There are days I would love to ignore the rest of the world—to stay off Facebook, leave the television screen blank, and toss the newspaper in the recycling bin unread. It is not simply that the news is so often bad: threats of war with North Korea, corruption in the highest levels of government, once respected men brought down by sexual misconduct, innocents gunned down by those meant to protect them. No, it is how we respond to all this. How we seem to hate each other!
Perhaps we always have. But these days the power of social media has given everyone the power to vent their spleen in public whenever they want. Every savvy consumer of social media will tell you never to read the comments on a post. Your already low opinion of humanity will plunge even further. Snarling mockery, cruel insults, and savage shaming are the norm. Pulling the proverbial covers over one’s head seems preferable.
Unfortunately, this is no less true of the religious world than it is of the political world. People of faith are as given to snarls and slurs as those in the political world. Consider the cruel and demeaning comments to any somewhat controversial religious post (or post-er).
The myth of purity says, if we could expel the troublesome “other” from our community, our problems would
One of the unfortunate outcomes of the Reformation is what I call the “myth of purity.” According to this myth, if we could just expel the troublesome “other” from our community, things would be great and our problems would be solved. Except that, however often this has been tried, it has failed and failed miserably. It has succeeded only in creating additional groups of people who are pursuing their own myth of purity and expelling those they view as other. And this is a problem of both conservatives and liberals. Each group has their own myths of purity and their own desires to expel the other. It is distressingly human to want to expel the communal irritant.
So, we think, things would be so much better if we could only get rid of those terrible fundamentalists, those awful liberals, those wretched open and affirming people, those bigoted homophobes, the egalitarians or complementarians, the advocates of the patriarchy or the radical feminists, the closet white supremacists or the devotees of Black Lives Matter—the list could be extended. If we could expel the deadly poison of the other, we could be “pure.”
But this is a myth. In fact, the real deadly poison is the insistence that we must expel those who irritate us, those we think are wrong. Henri Nouwen once said that a community is the place where the person you get along with the least moves in next door. In community we need our enemies, our opponents—we need those who are simply wrong. Because however wrong they are—and I would never want to imply that it doesn’t matter where you come down on some of these issues—we need their voices. How can we learn from, love, or correct the other—or ourselves—when we can’t hear them? When we don’t see them?
To expel is easy and cheap. It makes us more comfortable. It may make us feel superior if we have excluded all those disagreeable people who threaten our unity. But it is not honest, and it does not lead to health, truth, or justice.
And so I keep gnashing my teeth and reading the news. I struggle with my own desires to expel and expunge and, in all honesty, my own desires to snarl and slur. (And I admit sometimes I do snarl and slur.)
Lately parents have been warned that using too much hand sanitizer to remove germs can have the opposite effect intended. It can make a child more, not less, susceptible to disease. Sometimes we can be too pure. In the end, being too pure can make us sick unto death.