Summer Reading Group: Sex and Privy

October 12, 2015

This is the ninth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the tentative reading/posting schedule here.

At the start of Unclean, Beck quotes from a Walt Whitman poem:

This is the meal pleasantly set…this is the meal
and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as for the righteous
I make appointments with all.
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept woman and sponger and thief are hereby invited…
the heavy-lipped slave is invited… the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

According to Beck, the theology of sacrifice requires that we distinguish between the “holy” and the “unclean” or “impure,” embracing the former and expelling the latter to protect the integrity of our communities. By contrast, the theology of mercy imitates Jesus’ open fellowship and follows the counsel of James: it does not discriminate and does not exclude.

Sacrifice says “I told you not to associate with immoral people... Don’t even sit down to eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). Mercy says, “I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts… Zacchaeus, I must stay in your house today” (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:5). Mercy sits down to eat with “such people,” regardless of the discomfort of the “righteous.” Sacrifice and mercy are inversely proportional, they both have theological and psychological roots, and while neither impulse should be easily dismissed, we can’t split the difference between the law and the Spirit.

“As any self-reflective person knows,” Beck writes, “empathy and moral outrage tend to function at cross purposes. In fact, some religious communities resist empathy, as any softness toward or solidarity with ‘sinners’ attenuates the moral fury the group can muster.” Since I started paying attention to this dynamic about six years ago, I’ve noticed it impacting several populations in the Adventist fellowship, from divorced couples, smokers, and artists to LGBT+ people,* theologians, and science professors. Once sacrifice displaces mercy as our corporate norm, we’re motivated to find every reason under heaven to justify and protect it. Beck unwittingly demonstrates this as he lays down the reasoning for his chapter on sex, the privy, and the private.

Jody Washburn reviewed Chapter 3, which introduced us to George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s research on metaphors and cognition. Metaphors aren’t reality, but they structure reality by framing our cognition about reality. They tie our awareness of our bodies to our perceptions of relationships with and in the world around us. And they are resistant to logical challenge.

For example: Beck perceives purity metaphors’ unique impact on Christian discussions of sexuality. He understands that purity-regulated sexuality entails shaming, dose insensitivity, negativity dominance, and exclusion; the network of emotions and behaviors that compose disgust support secret-keeping, and the penalty for breaking purity taboos is very deep. Yet on page 50, he insists “I am not suggesting that sexuality shouldn’t be regulated by purity metaphors.” Oh? The metaphor produces bad psychological and social fruit, and Jesus made a clear choice about it during his lifetime here, but Beck refuses to suggest that modern church members stop eating from the metaphorical tree (pp. 83-84).

Another metaphor that Beck describes but fails to question is that of the Great Chain of Being that orders all life: the chain, which he calls the “order of creation,” flows from the Divine to angels and humans and ends with beasts at the bottom (p. 50-56). This metaphor and its entailments lie beneath Beck’s discussion of social moral disgust, permanent negativity, and “humanity” lost or “imago Dei” degraded by sin or norm violations (infrahumanization). Our being made in the image of God connects humankind to the sacredness of God, but somehow that beingness can be violated, and so violations of human dignity through violations of purity are desecrations of the divine-in-humanity. This is the same divinity-purity-degradation matrix Dwight Nelson used in 2009 to proclaim sex as a potential threat to the sacred body-temple.

And so I became suspicious of Beck's we well before chapter 10: he seems determined to keep that Aristotelian Great Chain. Along with the Chain, Beck insists a ranked division between the human self and the sacred Other, and an incredibly fragile sense of humans' place on the ontological scale. “The divinity ethic,” the ethic that addresses respect, propriety, and reverence, “keeps humanity from sliding downward into the bestial, animalistic, or savage,” he writes (p.55).

How, I wondered, could human dignity be so fragile? Surely human dignity, and any rights and responsibilities that might flow from it, can only be secure if rooted in our nature, what we are, not in the fickle realms of culture, era, or sociologically governed systems of behavior. But Beck shows how fragile he thinks human dignity is as he assumes and projects outward disgust at and fear of human nakedness, urination and other natural functions, and other elements of the “private” part of life (p. 56). For Beck, nakedness implies “the bestial” and movement “away from the sacred.” I agree with him that this is a common normative judgment. I disagree that it's an appropriate one.

Even when there’s no risk of actual physical, direct harm, we judge things, people, and experiences to be contaminants, fear contact with or exposure to them, and express emotions of disgust and revulsion about them. Our a priori judgment feeds our revulsion, and our disgust fuels our policing of personal and social boundaries. Physiological taboos like those about diet and personal grooming (e.g. Leviticus 11, 19) come to serve cultural norms and customs, but we can be so invested in the social that we will use disgust to regulate others and not just ourselves, to justify expelling the Other from our midst unless they comply with our fears.

Under the strain of the logic of human sacrifice—It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not—intimate relationships buckle. Parents feel compelled to choose between participating in their children’s lives and loyally applying the church’s teachings about them. Church employees are punished for participating in LGBT+ relatives’ family events. Friends declare they “know better” than to stay close to someone they've known for nearly two decades, whose orientation is bisexual and not heterosexual. “Matthew 18!” they say to one of the few group members who has stayed in touch; they assume that his moral responsibility is to disapprove, distance, and deny a nearly two-decade friendship and judge him when he fails to agree. Two ministers, both heterosexual, have each proposed that Adventist congregations consider harm reduction: ways they can become less contentious, more spiritually nurturing environments for sexual minorities. Colleagues have mockingly dubbed one “the gay pastor” and Adventist administrators have blocked or banned the other from speaking in local churches.

