REFORMING PURITY THROUGH TRANSGRESSIVE ACTION
Mark 7:1-5; 20-23
In March this year, a Dalit man, Shankar was killed by his father – in – law, as an act of ‘honor killing’. Shankar and Kaushalya had an inter – caste marriage, and because of this, they had to pay the ultimate price for transgressing the boundaries of love. Why so? Simply because it is believed that Dalits are impure, and that inter – caste marriage is a defilement. It comes as a wonder that even pastors and Bishops have made statements that inter – caste marriages will dilute the purity of Christianity. This is just one such example where the idea of purity becomes noxious. This morning, with the help of the text that was read and in the light of such happenings, I attempt to speak on reforming purity through transgressive action.
The idea of purity was important for Mark and his community and is quite evident in Mark 7: 1 – 5 and vv 20 – 23, as much as it is evident in the entire gospel. The Jewish law believed that impurity was passed from the hands to the food and to the eater. And so, the ritual of hand-washing was extremely important. This ceremonial washing was done not for hygienic reasons but to remove any stain of impurity that might have been incurred in daily life. In the text, we find the Pharisees and Scribes attacking the disciples of Jesus, and indirectly Jesus as well, for not following this ritual of hand-washing. Jesus, though challenges them, does not disregard purity completely, but rather reforms it in favor of other core values. Drawing upon this background, I would like to bring out three points. My first point:
- Purity as a tool for Alienation and Control
The Jewish ritual purity has a deep theology to it altogether. The rituals and religious observance, grounded in the Jewish law was done in order to show gratitude to God and to provide a sense of Jewish identity. Bringing sacredness into everyday lives through purity rituals, was an attempt to get as close as possible to God. This clearly informs us that ritual purity for the Jews was an important aspect of intimacy with God, self and also with the community. However, when we look at the event in the text the question then arises, why was Jesus taking the side of the disciples when they quite clearly violated the ritual law? Jesus could’ve probably just asked the disciples to go and wash their hands. Simple, right? But strange enough as Jesus’ actions always are, he questions their understanding of purity and exposes their hypocrisy. In v. 2 the word used by the Pharisees is ‘defiled’, which in Greek is koinais, meaning ‘profane’. This in some way implies that even if the disciples had washed their hands, they would still remain defiled as they were believed to be defiled by default, because of their social location. The desire to extent priestly holiness to all aspects of life created a barrier between the Pharisees and the Scribes and the so – called outsiders. It gave them the power to establish and control people’s social identity, social classifications, and social boundaries. The Pharisees and the rich Jews administered the purity system as it gave them control over the common people, the economy, and the Temple. Therefore, the Pharisees and Scribes became fearful that the disciples would end up defiling them and also became momentarily powerless when the disciples, perhaps unintentionally, transgressed that particular purity ritual to directly challenge the authority and supremacy of the Pharisees and Scribes.
This system of purity and defilement is very much evident in our contexts today as well. We see that the purity code has crept into our society in various forms and has somehow become an accepted norm by people. Let’s take a look at a few of them. First, on the issue of marriage. The community which I come from, Chang Naga, has four major clans under which all the Chang people are constituted. Marriage within the same clan, though from the same tribe, is strictly prohibited as people from the same clan are considered as brothers and sisters. And so marriage within the same clan will make the couple and eventually their off – springs, impure and cursed. Secondly, on the issue of moral policing. Here we try to thrust morality upon people whom we think are not living or behaving according to our prescribed and fixed morals. What becomes worse is our own projection of self – righteousness, and because of this, we condemn and alienate others as ‘sinners’, ‘outcastes’, ‘deviants’, ‘corrupt’, etc. Third and finally, the biased acceptance of heteronormativity, whereby a superior feeling, “I am straight, therefore I am pure” condemns the LGBTQ communities as being defiled and sinful. All these issues and many more have so many aspects within it, but one underlying factor is the purity concept, which has been detrimental to so many people. Hasn’t purity, then, being a tool of control accounted for alienation?
- Inner Purity over Ritual Purity
In v. 21 Jesus goes on to say that it is from the heart that evil intentions come. Why would Jesus say this, if for the Jews the observance of ritual purity was primarily external? It is because the whole idea of ritual purity should have been a matter of intentionality, which unfortunately wasn’t to be. And so Jesus pointed out to the defilement of the heart as he noticed the evil intentions of the Pharisees and the Scribes. Jesus raised a more fundamental issue of purity, which went far beyond the limited question of hand-washing. Jesus once and for all underlined the truth that defilement or impurity does not lie in a person’s external body, social location, economic status, faith community, clan, caste, color, gender, or sexual orientation. For Jesus, their understanding of purity was quite simply a social construct.
How different is the context today? I’m pretty sure there isn’t much. I believe we become defiled when we speak ill of others, deny rights and opportunities to the needy, lurk in darkness hoping to find something worthy of gossip, masterfully craft environments where people whom we are jealous of are bound to fail or lose ground, abuse and slander those who are weaker than us, eye – rape women, take what rightfully belongs to someone else, and the list can only go on and on. By portraying ourselves as the righteous ones, we look down on people whom we think are weaker or poorer than us. What then is our accountability? Where then is our authenticity? We can go on performing rituals and take sacraments after sacraments. But then what about the cleansing of our heart and the intentions that it holds? Jesus clearly gave primacy to inner purity over ritual purity, and in doing so called for radical discipleship i.e., to transgress societal structures that perpetuate oppression and prejudice. This is why I believe the Church of today must encourage and practice inter-caste and inter-cultural marriages; refrain from engaging in moral policing and moralizing sexuality; and transgress human-made barriers and affirm core human values. In doing this the Church would negate external and destructive elements of purity.
- Transgressive action as a means of Reforming Purity
Jesus, in exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Scribes and in bringing out the importance of inner purity, in a way reformed purity from its impure political elements. One of the powerful transgressive act that we can perform is the act of embrace. When I speak of embrace, I not only refer to it in the literal and physical sense but also intend to mean accepting, welcoming and affirming transgressive acts. To affirm such acts is to embrace the agents of such acts. Jesus in affirming the rebellious and subversive act of the disciples embraced the disciples. He also embraced those that were considered impure by the society: the tax collector, the prostitute, the poor, and the leper. By virtue of the act of embrace, Jesus became a transgressor. His intentions, actions, and words were a strong critique and protest against the prevailing unjust purity system.
We all need to be able to redeem purity, and it is in performing the transgressive act of embrace, we do so. However, if we harbor evil against each other and if we welcome the privileges that we get from the dominant forces around, we become defiled. And if you and I can become defiled by that, then there is also a possibility for us to become sacred by resisting those forces and embracing its victims. It is imperative that we draw ourselves to ‘grow into’ the lives of those whom we have wronged. This brings about a redeeming participation, both for us and for those who have been victimized; because it redeems both the giver and the receiver of the embrace. And there are times, when we must be open enough just to receive it.
May we like Jesus and the disciples become active engineers of transgressive action breaking every wall that sets one against the other. Jesus endeavored to create a counter-cultural community and his attack on the oppressive purity system and his embrace of the transgressive act of the disciples, I believe has enough potential to inspire us to do the same. To envision a New Heaven and New Earth is in becoming a transgressor. The question is “are we willing to become one”?