Spiritual Pollution, Part 13: Jesus and the gospel of Mark

Having reviewed four case studies where purity logic trips up the church, I'm concluding this series with two posts about the suspension of contamination sensitivity in the NT. In this, I hope to end this series with some hopeful conclusions.

I want to start with the gospel of Mark and the analysis provided by the liberation theologian Fernando Belo (1981) in his "A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark."

In this book, Belo suggests that the world in which Jesus enters was struggling with two different visions, two competing conceptions of "sin." The first system Belo calls the "contagion/pollution" system. The other system he calls "debt/violence."

Belo describes the contagion view of sin:

"In Israel, then, as in other human societies, the symbolic system is organized first and foremost as a defense against the violence of contagion, the impurity of the confused and formless…The rational organization of productive work and everyday life therefore requires taboos relating to pollution and warding off the threatened danger which pollution represents. The focal points of the symbolic systems are centers of purity from which is excluded the impure, the misshapen, the undifferentiated, anything that breaks down forms…Pollution means confusion and the dissolution of the elements involved; it is a curse. People reject it to the point of avoiding even simple contact or touching, since impure is so violent as to be contagious. It brings death. (pp. 38-39)"

These “centers of purity” were, as Belo describes, “centers of consumption”:

"In Israel the symbolic field was organized around three centers, each of which corresponds to one of the three instances of social formation. All three were centers or foci of consumption: the table, the “house” (in the sense of a group of kinspeople), and the sanctuary...(p. 38)"

This analysis is interesting in that we see an intermingling of core and sociomoral disgust in first century Palestine, where food aversions get generalized to sociomoral spaces such as table-fellowship, familial affection, and religious participation. Thus, in the gospel of Mark, certain persons, based upon appraisals of contagion, were excluded from these sociomoral spaces. These “unclean” people were denied table-fellowship and access to sacred spaces such as the temple. Into this milieu Jesus enters preaching a subversive message that undermines the contagion view of sin by allowing the “unclean” entrance into the “family space.”

Belo suggests that Jesus decisively casts his vote against this contagion view of sin and stood decisively behind the other conception of sin in Isreal: debt/violence. Belo describes:

"There is another kind of violence that must be forestalled by prohibiting it…The violence takes the form of human aggression; the system of prohibitions I shall call the debt system (the word “debt” usually being translated sin). Like the first system, this involves two principles, gift and debt, which are mutually exclusive, as are pure and polluted…[the aggressive impulse] operates in everything that attacks the body: theft, murder, aggression, hostility, desolation. (p. 39)"

So, yet again, we find an independent theological analysis converging upon the dynamics of disgust psychology, this tension between disgust and love. Specifically, Belo’s contagion and debt formulations of sin fit nicely with what we have learned regarding the relationship between sociomoral disgust and love. Belo argues that the systems of contagion and debt were fighting for the hearts and minds of Israel. Contagion separated the pure from the contaminated, regulating the unclean to the “outside.” But these sociomoral barriers were forms of structural violence, sins of debt, failures of love. But to dismantle these sociomoral barriers in the name of love/justice, by, for example, admitting the unclean to table-fellowship, would violate the purity codes. The two systems were at an impasse.

This struggle—How do you define sin and righteousness?—Belo argues, provides the backdrop for the gospel of Mark. Belo argues, starting in Chapter 1 and culminating in Chapter 7 of Mark, Jesus reformulates the contagion view of sin. Specifically, what "defiles" us, Jesus suggests, is our failure of love. That is, Jesus subordinates concerns over purity to issues of justice and love. As Belo concludes, Jesus gives “the debt system a privileged place over the pollution system” (p. 144).

What I think Belo is suggesting is that the religious goal of obtaining and maintaining "purity" will fundamentally be a violent act. The very act of defining purity places some people on the margins. So the goal of the church is to give up notions of purity and focus only on extending the radical hospitality of the Kingdom to all. In short, love should decisively trump notions of purity.

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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 13: Jesus and the gospel of Mark”

  1. Forgive me for being so full of comments tonight; as I mentioned it's my first night on your blog. I'd say, based on what I see here of Belo's argument, that it is questionable on several counts. First, reading Mark 7:1-23, I don't see anything to support a reading that Jesus is overthrowing a purity system in favor of a debt system; first his list of things inside us that make us unclean are quite a grab-bag and include sexual immorality (in various forms) at least 3 times. Also Christ uses "cleansing" in reference to his own work at times. Also, I'd question whether it's correct to say a purity system which includes Christ is necessarily one with structural violence, since Christ is in place to restore and cleanse and (as you mentioned elsewhere) reverse the defilement.

    And then ... forgive me ... but if there were no barrier to overcome, one of your other arguments would seem to suggest that there was not much to evidence our love without a disgust-barrier being overcome.

    But I'd like to hear you out on this.

  2. While I agree that the notion of purity vs unclean definitely separates in a violent manner, I don't see how any human could ever be "pure" enough to merit violence against another individual.  In this metaphor, only G-D is pure and though we are to strive for His purity, to be Holy as He is Holy, we cannot achieve this.  Only G-D has the right to violently cast us out of the community (Eden).  If Jesus was contrasting purity to debt I think it was only because He was offering the only possibility to be pure.  In Him we are pure enough to be a part of the fellowship.  The Pharisees mistakenly believed that they were pure enough to judge the sheep from the goats (another metaphor you might add to your list).  Jesus did a pretty good job of pointing out that they weren't as pure as they thought.  And like you say, a single drop of sewage makes the wine contaminated.  We are all contaminated.  Maybe rather than thinking of Christ's redeeming blood as "contaminatable" wine we can employ the metaphor of the cleansing fire.  No matter what you put into the fire it is still pure fire.  No matter how much sewage we give Christ He purifies us and accepts us into His community.  But without Him we are all impure.

    Secondly, for the purified to judge the impure, that is to ostracize the impure or separate people with violence, is like the servant who's debt was forgiven but then turned around and demanded payments from the poor man who owed him.  The purified are always going to be formerly impure.  Only one who has always been pure, and in the Christian tradition this is Jesus, has the right to separate.  Instead He chose to join us all to Him in love.  Therefore, shouldn't we too choose to join together in love?

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