Thursday, January 01, 2009

Fred Clark's New Year's Challenge

Excellent homily for 2009.
Be sure to check out the "Abominable Shellfish " link.

Clean shoes

Earlier this month we witnessed the Shoes Heard 'Round the World, when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi chucked both of his shoes at President George W. Bush during a Baghdad press conference.

This prompted a slew of articles helpfully explaining that al-Zeidi was expressing anger at Bush -- as though his gesture had somehow been open to any other interpretation. When this quaintly exotic foreign man called the president a "dog," these articles further explained, this was also meant to express contempt. In the Arab world, the articles all said, shoes and dogs are regarded as unclean.

Here's a taste of this sort of thing in our paper:

Taken off and thrown at someone, a simple pair of shoes becomes the most egregious of insults in the Arab lexicon -- a way of telling a person that he or she is held in the highest contempt. ...

"The whole idea of throwing the shoes is trying to say, 'You're beneath my feet, you're worse than dirt,' " said Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. ...

Shoes hold a special position at the top of insults in the Arab world because they are dirty, used to tread on the ground. That's why Muslims remove their shoes to pray. Even sitting cross-legged with the sole of a shoe, or a bare foot, pointed at another person is seen as disrespectful.

Blah, blah, blah, etc.

But none of the many such reports I saw in print, online or on cable TV recognized that this wasn't news for many Americans. We already knew all about Middle Eastern attitudes toward the uncleanness of shoes and feet because we learned about it in church. We learned about, specifically, when we told and retold one of our favorite stories about Jesus.

In Jesus' day, feet were regarded as unclean because they really were unclean. They were filthy, in fact. And so Jesus did what he always did whenever he was told that something or someone was unclean:

... He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Getting down on his knees and taking unclean things in his hands was more than just a pattern with Jesus -- it was something like an obsession. This goes beyond a mere motif or refrain in the Gospels. Jesus looked at the purity codes and the holiness codes and the long lists of people and things that were unclean and never to be touched and he treated these like he was collecting points on a scavenger hunt.

Lepers, women, Samaritans, Samaritan women, menstrual women, gentiles, Romans, collaborators, dead girls, cripples, prostitutes, crazy naked guys in cemeteries -- the Gospels read like Jesus was on a three-year sprint to touch, to embrace, as many unclean people as he possibly could. And that meant, according to the same set of rules that he was so determinedly violating, that he was unclean as well.

This just isn't how holy men are supposed to behave. Holy men are supposed to be, you know, holy. There are rules, after all. And there's a word for people who break those rules -- particularly for people who break them with gleeful abandon. Those people are called sinners.

Yet here's the strange thing. Despite his transgression obsession, despite his embrace at every turn of Those Who Must Not Be Touched, Jesus insisted that he was blameless.

This infuriated and confused many of Jesus' contemporaries, just as it infuriates and confuses many of our contemporaries. We can't just throw out the rules, they protest -- that would lead to chaos, anarchy, antinomianism, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria.

It would be less confusing if Jesus had been merely an anarchist. But he wasn't. His vision of utopia -- a utopia he insisted was already becoming a living reality -- was not a lawless anarchy, but a kingdom. Granted, it's the sort of kingdom in which the king wraps a towel around his waist and kneels to wash the filthy feet of his subjects -- the sort of kingdom for which we have no model, no comparison, and which we probably can't fully fathom. But, still, it's a kingdom.

So what are we to make of this anarchist king, this unclean holy man, this walking contradiction and his embrace of everyone we'd been taught to think of as unclean?

Here I turn again to a story from the Book of Acts. We looked at this story a few years ago (see "The Abominable Shellfish"), but it's worth revisiting, because this story finds Simon Peter wrestling with this very question of clean and unclean.

A man named Cornelius wants to join the young church. He says, actually, that God wants him to join the church. But Peter has a problem with this because Cornelius is unclean. The man is a gentile, a Roman -- a Roman centurion, in fact. And the rules are pretty clear about the uncleanness of such people.

This new community, this new kingdom, is supposed to be inclusive. Peter knows that. The multicultural miracle at Pentecost, after all, poured forth out of his very own two lips. But surely there must be some limit to this inclusiveness. Rules are rules.

Plus, truth be told, Peter doesn't really like Roman centurions very much. Roman centurions tortured and killed his friend, the best man he ever knew. That probably gives Peter a more substantial grievance against Cornelius than most of us can claim for wanting to exclude as unclean the people we don't want to welcome.

But no matter his reasons, God made it clear to Peter that such exclusion simply wasn't kosher. God sent Peter a vision, spelling that out explicitly. And Peter being Peter, and God knowing him well, God sent that same vision three times.

Peter's rooftop vision didn't mention Cornelius in particular, or even Romans in general. On the surface level, it didn't have anything to do with them. It seemed to be about diet: Peter was shown a big tablecloth covered with pork and bacon and shellfish and calamari, and he heard a voice from heaven telling him, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

This vision, this very story, is the explicit reason that to this day Christians feel free to eat things like pork and bacon and shellfish and calamari, even though the Bible says, unambiguously and explicitly, that eating such things is "an abomination." We've decided, based on this vision and this story and this passage from the Book of Acts, that these abominable things are no longer abominable. This passage is why we "pick and choose" (as Jack Black Jesus sings), deciding that some abominations are now OK while others aren't.

But if we're going to pick and choose abominations on the basis of this story, then we ought to get this story right. Because to read this passage as primarily about giving us license not to eat kosher is an indefensible interpretation.

That's not what Peter himself understood this vision to mean. And it's not what Luke took it to mean either when he wrote this story down. Luke tells us that the very next day Peter went to Cornelius' house, and once there he provided his own, definitive interpretation of his vision.

"You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him," Peter said. "But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean."

Not a word there about calamari or bacon. That's not what the vision was about. It was about people. God has shown us that we should not call any person impure or unclean -- that we should not treat any person as impure or unclean.

So here's an invitation or a challenge for the New Year: Sign up for the scavenger hunt. Take the Big List of the unclean and the untouchable and turn it upside down and inside out. Seek out those people instead of avoiding them. Touch them and let them touch you.

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