Purity and presence

“Can human beings be pure before their Maker?” -Job 4.17

One of the great challenges of living in the twenty-first century is the way we are forced into daily complicity with a system whose values we struggle to embrace.

I want to see a broad-based economic recovery in which the employment rate genuinely rises—but I love it when the stock market performs well and my investments increase in value.

I want a global economy that ensures decent working conditions for all people—but I love the latest electronic gadgets (including the device I am writing this post on) that come out of factories with deplorable conditions.

I want our world to seriously address climate change—but I also want to be able to fly around the world and not worry about my carbon footprint.

The dominant response of our contemporary culture is to make choice the highest good: as long as people are “free” to choose, then surely nothing is wrong with the situation. Invariably, however, it seems I end up “choosing” those things which go against the values I ostensibly prize. To live in our world today is to live in a compromised position.

But no one likes to admit they are compromised. An increasingly common response is to strive for purity.

The Tea Party in the United States finds it focus in a quest for the pure Republican politician, who is not tainted by the compromises inherent in the political process.

Political pressure groups refuse to compromise, arguing that since their way is the only right way, compromising would be a form of moral surrender.

People group together into ever more like-minded groups identified by a series of tribal markings—the clothing brands we wear, the stores we patronize, the cars we drive.

(There are also some really interesting gendered aspects to purity as well, as if purity is somehow the particular domain of women. That, at least, is what I surmise from my Google image search for purity, which returned a number of images of women in various stages of undress.)

But the nature of the world we live in means that all our efforts towards purity are necessarily bound to fail.

For Christians, purity is a false goal. Christians understand that each of us is a flawed, imperfect being—”For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” writes Paul to the Romans (3.23). Despite our best efforts to distinguish the pure (us) from the impure (them), “there is no distinction.”

So perhaps the Christian response to the complicated world in which we find ourselves begins by acknowledging the truth about it all: yes, it’s impossible to live the uncompromised life in this world; yes, some people benefit more than others from the structures of this world; yes, we are each affected and infected by the way in which the world is structured, no matter how hard we may try to pretend otherwise.

Then, having told the truth that purity is a false goal, Christians can begin to point the way to a new future, in which our common imperfection is recognized, redeemed, and transformed in the love of God in Christ.

It’s a complicated, compromised world we live in—best to tell the truth about it, rather than pretend to aim for something impossible.

3 thoughts on “Purity and presence

  1. msharmila2013

    I am hardly the mouthpiece of modern capitalist society and I am absolutely not a virtuous person but… woah

    The first statement, that you are “forced” into complicity – is that really true? Is there literally no other way? Lets say I am hungry and an arms dealer offers me a job, do I have to take the job? Not at all – I can choose to starve. Would I excuse someone who chose to work for an arms dealer rather than starve? Absolutely, but a good Christian is supposed to be better than that no? They know that death has been conquered, that it has no sting, and as such to starve is only to give God more glory, to be poor now is to be rich in heaven, isn’t it?

    There is no forcing going on, or at least not in this country.

    You say yourself, you like when your investments do well, you like your smartphone – you’re not forced to have them just because you like them.

    You don’t have to fly around the world. No-one is obligating you to do that. You wouldn’t even be in a position of significant deprivation without flying, investments (although in terms of a pension that might be debatable) and smartphones.

    You say you choose against your values, but instead of choosing otherwise you condemn the fact you have a choice at all. I find that very strange… grow a spine and choose what you think is right.

    And then, I can’t help but find it strange, instead of really letting it sink in that you are not living up to your own values and repenting or at the very least recognising you ought to repent, you try and get out of having to repent by saying “well we can’t be perfect and God is forgiving, so lets stop trying”.

    I am pretty sure giving up the good fight because it’s too hard is not quite what Jesus was aiming for when he acknowledged that man is weak and demonstrated God’s mercy…

    You ought to aim to be perfect, and remember that you cannot be so, and that insofar as you come even an iota closer it is down to the grace of God. Not shrug your shoulders and slide into passive complacency.

    …this man, this is why Christianity has no appeal anymore, this kind of complete and utter capitulation to sin.

    Secondly, and much more trivially, I question the wisdom of feeling guilty about your smartphone, at least not because of factory working conditions (resource allocation and environmental questions might be more significant). People’s working conditions won’t be improved by not having factories and jobs producing your phone. They will only be improved by regulations being implemented to protect them in their own countries. That is made difficult for various reasons, but by all accounts people are choosing to move to cities and work in these factories rather than live an agrarian lifestyle in the country on farms (which is what they did before) and they are making that choice because doing so gives them disposable income to spend on consumer goods – and they think that the trade of time and freedom (both of which they have more of on mostly family run but not necessarily owned farms) is worth the extra income. That could be because they are young and short sighted and value gadgets and nice clothes over family life – but it’s their choice to make. It’s trendy to pontificate about that stuff but the development trajectory of the countries that produce most of our consumer goods has both good and bad aspects and it’s really a lot more complicated than you make out.

    1. Jesse Zink

      Really good thoughts all around. A couple of responses:

      I’m wary of going for the extreme case right away. Working for a weapons manufacturer poses the dilemma in a particularly easy way to see. I’m more interested in the daily dilemmas we may not even be aware of.

      I agree with this: “You ought to aim to be perfect, and remember that you cannot be so, and that insofar as you come even an iota closer it is down to the grace of God. Not shrug your shoulders and slide into passive complacency.” That’s why I write about opening ourselves to the transforming love of God.

      I don’t own a smartphone. (I wrote this post on a laptop.) There are a number of reasons for this but one is certainly the conditions under which it is produced. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about the whole chain of conditions that leads to a smartphone. My mention of “factories” was a (inadequate) shorthand for that whole conversation.

      And I agree that factories in China really help improve people’s working conditions. I am well aware that the best anti-poverty program of the last generation (as in, most people lifted out of poverty) is China’s economic growth. In rural and impoverished parts of China to which I’ve traveled, I know that economic growth could do wonders. But I also know that more economic growth in China (and elsewhere) poses huge environmental considerations. So how to square the dilemma?

      Mostly, I’d just like us talking about these dilemmas more openly rather than burying them in some quest for purity, which I sense is a more seductive option than it seems, particularly in the church. So thanks for talking about them openly with me!

      1. msharmila2013

        Ok, seems I really misinterpreted when you were going with what you were saying. I do think there is a perennial risk in going as far as acknowledging wrongs but never really moving beyond that instead treating the acknowledgement as enough. But without moving beyond that there is not only an individual danger of failing to seek repentance but also the social danger of normalising wrongs. Although in many ways that ship sailed long ago.

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