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.