The Moral Unclean

By Brian Carr

We, as Christians, have a problem with morality.

By this I mean that we think we have issues of morality figured out. We think that we have become the ultimate definers of what it means to be a good and moral person. We think that we have explored the Bible enough that we can make these types of judgments, in completely objective and conscious fashions.

The problem with this is that we really don’t know what defines morality, especially on a universal level. We are also biased in ways that we are not fully aware of, in ways that define the morality of a person based on ideas we are subconsciously carrying with us.

Let’s start with two examples – cleanliness and the idea of negativity dominance.

Have you ever heard the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness”? It is a phrase said most often by our parents when they were trying to get us to clean our rooms or pickup our toys (for the record, this never worked for my mother). It is also a phrase that does not appear in the bible, and Christians educated on the myths of the bible are often quick to point this out.

While this specific phrase is not in any of the biblical texts, the concept is central to how Jews understood both sin and the idea of connecting to God. And because this concept was central to the Hebrew Bible, it has naturally rubbed off on Christians, even if we continually attempt to distance ourselves from the “old” testament.

Cleaning rituals were of utmost importance in the Hebrew Bible. Many sins could be dealt with by taking part in cleansing rituals. Many sins could be dealt with by sacrificing a clean animal. Being physically clean was the name of the game for many Jews. This thought also invaded the New Testament (uh-oh!) with Jesus’ death having the power to “wash away sins” and washing believers as “white as snow.”

Spiritually cleanliness was intrinsically tied with physical cleanliness. “So what does this have to do with us now?” you might be asking. “We don’t follow cleansing rituals or sacrifice any animals, clean or unclean!” And you would be right. We may not follow those practices anymore, but we still follow the concept of physical cleanliness having something to do with spiritual cleanliness.

Whether we realize it or not, we still associate being physically dirty with somehow being immoral. I can’t tell you how often I have heard people complain about someone being “under-dressed” at church or “needing a haircut” to look less like a homeless person. We have an idea that in order to be present with God in church, we must be showered, well-manicured, and dressed nicely. I remember reading a study by a pastor who would go into churches dressed and smelling like a homeless man, and he was never greeted warmly or invited back to the church.

When we associate dirtiness with immorality, we want to immediately expel and exclude these dirty people. This is because we subconsciously believe in a concept called negativity dominance. Negativity dominance suggests that when a positive and negative force meet, the negative force will make the positive force negative, rather than the other way around. Part of the Jewish cleansing rituals was a period of isolating yourself from society. This was because of the belief that unclean people could make clean people unclean. So if you had done something to make yourself unclean, you had to get away from others because you were now able to make people unclean simply by your presence. The negative would always be able to ruin the positive. 

This is why the Pharisees would be appalled by Jesus interacting with the unclean people of the society, those who were excluded and on the fringes. The Pharisees assumed that the unclean people would make Jesus unclean. They could not fathom the concept of Jesus being able to clean them simply by HIS presence. Negativity dominance was the norm for the Pharisees. Jesus came to make positivity dominance the new norm.

So what does all of this have to do with Christians being the champions of morality? It shows us that we subconsciously define people’s morality based on something as arbitrary and unimportant as cleanliness. It shows us that we are defining morality based on things that have nothing to do with morality. What other things are we incorrectly attributing to someone’s morality? Before we start to decide whether someone is a good person or not, it is crucial that we first recognize the biases we carry in defining this morality. If not, we are in danger of becoming the Pharisees who exclude Jesus’ ministry and build up boundaries that don’t let God in.