Post-Christian Dirt | Physical and Unspoken Boundaries

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.

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4 responses to “Post-Christian Dirt | Physical and Unspoken Boundaries”

  1. Your suggestions about the reasons for the popularity of John’s baptism were among the most vivid and helpful ideas I gained from our time on Iona. I average about one baptism a week, and I’m sure that the present form of liturgy has far more to do with asserting rigid dirt boundaries than with liberating people into Christ’s new cleanliness. So there’s plenty of potential for rewriting the baptismal mechanisms of cleansing – with and for the people concerned – and I’m determined to have a go at doing that; if you know of anyone else working in that area I’d be fascinated to know.

  2. I’ve been reading The Complex Christ and reflecting on the dirt issues. After a time of asking how to think of the “issue” at hand for me, I was reminded of the interchange at the well Jesus has with the Samaritan. The thing that stands out to me is the choice Jesus made in the dialog. He chose to remain silent about things that didn’t concern him or his purpose to tell her who he is. He didn’t get caught up in her line of thinking, but simply opened up a free way of thinking and relating. The point being that He is the Christ.
    The dirt pile a pharisee makes is not only a hands off for them, it creates a false front for those who feel the initial rejection. Now they have their own angst that keeps them in it.
    He frees us by telling us that it is not what comes from without that makes us unclean. We can go anywhere.
    The new framework that the disciples were offended is “go and tell. Get out of your classified sin management.” The cleansing is Living Water from within, regardless of what brand of dirt.

  3. okay…. I’ve caught up in the the book now. Seems you’ve already thought of the Samaritan and I’ve only mentioned the obvious.
    But it wasn’t obvious when I was still trying to define the “dirt”.
    Eugene Peterson writes that we need the ritual (baptism, communion) because the reality is too large to take in. The mystery is too large and the need for the mystery is too large. The generality of the ritual allows us to bring the full expression of our particular. I see now that people already know they need cleansing and it’s not our job to show them their dirt.
    The rituals we have are not so much about the mechanisms of water or wine. The cleansing comes from being seen. Jesus baptizes and Jesus pours out the wine. His love sees our reality. We realize he sees us. But we are first brought there by loving people who look past our dirt.
    Thank you for the book. I’m looking forward to meeting you at Soliton this August .

  4. Looking forward to it too! Great thoughts. The idea of ritual/symbol is very very important. One of the major problems with fundamentalism (of any flavour) is its taking symbols (multivalent) as signs (single meaning). This always leads to a paucity of faith, and an inevitable construction of hard boundaries.