Purity and Danger in the American Body

It’s certainly been, to use a relatively neutral word, an “eventful” week. Chaos is a better way to describe it. The fallout of the executive order (EO) on the travel ban has shown that the order sits at the intersection of a series of pressure points that connect intimately held, widely polarized, and (for many) previously unexamined values, conflating debates regarding human rights, domestic safety, immigration, religious tolerance, the person of Trump, propaganda, checks and balances in our government, and the failures of our political system, to name but a few. Like kicking over a rock with a scummy underside, it has all been brought to bear at once. Chaos indeed.

Wading through the slanted reporting, fallacious argument, name-calling, headlining, and so on is a herculean enough task. Even the name of the executive order is up for grabs: I’ve seen it alternately called a Muslim ban, terrorist ban, immigration ban, refugee ban, and travel ban. It seems as if there isn’t common enough ground for any sort of productive debate to take place.

Yet I sense that, setting aside closely-related concerns such as executive overreach or Bannon’s role in the Trump administration, attitudes toward the ban itself rotate about one particular moral axis. It’s what causes some to level the criticism that you can’t “be a Christian” and support the EO, and provides equal basis for others like Matt Walsh to defend the EO on the same grounds. In academic circles it might be called the anxiety of “the Other” but for simplicity I will call it the anxiety of “boundaries.”

We all understand the anxiety of boundaries. A standard conservative position toward borders or immigration might go something like this: “I do not lock my doors at night because I do not love the people outside, I do it because I love the people inside.” Boundaries work by delineating order from chaos, safety from danger, integrity from pollution. This is why we create them. Anything beyond the boundary could be good, malicious, or anything in between, but its most important trait is that in being beyond the boundary it is beyond our ability to know it or control it, and therefore it constitutes a threat to the ordered and known world of within-the-boundary.

Anxieties about boundaries are as ancient and as natural as our own bodies. In her seminal 1966 work Purity and Danger British anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that virtually every human society understands the social organism through the metaphor of their own bodies.

“The body is a model for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened and precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures. We cannot possibly interpret rituals concerning excreta, breast milk, saliva and the rest unless we are prepared to see in the body a symbol of society and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.”

She goes on to identify four anxieties that are present in all bodies, physical and social:

“The first is danger pressing on external boundaries; the second, danger from transgressing the internal lines of the system; the third, the danger in the margins of the lines. The fourth is danger from internal contradiction.”

We appreciate external boundaries to society as we appreciate our own skin and devote anxiety to the integrity of what we eat as we are anxious toward political and social absorption. We sense pain or points of breakage or failure in the body as we feel uneasy about crime or conflict between social groups. Anxiety about physical integrity is mirrored in social anxieties toward people that transgress classification, such as unborn babies or intersexual people. One can do this all day with bodily metaphors of infection, reproduction, power, agency, contagion, death… the list goes on.

I’ve always found this line of thinking particularly relevant for us as Christians, a group that self-identifies as the “body” of Christ. Within this theoretical model is a compelling way to read the Bible and I think it has a lot to say about our current political crisis.

Jesus, in his actions and very being, dangerously transgressed virtually every boundary you could imagine as a first century Jew. He polluted himself by contact with lepers, a menstruating woman, a corpse, and all manner of sinners, violating the boundaries designed to protect ceremonial cleanliness. He dealt with tax collectors, Jews who had sided with the Romans representing a threat of internal contradiction. He disrupted the social hierarchy, violating the internal lines of the system in washing his disciples’ feet.

In drawing us to himself Jesus knew that he was taking in a foreign body that was so dangerous to himself that it contained the seeds of his own death, yet he did it anyways.

His sacrifice breached the wall of Jewish chosenness and allowed in the Gentiles. He challenged Jewish external boundaries by teaching of a good Samaritan. In the face of Roman occupation he taught the citizenship of a new kingdom. In his very person he was utterly unclassifiable, blurring the distinctions between God and man, death and life, savior and sufferer. Jesus dissolved all boundaries, embraced the disenfranchised, affirmed all Other-ness.

If we are to be the body of Christ, the makeup of our social organism should naturally defy boundaries, distinctions, and borders as much as Jesus’. We should embrace people from beyond-the-boundary and we should promote a national body of the same design. Perhaps it does not seem practical to expose ourselves to what we may think are the immediate risks of the external border, but we often forget too that the Jesus of the Gospels was not a pragmatist.

Luke 6 (and Matthew 5) record Jesus teaching that if a person should strike you on the cheek, to turn the other one to them. But what if we were to read “the cheek” into the context of a larger social and political body? If a person should detonate a bomb on your cheek, do you turn to them the other? Or drive a semi-truck into your cheek? Fly a plane into it?

I surely do not intend to minimize the immense death and sadness caused by terrorism of the last decade. Just the opposite: I am reminded of what the French man told his son in the wake of the Paris attacks, “They might have guns, but we have flowers.”

This wisdom is more than a coping mechanism for tragedy, it’s a biblical approach to to the present crisis of immigration, refugees, violence, and terror. We can obey the impulse to wall off our borders, close up our gates, and give into fearing our enemies, fearing each other, fearing ourselves, and fearing God, and we can laud ourselves for our pragmatism. Or, we can be the body of Christ and the body of Lady Liberty and through our body politic courageously, empathetically take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse, and the homeless, tempest-tossed.



Further reading: Can Mary Douglas Decode Trump? by Tanya Luhrmann, Howard and Jesse Watkins University Professor at Stanford University’s Anthropology Department


Cover photo depicts immigrants arriving at New York from Ellis Island circa 1912. It is public domain courtesy of the National Library of France.


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