What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

The Servant of the Servants of God

GregoryIcon1For anybody to fight about who is the greatest at any time is a disgrace. For the disciples of Jesus to fight about who is the greatest is especially ludicrous, making one wonder if they had understood a word Jesus had said. Very possibly they hadn’t. That they should fight over who is the greatest at table the night before Jesus died is beyond ludicrousness. If they had fought in this way after Jesus had washed their feet, as recounted in John, then their fight is transfinitely ludicrous.

Jesus shows transfinite patience to the disciples by not acting the way most of us in authority would. An argument among people under our authority as to who is the greatest has the potential to spill over into a dispute with the one in authority over the same question. But Jesus explains that it is the Gentiles who wish to exercise lordship over others and it should not be that way with them. Stepping on toes and maybe even necks is what most worldly authorities would have done in Jesus’ position but that is precisely what Jesus did not do. There is an edge to Jesus use of the word “benefactors” for those practicing lordship; such people used their benefactions more to assert their superiority and social control than to be charitable to others. Jesus goes on to say that he has come among the disciples as one who serves, not one who lords it over them.

Our patron saint, Pope Gregory the Great, did not coin the phrase that the Pope is the servant of the servants of God, but he was the first to make extensive use of the phrase and thus make it such a quotable quote through the ages. The phrase certainly picks up the meaning of Jesus’ words to the apostles as captured in Luke.

A deeper sign of Jesus’ infinite patience with his disciples (and us) is his assurance that they will sit on twelves thrones to judge the tribes of Israel. This assurance is startling since it seems to go counter to what Jesus had just been talking about. But does it? If being a ruler means being a servant, as Jesus suggests and Gregory the Great averred, then maybe sitting on a throne to judge a tribe of Israel is not such a good deal for the judge. We tend to think that being a judge means being judgmental; that judging the Twelve Tribes of Israel means accusing them of their wrongdoings. But what if a judge is a servant? In his response to the disciples’ infighting, Jesus is surprisingly unjudgmental, although he makes it clear that they haven’t gotten it right just yet. Jesus continues to serve them through his example, such as washing their feet and leading them gently but firmly to a new way of seeing the world and, more importantly, living in it.

The thing is, Jesus didn’t judge the disciples (and us) by browbeating them; Jesus judged them by serving them humbly. The twelve tribes of Israel is an expression for a renewed Israel, Gentiles and Jews alike. Judging them, then, means serving them the way Jesus served them and the way Jesus serves us. It is our acts of loving service that will judge all people who exercise lordship by browbeating others. The Pope isn’t the only one called to be a servant of the servants of God. All of us are so called. The trouble with calling Jesus the King of Kings is that we are tempted to swell with pride with being part of this imperial court. We do much better to call Jesus the Servant of Servants.

A leaky Basket: Judging Judgmentalism

guesthouse1A desert monastic said that contempt and reproaching another person in thought will prevent us from seeing the divine light. The monastic pioneers of the fourth and fifth centuries were constantly admonishing each other to stop judging each other judgmentally. This admonition sounds good until we realize that we always have good reasons for our own judgmental attitudes toward people we know or know about.

In one of my favorite stories about the desert monastics, one of their number had committed an unspecified sin and the other monastics gathered to pass judgment on him. The wisest and most respected elder was slow to come and when he arrived, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. The puzzled monastics asked him what he was doing and the elder replied: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them, and you would have me judge this brother.” End of trial.

This story warns us that judging another person entails losing awareness of our own sins. The other person’s sins distract us from our own. René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us zero in on an even deeper problem. Reflecting on the shortcomings of others hooks us into a rivalrous relationship with them. Our judgmentalism hooks us into the desires that lead the other to that sin. Perhaps this is why we are often warned that we judge most harshly those people who do what we secretly want to do or maybe actually secretly do them. As with every rivalrous relationship, judging another makes that person an obstacle to self-understanding and, as the elder quoted above warns us, also creates an obstacle between us and God.

It isn’t enough to just look the other way as the desert monastics often did. What is needed is an involvement with the other that is not judgmental but loving. In another story, an elder is called to join other monastics in raiding the cell of a monastic who was harboring a woman. When the elder entered the cell, he saw a hamper and sat on it while the others searched the cell without finding the woman. After the elder sent the other monastics away, he stood up, opened the hamper where the woman was hiding and said to his brother and the woman: “Take care for your soul.”

The convoluted chapters about punishment in Benedict’s Rule (analyzed in Tools for Peace) hint at mimetic traps in dealing with delinquent monastics. Finally, he throws up his hands and says that prayer is the greatest remedy of all. In prayer, we make ourselves the equal of whomever we are inclined to judge and we open ourselves up to God.