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August 29, 2003
"...there is nothing outside a person which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a person are what defile him."
Mark 7:15-16

Two thousand years ago, a criticism similar to one frequently leveled at the Church today: Why have you allowed your people to absorb unclean things? Why have you permitted them to accommodate to the ways of the world? How can we respect and honor you as people of faith when we see you breaking the law we received centuries ago?

Reinhold Neibuhr, Neo-orthodox theologian to presidents and unabashed apologist for American-style democracy, was famous half a century ago and is seldom mentioned today. He referred to his theological perspective on the world as "Christian realism." Briefly, it was this: you are responsible, not just for the ultimate goal of your actions, but what actually happens. This means that sometimes a faithful person might find himself on the wrong side of the law, because following it slavishly would have had an effect deleterious to the common good. A person in a corrupt dictatorship might have to lie, for instance, or steal, or even kill to help bring about freedom for the people. A political demonstration in favor of a prisoner in a banana republic might lead to his death, and so what is planned as an _expression of noble thoughts and goals might vector into unwitting partnership oppression. Ethics, for Niebuhr, was not just about keeping your hands clean and remaining technically sinless yourself. It was about the community, and the actual results of what we do. He did not counsel acquiescence in the face of evil, but insisted that an ethical agent consider all possible outcomes of what he proposes to do, not just what he hopes will happen and what he intends.

How might this relate to the issues of uncleanness we confront today? To the impasse many feel, desiring to be obedient to the seven passages in scripture that condemn homosexual behavior and faced with the undeniably faithful ministry of many openly gay laypeople and clergy who have worked in the Church ever since there was a Church? To other hard places -- the prohibition against divorce, and the suffering and alienation from the Church that our strict adherence to it caused when it was canon law? To the Biblical injunctions against women's leadership in churches? All are in scripture, and one way to remain clean is to be painstakingly true to scripture.

But is "clean" the same as "good," every time? Can God not sanctify what was formerly unclean, doing something new and bringing joy out of sorrow and hope out of despair? We decided that God could do that at the beginning of our Church's life, when the nascent church, after a struggle not unlike the one in which we are engaged today, decided that the many Jewish laws concerning circumcision, food, and virtually every aspect of daily life were not the center of the Gospel. They were community-relative, arising out of the singular Jewish experience, not essential to Gentile converts.

When missionaries brought Christianity to Africa, one of the things they encountered was the widespread practice of polygamy. Societies were built on it: it was a means by which women lived in families and survived, ensuring enough births to continue the societies in which the people lived. Some African bishops in the Anglican Church had multiple wives, causing concern about how their leadership might be honored in the face of a violation of the letter of the law in scripture, which states that a bishop should be "the husband of one wife."

Wisely, the African bishops were not required to divorce all but the first of their wives. It was understood that the practice of polygamy arose out of their culture, and was not a central part of the faith. Turning the extra wives out into the world to fend for themselves in a patriarchal culture would have been a much greater evil than allowing them to live in the polygamous marriages to which they were accustomed, regardless of western horror at such a custom.

It was the Pharisees who criticized the Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands. They had lost the ability to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral and took the easy way out of making that judgment -- everything was central. There was no peripheral.

But there are gradations of importance in human behavior. All actions are not the same. Eating a shrimp isn't just as bad as murder. We cannot escape the necessity of using our judgment to decide things. We can't get out of looking at the whole picture, and we can't just look at our role in it, either. Christian ethics is never just about whether my own hands are clean. It's also about what I might allow to happen to you.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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