Purity Tests

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Bible, church, equality, grace, justice, leadership, politics, spiritual formation, theology

There is a fundamental problem with “purity test.” If you hadn’t noticed, the American political scene is in shambles. Neither party is looking all that great and regardless of your personal political leanings, you’re likely not satisfied with all that is Washington D.C.. Here in Northern California the disenchantment is heard across the dial from Mike Malloy and Ed Schultz on the Left to Rush and Hannity on the Right.

One of the reasons – at least in my view – is the idea of purity tests.

For some reason, with America facing undreamed of obstacles, so much of our politics has become about pushing moderates out of the picture in order to anoint pure ideologues. Apparently, the worst thing someone can be in modern politics is reasonable, and if not reasonable, and least malleable, or perhaps possessing the simple ability to make concessions and compromise for the sake of the greater good.  It is a sickness of both the left and the Right. As a matter of fact, both parties have recently had to publicly reject the idea of a “purity test” in order to discern who is and who isn’t “fit” or “right.” You are either all or not at all. That’s how purity works. It’s a binary condition. Either you are or you are not.

Here’s the problem: Purity tests don’t work! At least not in terms of relationships and extending love  and well-being to others. Modern politics only illustrates this long overlooked truth. But this post really isn’t about politics. This is really about you and me and how we interact with others who don’t view faith, life, morality and the world as we do.

Jesus enters ministry when religious teaching was almost entirely about purity tests. It wasn’t just the much-maligned Pharisees either. Both the Sadducees and the Essenes were competing in the Jewish religious marketplace, and all three groups rigorously mandated that a series of highly visible, yet largely superficial, markers be demonstrable in order to illustrate who was in and who wasn’t. They each, in essence, had their own purity tests.

But Jesus bucks the entire system of purity. As you know, the Pharisees had reduced God-following to rules and restrictions codified to build a hedge around the Law. What started as 10 fairly straightforward Commandments had blossomed into a yoke of Law that no one could keep and probably no one wanted to keep. People – like the adulterous woman that was brought and accused before Jesus (John 8.1-11) – who stepped outside the hedge, failed the purity test. And, according to the Law of Moses, should have been stoned. Yet Jesus says, and I’m paraphrasing, “There’s something more important than your purity test.” When faced with the opportunity to apply the thumbscrews of purity, Christ rejects it. And not only in this episode, but over and over, when given the choice to accuse the impure and unclean, Jesus chooses grace.

The reason is simple: Jesus is much more concerned with people than He is purity. He is much more enticed by the prospect of relationships than He is enamored by the purebred. And as holy and giving as Jesus is, He chooses grace over purity not because it is an act of the Divine, but because an orientation of grace is the only way relationships can work! Grace is a thoroughly practical choice. If you choose to extend redeeming love to people, you must choose grace. If you reject them, they won’t hang around long enough to be redeemed. Jesus is teaching us that we have to accept people even if we don’t agree with them.

It’s simple really: Without a fundamental orientation toward grace, there is no way people can be in relationship with one another. For example, if our children are required to do everything specifically as we ask and when we ask, what do we then do when they fail us? Better yet, what happens in marriages when one spouse makes a mistake, or, God forbid, disagrees about a significant issue? What should we do with friends whose opinions differ? Cast them out? Spurn them? Turn our face away? Exclude them? Exclusion, interestingly, is the only place a purity test can lead. Purity Tests only add to the divisions, separations and ruptures in our world. If you are consistently giving others a purity test, soon there will be no more takers. No one can pass your highly personalized test! No one thinks, feels, and behaves exactly like you.

Now before the theological or behavioral police club me to death, I should mention that I am not talking about a lack of accountability or moral standards. They exist and are needed. What I am speaking of is the realization that everyone we know will eventually fail to do the thing we wished they would do when we wanted them to. And if purity is the rubric than each new failing threatens to end the relationship. On the other hand, if grace is the lens with which we see the world, then all people – regardless of who they are and what they practice – are potential allies and friends. They are hearts waiting to be redeemed by God, as my wife might say.

So say “goodbye” purity tests and the natural divisions you bring and “hello” to the embrace of grace.  In the end, it is the only way to have one another.


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