These scenarios represent hundreds that I could share, are mirrored in families and social networks around the world, and demonstrate the ground-level conflict between Christian sacrifice and Christ-like mercy. “Whenever the church speaks of love or holiness, the psychology of disgust is present and operative, often affecting the experience of the church in ways that lead to befuddlement, conflict, and missional failure” (p. 90). We hear “compassion” and watch pastors threaten members with censure and disfellowshipping. We read the “academic freedom” policies and find professors having to negotiate with administrators to publish legitimate research in their fields. Disgust, repulsion, and purity consciousness inform all of this.

But Beck refuses to reconsider some of his key premises. For example, he describes the post-Reformation recovery of the ministry of all believers as a change that “diminishes” the church rather than as a revelation that helps restores communion to the Body of Christ. By retaining the dyads of higher/lower, Spirit/body, divine/beastly, he also retains the binary ranking that elevates one item in each pair over the other. To move “higher” is positive growth. To move “lower” is a degradation. The result: For God to incarnate, to not merely masquerade as human but to be human, is a “shocking disgrace” rather than God joyfully setting holiness loose in the world. And for humankind to consider god-likeness the “goal to be reached” is the inferior’s dream, Babylonian grasping at what doesn’t rightfully belong to us, rather than God’s children more fully expressing the image of their Father (pp. 69, 78-85).

Disgust, revulsion, and contamination fears are all central to our concepts of sin and holiness. As such, they influence our individual and collective boundaries and our notions of hospitality—literally who we invite for dinner, who we fail to invite, and whose invitations we withdraw (pp. 80-81). Kin members who violate our norms are subject to the indifference, instrumentality, and inhospitability we reserve for the compromised Other.

We will deposit the Other’s tithe, use the Other’s talents, and report the Other’s evangelism outcomes, but they may not join our committees, lead our ministries, or share in our ordinations. These distinctions are all failures of table fellowship: they preserve the dominating fear of pollution, entail hierarchy, imply the Other’s inferiority, and corrode the intimacy that should otherwise characterize the Body. Christ modeled an open table and wisely left it behind for us. It is, as Beck says, a teaching intervention (pp. 111-119, 132-34). If hospitality is one of the ways we make manifest the reign of God, the New World is here but its heralds are in denial.

There is a vast difference in receiving welcome, refuge, or table fellowship from chilly, hostile, and begrudging hosts versus the embrace of warm, affectionate, and big-hearted hosts. One can literally feel the difference.” —Richard Beck

“Just because you leave the door open for somebody doesn’t mean that they feel welcome.” —Marco Rogers

Welcome takes work. It can’t be forced or faked, and neither can the strength of heart that makes “no difference between them and the rest.” We’re making room in ourselves, not in “the church” because the church isn’t ours to possess or purify, it’s a whole that we’re members of. Ultimately we’re yielding room in the temple of the Holy Spirit for the Other who is, like us, God's creation and embodied likeness. First, we’ll have to transcend existential angst and our dissociation from what it means to be embodied and human.

I don’t resonate with Beck's bodily revulsion. He goes so far as to call the union of spirit and flesh “offensive” though the writer of Genesis called human creation and inspiration “very good.” It’s because of this offense/degradation premise that Beck accommodates anxiety about mortality, the body, and all things related to it including sex. While he claims this anxiety is the root of the church’s dysfunctional treatment of difference, he never releases it himself.

None of the angst is necessary. We don’t have to be repulsed by what we are. We don’t have to flee this mortal coil or “refuse God full access to the world” (p. 156). We don’t have to fret about losing our tenuous status between angels and beasts of burden. For a religion built around remarkable stories of incarnation, I’d think we’d have a better handle on this than we do.

Fear, guilt, and shame all flow from an under-examined, unchallenged sense of corporeal inferiority. Not all of us aspire to be angels; some of us are satisfied with bearing the impress and image of God. Our station doesn’t need to be grasped and cannot be lost. Why is it such a scandal to be human? To what end do Christians keep drawing these boundaries around the light of the world and the salt in the soil, following Cotton Mather and Sigmund Freud in bowing to the primal fear of death and justifying the exclusion of the stranger? Beck never explores what could be possible were we to accept mortality rather than resist it, and embrace the body rather than cloak it in scandal. “The connection—soul and spirit with semen and sweat—is offensive,” Beck writes. That “offense” doesn’t compute for me, and the discomforts beneath it desperately need resolving.

These discomforts need resolving because we teach that God was so committed to the body that He came to live in one with all that the life cycle entails, and He wasn't diminished or degraded by doing so. Instead, participating in that life, we’re freed to embrace our own bodies and limits—even death loses its sting—and we’re also strengthened to embrace the bodies and limits of others. I entirely agree with Beck that the common Christian “flight from the ‘brass tacks’ of human existence is, at root, a form of denial.” And I noticed that Beck himself avoided several of the brass tacks in the Sex and Privy chapter!

Our denial is deep and it overshadows our dinners. How can we possibly experience “abundant life” unless we release it?

Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD, lives and works in the MD-DC Metro region, and writes at


* LGBT+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other identities including intersex, queer, and asexual. Bisexual people are not “homosexual,” and transgender and intersex people may have any orientation, including "heterosexual."

As much as social group terms change over time (compare Negro > Afro-Caribbean > Black), it’s a painless expression of good will to use the most current consensus terminology for the people you’re referring to. When engaging specific individuals directly, use the terms that they use to describe themselves. Listen for their example and ask respectfully if you’re uncertain.



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