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Sunday, March 21, 2021

Cleansing | Fifth Sunday in Lent 2021

"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."Psalm 51:7 NRSV

"Cleanliness is next to godliness" is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but the laundry detergent ads would have us think it should be.

When I was a young child the Wisk ad campaign targeting 'ring around the collar' was in full steam. It had begun in 1968 (I was born in 1975), and it ran for something like three decades. Honestly, it mystified me. My 5-year-old mind lacked context and information to understand what this was all about, but the thought of being called out for it in public—as was often depicted in the commercials—seemed terrible for me. Perhaps changing fashion helped set aside this concern, as fewer and fewer men and boys wear dress shirts regularly. 

Oh, and by the way, it was definitely a misogynistic ad campaign, although they wouldn't have thought of it like that at the time. 

For most of human history our ancestors didn't have regular baths. There's a silly myth that goes around saying that European colonizers learned to bathe from indigenous people. Europeans definitely bathed, though the frequency was generally lower than we would expect today. The change really came about in terms of hygiene within the past century and a half. My great-aunts talked about always bathing on Saturday when they were growing up. They said it was great in the summer because their mother would leave a large basin of water out back in the sun, and by evening when they took their baths it was nice and warm. 

Personally, I'm grateful that there is a fully-equipped bathroom right next to my bedroom, and that just around the corner in the hallway closet there is are machines for washing and drying my clothes. So much better than slowly filling a tub with well water to clean myself once a week, or hauling my clothes to the creek to scrub them clean with rocks and lye soap.

Whatever the sanitary conditions might have been, the ancients were aware of another sense of uncleanness, one that comes from a guilty conscience. Now, a conscience can certainly be misinformed, and a person can feel bad for not holding up ritual practices, failing to meet the expectations of others, and the like. Yet, living in society is fundamental to humanity, and empathy should inform us when we transgress against someone else. This often fails to work, but we're all certainly equipped to cry out that something is 'not fair' when it's our own skin at stake. The basic toolset is there for all but sociopaths; it's just often not used well.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, had been an Augustinian monk with a very guilty conscience. I don't know nor care to think about his personal hygiene, but he was keenly aware of his real and imagined failings. He found in the Bible a 'law and gospel' message that, while not quite true to the earliest theology of the church, gave him respite and a sense of being renewed. He found in 'the just shall live by faith' the washing that his conscience required. 

His solution has become the evangelical one, though it is terribly misused. What for many provides a profound sense of relief and gratitude, others abuse as a license to do as they please so long as they 'have faith,' because they believe they'll be forgiven no matter what. For me it was the former, which, at 17 might have seemed very early in life to have such a guilty conscience (especially given how boring I was). My self-esteem was terribly low, and I was far too hard on myself. The message of a way to 'live by faith' and experience redemption was profoundly compelling to me then.

It is not as common to hear this kind of language in progressive churches. We generally believe that while people have experienced and caused trauma in their lives, they shouldn't be judged for it. I wonder if that isn't at least a small problem. We don't want to make people feel unduly guilty, and yet couldn't there be space and time created not only for collective lament, but for personal experiences of spiritual remission? People should know that they are worthy as human beings of an opportunity to start afresh, make amends as appropriate, and continue on as valued members of the religious community. This isn't a pardon for actual crimes, or a sweeping under the rug of abusive behavior, but rather an intentional effort to bridge the gap between the guilty conscience and personal redemption. It is a promise made by the community to the individual, even if the latter don't confess their specific wrongs (nor should they always need to), that they will be supported and encouraged as they engage in the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

Granted, there will be times when some will need to be sent on their way, particularly if the safety of the spiritual community or any of its members is at stake. Most of the time this won't be the case, and it would be good for people who feel the need for restoration to be given the opportunity to experience a clean and clear conscience.