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Summer Reading Group: “Love and Boundaries”


This is the fourth 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 reading/posting schedule here.

Ostensibly, this chapter was written for me: the critic who thinks Beck’s argument is grounded on a false dichotomy between disgust/sacrifice/boundaries/holiness/priestly tradition and love/mercy/justice/prophetic tradition. Unfortunately, I find his answers to that charge not only failed to answer my critique but indeed strengthened my dissatisfaction with his analysis. While I laud his attempts to address the way Christians have generally responded to LGBT individuals and other outcasts, I find his argument in this book simplistic and ill-informed. Admittedly, my concerns may be addressed later in the book, but, at this point, all indications are to the contrary. In this article, I will outline my concerns and present an alternate framework for negotiating “love and boundaries.”

To begin with, while I appreciate his attempt to address the underlying logic of Christ’s encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 9:10-13 in terms of a fear of contamination, his analysis has begun to do violence to scripture itself. While Beck rightfully points out a tension at play in the passage, he argues that it is a dichotomy, a zero-sum game. He reads Christ’s quotation of Hosea 6:6 as literally choosing a side in a dichotomy. Yet, this reading neglects the context of Hosea 6 which is concerned with how Judah has polluted and defiled itself with idolatry—thus undermining the dichotomy (unless we are to read the Old Testament and the New separate from and even in opposition to each other).    

Furthermore, he disregards Christ’s expulsive actions at the temple; the significance of purity and holiness to both Old Testament and New Testament writers, priests and prophets alike; the expulsion of Laodicea in Revelation; and various parables which point to a cleansing or purging, even with fire. Contrary to his claim that Jesus “decisively sid[es] with the prophetic impulse” (as if the prophets never spoke of contamination or defilement), Christ’s involvement with this “dichotomy,” like the priests and prophets before him, is far more complex than simply choosing one or the other.  Certainly, Christ is concerned by an expression of devotion which dehumanizes those deemed less devout, but this does not neatly map into Beck’s dichotomy, nor align with one side against the other.

I believe much of Beck’s trouble is in his wide application of disgust psychology to various issues of church practice and community. He conflates disgust with sacrifice, holiness, boundaries, the “priestly tradition” (whatever that is) and more as things to be completely overthrown in the name of mercy, love, justice and the “prophetic tradition” (an even more problematic phrase). This flattens a number of significant differences in the practice and deployment of these various terms. For instance, he fails to recognize how concerns for holiness or boundaries may be legitimate and loving, rather than mere emotional reactions grounded in disgust. He also fails to consider that holiness or identity may be grounded in anything other than a binary, bounded set.

In part, I believe this is due to an uncritical reliance on Western cultural and philosophical norms. For example, he suggests that the words Western English-speakers use to describe intimacy in terms of spatial closeness or an in/out binary reveal the inherent truth about how humans experience love. Yet, there are other ways, even in our own culture and language, to imagine the practice and/or experience of love—for instance as living alongside another, as sharing experiences, as sharing stories. None of these necessitate exclusion or boundaries in the way Beck suggests. A friend with expertise in First Nations languages explained to me that intimacy and relationships are commonly described in terms of doing things together, rather than in/out boundaries or close/distant spatial mappings. Yet, Beck fails to consider any of this, preferring to simply reiterate the (cultural) given-ness of these binary ways of conceiving the world in order to support his dichotomy.

Perhaps Beck will yet respond to my concerns, but thus far I find his analysis lacking. For myself, I appreciate Derrida’s consideration of love and boundaries under the name of “hospitality.” He identifies a tension in hospitality: in order to host someone, we must have a bounded and controlled place of our own to invite them into; yet hospitality also opens those boundaries and gives over control.  The answer is not to escape this tension but to learn to live in it—to realize that, as Solomon said, there is a time for everything. While Beck certainly identifies this tension in his exploration of love, his answer to it is simply to privilege one aspect over the other–as if they could (and should) be separated. Within Adventism, we have recently begun to consider and respond to problems of child abuse and predation with support and better regulation, rather than falling back on old stories about “love” and “acceptance.” We must exercise reasonable control to prevent predation (especially upon our children) and other forms of violence against ourselves and our communities. Certainly this introduces a difficult tension into our faith, but it remains absolutely necessary.

However, these boundaries need not become the defining aspect of our faith, identity and community. I am reminded of a sermon I once heard from Ty Gibson in which he suggested that our faithour Adventist identityshould be a centered set rather than a bounded set. In short, we should know and be known by our focus on Christ, rather than by who or what we include or exclude. Sometimes this may mean establishing boundaries to protect the vulnerable, while sometimes it may mean tearing down boundaries to reach the vulnerable.  The difficulty is in knowing when to do each. Our goal is not to be more exclusive or more inclusive, nor to be more “priestly” or “prophetic,” but rather to be more Christlike—in all the beautiful, messy complexity of human existence.

David Barrett is co-producer of the Storying Life podcast, and recently completed an MA in English with a concentration in Cultural, Social and Political Thought.

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