Peter was surprised when he had a vision of a sheet carrying all the animals listed in the Law as unclean accompanied by a voice telling him that God had made them clean. Peter was even more surprised when he was told to go to the house of an unclean Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him. That is, God had made all humans clean.
We all have a hard time living without the comfort of knowing that some people, some things, are unclean. This fear that sustains us is the fear of what is Other. All we have to do is get to know “unclean” strangers and we will be happy and no longer afraid.
René Girard, however, would give us pause. Girard is often invoked when there is need to scold people for creating “out” groups to make them feel good about their “in” groups. Actually, Girard alerts us to our problems within our “in” groups. Prior to our fear of the Other is our fear of what is the same. Rivalry and the violence rivalry lead to does not originate in battles with strangers but with those closest to us. In Genesis, almost all of the strife is between brothers.
Girard suggests that this fratricidal strife tends either to the death of a brother or a reconciliation through killing somebody else. At the dawn of humanity, a tribe first struggled with rivalry within its own ranks and either imploded through its violence or came together through killing one of its members, who then was designated at Other, the monster who caused the commotion. Then the tribe held itself together on an ongoing basis by warring on other tribes who were designated as Other. In this regard we are not one wit wiser than the most “primitive” of people. A fundamental practice of statecraft today is to deal with rivalry and tensions within a nation by designating an enemy that the whole nation must fight.
Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas have demonstrated the human tendency to divide foods between those deemed clean and those considered unclean. Eating is the central activity of a community. We eat with those who are closest to us. However, as noted above, we also fight most with these same people who are closest to us. By dividing the food we eat between clean and unclean, we create a barrier between us and other people, between us as the “in” group and those in the “out” group. That is, we relieve our communal tensions by banding against those who eat “unclean” foods.
Here we come to the importance of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, while at table, that they (we) love one another. Some scripture scholars have poured cold water on idealistic readers by saying that John was concerned only with love within the community. But Jesus’ saying that others will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love makes it clear that this loves does extend beyond the immediate community. These reflections on “clean” and “unclean” further suggest that fostering non-rivalrous love within the community allows the community to reach out to others. This love will make everything and everybody clean and bring us all to one great table in the Heavenly Banquet.