Purity rules are always about people in the end. The story we tell may be about land or food or clothing. But those material things always represent the differences we construct between people: the insiders and the outsiders, the honorable and the dishonorable, the natives and the foreigners, the good and the bad. We humans love hierarchies, and we will fixate on almost any feature of existence in order to establish a pecking order with us at the top and someone else at the bottom.
I lived in Denver, Colorado, for a few years in the early 1980’s. That was the time of the “Native” bumper stickers. Colorado was a popular place for pilgrims seeking their version of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” They (we, for a while) came from all over the country and all over the world to enjoy the skiing and the columbine, the low humidity and high meadows. It was difficult to find someone who was actually born in Colorado and still lived there.
The few folks who made up the aristocracy of birth began a movement expressed on green bumper stickers decorated with a background of mountain peaks and displaying the title “NATIVE.” This designation placed them above the rest of us mere mortals who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and to feel the need emigrate to God’s country.
There were several edges to this label. “Natives” were, according to some, inherently better than the interlopers and better-suited to their home state. The non-natives were invaders who brought with them all sorts of foreign ideas, customs, and priorities. They (we) were dilettantes who came for the skiing and left when the snow turned to mud. The natives were the only ones really deserving of the best real estate and were deeply resentful of all the outside money that drove up the prices and reduced the inventory.
Non-natives were, somehow, “impure.” Some folks struck back in kind with a variety of parody bumper stickers. There was “Semi-native,” “Naïve,” and “Alien.” My favorite was the one that rejected the whole enterprise. It read “WHO CARES?” Only later did most of us find out that the original idea for the “NATIVE” campaign originated with a transplant named Eric Glade. After a few years the campaign petered out, but the message stuck with me.
It takes very little for us humans to whip up a caste system, out of whole cloth if we need to do so. “A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” writes Isabel Wilkerson, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system,” she continues, “uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places” (page 17).
Wilkerson focuses on the caste systems in India, race-based America, and Nazi Germany to examine the common features of each system. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she concludes, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not” (page 17).
Because of the role of power in caste systems, not every purity system is a caste system. The Hebrew purity system came into being when the people of Israel were in desperate need of an identity they could preserve in the face of the Babylonian imperial juggernaut. The rules about Sabbath, food, and circumcision, were boundaries that helped to identify the Jews as a people and to keep them from being assimilated into the mass of Babylonians.
The purity system did not produce any advantages in that setting. If anything, it created additional problems for the subject people, who might have had an easier time if they had just melted into the Babylonian pot. In that setting, the Jewish purity system was not a way to gain power over others. It was a way to survive as a people. Clinging to that system could cost one their life, as Richard Swanson notes in describing the story of Eleazar as recorded in IV Maccabees.
“All enduring human societies offer their members ways of making sense out of living by providing systems of meaning,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write. “Such systems consist essentially of largely imaginary lines drawn around self, others, nature, time, and space. When something is out of place as determined by the prevailing system of meaning,” they continue, “that something is considered wrong, deviant, senseless. Dirt is matter out of place” (page 222).
It is one thing to have a system that maps out the relationships in life in such a way as to provide a framework of meaning and purpose. But human beings, over time, find it nearly impossible, I think, to resist the temptation to use that system to establish a caste system which affords advantages to the in-group that sponsors the system.
It was one thing to point out that there were still a few “Native” Coloradans hanging around in the sea of newcomers. That was just a fact. And those “natives” could indeed offer some insights into life along and among the great Rocky Mountains. If the “Native” label were regarded as a gift, an asset, something to be offered up for the good of all, it might have been a salutary thing. But it was claimed as a resentful privilege and a mark of preferred purity.
It wasn’t long before a few people noted the astonishing and immoral presumption in the label as well. The real “natives” of the land weren’t white people who happened to have been born within the boundaries of Colorado. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land long before Colorado was even a consideration. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land when the ancestors of the pretenders were still expelling the Romans from northern Europe.
Every human hierarchy is constructed on a false foundation. Jesus understands this, names it, and challenges the presumptions of the purity system in Israel at the time. It’s not the covenant itself that he challenges. It is the way the purity system is now used to underwrite systems and structures of power, to serve self-interest rather than God, and to sustain the divisions constructed to uphold the system in the first place.
Purity rules are always about people in the end. No, that’s not quite right. Purity rules are always about power in the end. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the purity system was based on rules that had meant something quite different in Bronze Age Israel and in Iron Age Judea. Now that system was being used to police the poor, to control women, and to prop up the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Regardless of their intentions, the Pharisees participated in that caste system, and Jesus challenged that participation.
In our own culture, of course, the purity system is based on race. “In very stark and quantifiable terms,” writes Heather McGhee, “the exploitation, enslavement, and murder of African and Indigenous American people turned blood into wealth for the white power structure. Those who profited,” she continues, “made no room for the oppressed to share in the rewards from their lands or labor; what others had, they took. The racial zero sum,” she argues, “was crafted in the cradle of the New World” (page 9).
Our own purity system of race was the story we constructed that made Indigenous genocide and chattel slavery not only possible but positive goods. It is the story that made possible lynchings and Jim Crow laws. It is the story that underwrote redlining and the segregation of schools, medical care, job opportunities, and wealth accumulation that are part of our life today. It is the story that sought to erase real “Natives” from the land and to enslave Africans kidnapped from their homes.
Our own purity system of race is the story that continues to put white males at the top of the hierarchy and to push black people back down to the “mudsills” of society. In the process of pursuing this system, we have created a culture that makes poor white people believe that there’s nothing better than being better than black people, and that any price is worth paying to keep that fact true.
“Since this country’s founding,” McGhee writes, “we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be,” she argues, “And if it were, all of us would prosper” (page 289). When purity systems do nothing but underwrite the existing hierarchies of power, almost everyone suffers – including the parents of that hypothetical person who has dedicated their old age pension to the support of the Jerusalem temple.
“You abandon the commandment of God,” Jesus argues, “and hold to human tradition.” That commandment, as we hear later, is to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Traditions that lead us away from those commandments, no matter how well-intentioned in the beginning, defile all who participate in them. So, the human traditions we call the system of white supremacy make us all dirty – and we white folks most of all.
References and Resources
Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.