Dirt and Disorder in the American Body

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the recent executive order on immigration and the ban that it entailed, interpreting it through the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas in her 1966 book Purity and Danger. In the post, I argued that our anxieties about borders and immigration, and about the social body at large, reflect culturally bound ideas about our own personal bodies and the ways that we try to control and eliminate pollution in them. I closed with a turn to the Bible, exploring ways that Christian scripture exhorts us instead to break down the barriers, borders, and distinctions that we use to segregate, walls we put up to isolate parts of society that give us anxiety, walls that do harm not just to the gospel but also to our world.

I continue to find these ideas meaningful. I don’t believe it is a coincidence, for example, that political conservatives tend to intimately hold ideas both about sexual purity through asceticism (the pollution of the body by improper or overindulgent sexual contact) as well as beliefs in the value of strict borders and isolationism in the political and social body. It is no more a coincidence that liberals, who regard their bodies loosely and view them more like an amusement park for bodily pleasure, free from pollution by sexual contact, also tend to believe in a global society free from strict or enforced borders. These two ideas, attitudes toward pollution from intimate contact in both personal and social bodies, are linked.

I’d like to return to this discussion by rewinding a bit and talking about how Mary Douglas arrived at these ideas in the first place. Where I looked at outer borders and boundaries in the last post, here I focus on the world inside these boundaries.

Douglas makes her case in the introduction to Purity and Danger. Contrary to the decades-old belief that so-called “primitive” cultural and religious practices were motivated by reverence and fear, she argued that they were motivated instead by the same force that motivates people who observe global religions and Western institutions. This force, she argues, is dirt.

“Hygiene, by contrast, turns out to be an excellent route [to an anthropological understanding of the mind] … As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread of holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning and avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.”

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

This idea seems alien at first. When we think of the act of cleaning, we think of it as the battle against germs. And in fact, some of our cleaning habits are very much about germs. Doing the dishes, bleaching the toilet bowl, and washing bed sheets are all practices that are beneficial to human health.

But what of our other cleaning practices? Organizing the bookshelves for example, or sweeping the floor. Why do we fold laundry, clean the windows, or dust picture frames? Why do we teach our children to put away their toys? It goes beyond simple chores as well: why do we paint and wallpaper our rooms or purchase and hang decorations? The answer is order.

“In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea. There is nothing fearful or unreasoning in our dirt-avoidance: it is a creative movement, an attempt to relate form to function, to make unity of experience.”

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Within the boundary of a room of one’s own (house/apartment/etc) we each of us find a space in which we can create a system of order. We create a sense of safety and security by exerting control on our space, and express ourselves by enforcing our worldview complete with values and personal tastes.

We each tolerate different levels of disorder while still acknowledging the value of order. Some take it to the extreme. Obsessive-compulsive cleaners, for example, cope with trauma by enacting a severe regiment of cleaning routines that produce a strict sense of control over the space, sublimating the sense of powerlessness they feel over the rest of their lives or circumstances. Hoarders, on the other hand, may be coping with the same feeling by surrounding themselves with junk, attaching themselves emotionally to each piece of garbage until it surrounds and comforts them like a giant, fetid embrace.

We do this in bodies at all levels. Germ-avoidance may explain the clipping of fingernails, for example, but not painting them. It may explain protective clothing, but not fashion. In American society we may ask, what is prison? If you think prison is about punishment you are mistaken: there are many kinds of punishment, but prison is about sweeping social dirt into a space where it cannot pollute the vision of a peaceful and just society. This realization is one of the compelling factors in recent calls for social justice through prison reform.

The virtue of hygiene expressing itself as the battle between pollution and order may be found in virtually every culture. In just one example, Douglas details the use of cow dung in Hindu rituals by Brahmin priests: though defiling in a germaphobic sense, the sacredness of the cow means that even its dung has purifying properties in relation to the impurities of mortal men and women, giving it practical value in the ritual cleansing that restores order to the person and to the community.

So it is no surprise to us that we find these ideas at play in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible. Leviticus details the strict laws governing purity and defilement as they are expressed through food habits, menstruation, the sacrificial cult, the handling of corpses, cleansing habits, the confrontation of disease, and practices involving blood, excrement, even water.

Scholars traditionally appeal to these rules on the basis of germaphobic hygiene. Certainly that applies to some, like the regulations about defiling skin diseases in Chapter 13. This cannot tell the whole story, however, as it fails to explain the distinction between cloven-hoof animals and animals that chew their cud in the permitted and forbidden foods of Chapter 11. Furthermore, it does not explain why in New Testament post-Jesus Christian practice such rules no longer apply.

The answer is order. The Hebrew word for holy, קָדֵשׁ, (transliterated a number of ways including kadesh, qadesh, qodesh, qadosh, or k•d•sh) refers to separateness or apart-ness. This is why often you will see it translated in your Bible as “set apart.” It can also lead to clumsy translation. Leviticus 20:26, which in the NIV reads,

“You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

Might be better written,

“You are to be set apart (qa•do•sim) as I, the Lord, am set apart (qa•do•wos), and I have severed you (wa•ab•dil) from the other peoples to be my own.”

Whether the rituals in Leviticus are arbitrary or not is actually beside the point. What we see now is that in ordering the world, setting apart some things and not others, using these categories, the Hebrews were creating a safe and secure space to accommodate a deity so set-apart that his name was unsayable, a space where he could physically live in close proximity to common mortals, who expressed that relationship with their own practice of his laws of set-apartness.

The New Testament does not dismiss these rules out of hand, it merely changes them. The Matthean antitheses are clear that violating the Levitical law is not the source of sin, but that true sin is committed in the heart. The law, in other words, is an expression of the real sin that happens within a person. The author of Mark explicitly interprets the teaching of Jesus to abolish these practices as well:

“And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'”

Mark 7:18-24 (ESV)

The New Testament hammers this message home again and again: Christian holiness is an idea of ordering ones thoughts and desires in such a way as to align oneself with God, and so protect the integrity of the person.

We can promote this perspective in the American body as well. A Christian approach to social order is neither an obsessive-compulsive disorder nor a hoarding behavior, nor is it an amotivational syndrome or disorder of oppositional defiance. It is the practice of Galatians 12, which before laying down the fruits of the Spirit first tells us that we are no longer “under the law.”

In his inaugural address Trump referenced “American carnage.” Conservatives everywhere talk about the chaos and disorder in society right now. I do not feel that this is the state of America, but let’s pretend that it is. Christianity in modern America means we must learn to relax our strict outer boundaries and tight grip on the spaces around us. Christianity is not about enacting and enforcing our own worldview on our fellow Americans and it is not about being a moral majority. The hygiene, the order, that we find in Christian holiness is not the National Guard occupying Chicago nor is it the anxiety of borders that I discussed in my previous post. Christianity is not about control, it is about release.

Maybe dirt isn’t so bad. Maybe Christianity is not about deciding for others what is and is not dirt, or sweeping away social dirt where we think we see it. Maybe it’s about ordering ourselves in such a way as to be Jesus to those who need it, clearing out the dirt in ourselves so we can love others better. The evidence of this is the fruit it produces. Good fruit grows from good trees, and after all, trees grow in dirt.

Cover photo is an unlicensed stock photo. It is free for use in the public domain.


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