this, I wonder to myself:

when's the last time you were willing to get your apron dirty?

In my book Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality, I refer to the work of Richard Beck and his book titled Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality as well as the work around purity and disgust by Mary Douglas and ethics of risk by Sharon Welch.

Contamination, tainting, dilution, ruination or stain either in the areas of morality and ethics, belief and orthodoxy, or self-identification either on an individual or communal level are real risks taken when we welcome the other.  When we begin to identify with the other - to walk in their moccasins, as it were - who we are and what we deem to be important gets tainted, diluted, or otherwise changed.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas observed that “where there is no differentiation there is no defilement.”(1)  When we are surrounded by those just like us, chances to be tainted are few.  For Douglas, risks to purity emerge when something is out of its normal place.  So, Douglas would argue dirt (as in soil), in and of itself, is not dirty, per se, but is only dirty when it is somewhere it should not be in accordance with boundaries that have been set up in relation to it.  

So, for those for whom purity is of concern, then the “messiness” or untidiness of life experiences, particularly where otherness is concerned, becomes a constant struggle. 

In religious life, a concern for purity is interrelated with concerns about holiness. Douglas notes “[t]o be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind.”(2)  This integrity, as a result of holiness, is “intimately associated” with purity, particularly in relation to “normative integrity” where the individual or community eventually has to “make distinctions, to draw lines in the sand to define its normative existence.”(3)

Lest we get on our high horses, let me just say though - this concern about purity is NORMAL.  Beck points out that to draw boundaries in order to define purity from impurity is part of human nature as “all communities . . . establish notions of dirt and pollution.”(4)  Like boundaries, purity serves a positive function by defining identity, belonging, safety, health, and normative behavior.  We need it!  Humanity is programmed with a “psychology of disgust and contamination,” which, in turn, “regulates social boundaries.”(5)  

Nevertheless, in the context of hospitality and welcoming the other, concern about purity appears to be primarily a concern for unity and control.  To sustain that unity and control, formulations regarding purity enable the development of classifications and “[c]ommunal integrity is maintained by monitoring and preserving . . . [these] classifications, keeping aspects of life distinct and separate.”(6)

Yet, this idea of a “pure” religion or community is a fallacy.  Religious violence is often justified as a response to a threat to purity, hinging upon the idea that a particular set of believers are the sole proprietors of truth and are, therefore, responsible for the purity of those around them, having been appointed by God to rid the area of “contaminants.”  A refusal to risk purity is a refusal to allow the contamination of the other or commit any perceived or real transgression that may, rationally or irrationally, be equated with the actions of those seen as impure or immoral.

Magda Trocmé, a woman renowned for her own efforts alongside those of her husband and fellow Huguenot villagers in providing protective hospitality to Jews in Le Chambon sur Lignon during World War II, noted that “the righteous often pay a price for their righteousness; their own ethical purity.”(7)  What she means is that when we choose to value righteousness (as in right behavior and just action over ritual holiness), we're bound to get ourselves dirty.  We may break the law.  We may need to sacrifice the social ethic of obedience for a higher law of righteousness.

In the context of Christian theology, the model of Jesus of Nazareth provides an obvious resource in addressing the purity question.  The obvious willingness on the part of God to get God's hands dirty is seen in how God chooses to act through humanity, and in the Christian tradition this is seen not only in the person of Jesus but also in how God works through each one of us.  In Matt 9:10–13, Jesus defends his practice of hospitality in the company of “tax collectors and sinners” to the established religious leadership by highlighting the tension between “mercy” and “sacrifice.”(8)  Beck notes the paradigm of sacrifice, “the purity impulse,” sets up boundaries of holiness, differentiating between what is clean and unclean whereas “[m]ercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries” by blurring “the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact.”(9) Beck applies this further, noting “holiness and purity” are concerned with building walls and erecting division, whereas “mercy and hospitality” transgress and disregard those same boundaries.(10)  

This is where hospitality and the practice of radical welcome to the other becomes politically subversive.  Beck refers to it as “an attack upon the status quo” and “the antithesis of sociomoral disgust.” (11)  

Regardless of what we call it, taking up opportunities to get our hands dirty on behalf of others (not for your own gain, mind....) is a powerful, liberative, dangerous thing.

Furthermore, the part of the haiku above where God welcomes us to the table "laden and full" (other than the possible redundancy...I needed 3 more syllables) argues against operating out of position of scarcity and from one of abundance instead.  Purity becomes an issue because we function as communities who want to preserve what is for us because there is not enough for everyone.  It assumes resources are limited - whether it be God's love or favor, jobs, health, shelter, food, etc. - and that what is available should go to those who are deserving by whatever arbitrary standards we set.

 While we do indeed living a world marked by violence and climate change where water, food, shelter, and access to healthcare is a very real threat to the survival of millions, there is also the reality that a privileged few hold the majority of the resources, restricting access and limiting supply to the many.

The world operates from a position of scarcity.  People of faith are called to be different, to show a different way of relating and caring for the world around us.

God challenges this idea of scarcity by offering welcome to everyone.  

No one is excluded from the table.  

There is enough to go around.  There will always be enough.  Thanks be to God.



Further thoughts:

Something I'm interested in working on (hang on....let me add it to my ever-growing list.....) is the role of fear as it relates to purity.  In relation to cultic practice and identity formation—both now and in biblical era—threats to purity are usually responded to with fear—fear of being cut off, rejected, stained, or tainted.  I've argued for years that the debates over LGBT+ inclusion in the church is a purity issue for those who advocate exclusion.  While Christians tend to say that we don't focus on purity (other than sexual purity, that is....), it is alive and well in how we respond to perceived sin and otherness.  Furthermore, I would argue that there appears to be an oppositional relationship between purity and mercy as Beck does.  And I wonder - Is there a similar oppositional relationship between purity and love, related to the admonition in 1 John 4:18 where it says “Perfect love casts out fear”?  What do you think?



1. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 161.

2. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 55.

3. Beck, Unclean, 131.

4. Beck, Unclean, 131.

5.  Beck, Unclean, 5.

6.  Beck, Unclean, 130-131.

7.  Attributed to Magda Trocmé in Letty Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review, 53:1 (Jan 2001), 50).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer also argued something similar in his books Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed., (NY: Touchstone, 1997), 212.

8. Beck, Unclean, 1.

9. Beck, Unclean, 2-3.

10. Beck, Unclean, 2-3.

11. Beck, Unclean, 123-124.

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