If you’ve read the book, you’ll have picked up on the theme of ‘dirt’, and its place in forming communities. Deciding what’s acceptable or unacceptable, what’s ‘in’ or ‘out’, what’s ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ is a way that a society creates its identity… And we only need look at passages like Leviticus 12ff to see just how involved some of these dirt issues could get.
Moreover, once dirt boundaries have been set, the mechanisms of controlling them – monitoring who has fallen foul of them and how they might find cleansing – is a hugely powerful position. Control the dirt mechanisms, and you control society. The Pharisees knew this, and Jesus felt the full force of their anger when he challenged their right to be the dirt-meisters.
I’ve recently been reflecting on how these issues work themselves out in a post-Christian / post-religious context. Is is any different? And I really don’t think much has changed at all. We only need to consider the angst over asylum seekers, gypsy traveller communities, sex offenders living in the community and panic over ‘terrorists’ to see that dirt issues are alive and well.
We live in an increasingly liberal world where physical boundaries are tumbling – the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, cheap flight access to the world. What is interesting is that the decrease in these physical boundaries may appear to be matched by an increase in the experience of unspoken dirt boundaries. And the result of this is increased turmoil and unrest within communities.
People know that they need to be inclusive, non-racist, liberal, and that the law defends all of these things… but they feel uneasy, feel ignored and threatened by ‘dirt’ amongst them. Dirt issues that the tabloids are happy to exploit.
It was precisely such a society that Jesus came in to. Occupied, oppressed, integrated into a huge empire that brought peoples from round the world into their safe, clean society. The mechanisms for cleansing were tightly controlled by the religious right, and messianic panics regularly swept people into chaos.
I wonder if what we see in the popularity of John the Baptist’s ministry is a society crying out for the mechanisms of cleansing to be renewed. Crying out for some new order. A new order that Jesus brought in by challenging the very way people classified what was dirty and clean, thus giving people a new framework upon which a new sort of community could be built. I think it’s a message we need to hear again.