Expelling the Poison

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
be solved.

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.

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  1. Yours is a timely article and yet your choice in phrasing reveals an example of the very real problem… “innocents gunned down by those meant to protect them” is provided as an uncontested, irrefutable example of news yet it is mostly inflammatory rhetoric. The counter point … those gunned down by the ones they are employed to protect … is seldom discussed, never validated and almost uniformly challenged by those I read in this publication and by those I hear within the denomination.

    I am glad you stated “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…” I appreciate the sentiment “unity is never to be bought at the expense of truth” (John McArthur I think). That fact seems lost among those wanting “conversations”. There are right and wrong viewpoints and Jesus did not have conversations about these areas rather he promptly directed discussion toward helping these individuals see their sinfulness and his answer for their situation.

    I do not believe a perfect church exists anywhere yet recently turned in my membership in this denomination because the signs are abundant as one reads the denomination website and resources as well as this magazines articles and comments and as one researches the viewpoints of several outspoken professors at North Park that unity is silencing truth. The Freedom in Christ affirmation and challenge to agree on the essentials and allow disagreement on the non essentials has changed even the definition of truth. There will never be purity in any church but I find that leadership in this denomination is missing obvious opportunities for clearly stating truth in order to achieve an appearance of unity. This lack of a stand is encouraging some to believe their sinful viewpoints, which are clearly against current belief statements of the church, are worth conversation. The silence by leadership is misleading and emboldening those holding errant views and at the same time weakening the church stand by allowing more and more of the younger generation to be influenced by the teachings and beliefs of these attractive yet errant pastors and professors.

  2. Well said, Professor! Thanks for the thoughtful reflection. When I read Henri Nouwen’s quote, I thought of a woman in my church who lives in an assisted living community. Whenever she is having trouble with another person or when a staff member is in crisis, she always asks us to pray. “Pray for Sue; she’s not being very nice right now.” She never asks us to help us expel that person from the building; in fact, she is sad when someone moves out. What a good reminder that even though the person we may get along with the least moves in next door, prayer and trust in Christ have the potential for healing love in the body of Christ.

  3. So very sensitive Jay has been in letting us all know that finding the perfect church is not what we seek…if we stay, we will ruin it as we ourselves are not perfect. Having now been a tithing church member in the pew for nine years and realizing the challenge of engaging the congregational life of the wider church, my prayer is that articles like this will be widely spread among the laity so that churches will feel the urgency to send a full compliment of delegates. With the relative low readership of the Companion by local church members…and I grieve this as it is still the best family magazine going and I read it cover to cover…every other way of educating and calling our churches to prayer, as well as giving delegates ample time to have conversations in their churches prior to going to Minneapolis is needed. Thanks for all you are doing.

  4. Thanks for this word. Good food for thought as we approach a potentially disagreeable annual meeting. May the Spirit of God do what it does best in the ECC- cultivating unity in the midst of diversity, clarity in the midst of confusion, and a genuine love and concern for people who are not mirror images of ourselves.

    1. Great thoughts, Jay. It would definitely be easier to expel those that irritate us than have them move next door. Thanks for the reminder to love our neighbor even when we don’t agree with their politics or theology.

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