The Power of Proximity
Part 2 of a 2 part series on Listening as a Spiritual Discipline by Tonya Stanfield
Photo Credit: Ruth Smith Photography
This article (pt. 2) was originally meant for publication in March of 2020, right when the Covid Pandemic arrived on the shores of South Africa and was tightening its grip on America. It was ill-timed, so I wrote and published another. However, in light of the shooting of an unarmed jogger of color, Ahmed Arbery, and waking to this morning's headlines of George Floyd's death at the "knees" of white police, it seems this series could not be more timely. Jesus -a dark skinned man, living under Roman oppression- demonstrated how to combat discrimination of all kinds, especially the kind within our own selves. Neuroscience is finally catching up and confirming that if we truly lived like Jesus did, we too, could rewire our brains toward love and inclusion.
Do you know what the neurological polar opposite of love is?
Neurosciences have discovered the opposing reaction to love in the human brain… and it’s not hate or fear, as you might think.
That’s right, the neurological polar opposite of love is disgust..
In the book Unclean, Richard Beck explains it in detail: Imagine I spit in your cup of water and you take a sip. Take a moment and picture it. Did your lips just pull down at the side? Or your body close in on itself a little? These are universal bodily reactions to the emotion of disgust. Disgust tells us, “No! Don’t put that in our body, it will make us sick!” While it’s important to have those biological responses, Beck goes on to tell us that all humans extend the emotion of disgust into social interactions…even placing it onto social groups different from us. We do this from a very young age.
I can remember a game called “cooties” on my childhood playground. Similar to tag, the girls chased the boys who didn’t want to be touched because they would catch “cooties”. Apparently, there is some undesirable aspect about girls that is contagious. There are two benches outside of government buildings in Cape Town. One says, “Whites Only” and the other “Non-White Only.” They are relics of the Apartheid era. This is what happens when we believe in “cooties” as adults. Current affairs indicate humankind is still playing. We are still socializing and moralizing our disgust responses to “the other”. We even spiritualize our disgust responses.
During Jesus’ day, Jewish purity codes demanded separation from the unclean: unclean animals, unclean bodily emissions, unclean illness, and the unclean people doing or eating or experiencing unclean things. Over time, the line separating holiness and uncleanliness grew fuzzy. Ancient Jews believed impurity was contagious. Uncleanliness was spiritualized and moralized and grew to encompass all Gentiles and foreigners, the sick, the menstruating, the poor, the disabled, etc.
Temporal distance became enduring exclusion. Inconvenience at becoming ceremonially unclean became disgust, and disgust became discrimination.
Sexism, classism, xenophobia, and disability discrimination was enforced in the name of holiness. This makes me think of the brave women in India who recently formed a one-million-person human chain protesting the exclusion of females of menstruating age from a particular Hindu temple. The protesting women were from all religions and some from none. They understood discrimination and disgust go hand in hand.
But, what was Jesus’ response to the ceremonially unclean, to those on the margins of good society? Jesus asked the hemorrhaging woman to tell her story after her touch made him impure and her whole. Jesus touched the leper, and then he healed him. Jesus grasped the dead little girl’s hand, and then he raised her.
Think for one moment on the anxiety the idea of catching COVID 19 has caused within you. What if I'm in the 15% that require hospitalization? What if my hospital doesn't have enough ventilators? What if my child is the one with complications? We've all had to manage these thoughts... often. Now, imagine the ancient mind of the Israelite's. Their fear of catching disease must have eclipsed ours by a long shot...all their lives. It was a fear passed on for generations.
For me, this gives new illumination to the courageousness of Jesus' actions. Of course, Jesus' counter-cultural stand was against devastating social implications of being labeled "unclean", not a modern knee-jerk reaction against wearing masks. Jesus may have very well practiced social distancing as a form of love today, but he also would probably have dined with AIDS patients in the late 80's. The point is this: Time after time, Jesus demonstrated another type of Kingdom and reign: One where touching the outcast doesn’t contaminate but purifies. “One where solidarity with the unclean precedes the miracle” (Richard Beck).
“You’re keeping your hands clean in a dirty world when God wants your hands dirty in a broken world.”
Jesus’ dinner party guest lists were especially controversial. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees asked (Matthew 9:11). Musing about this, my friend and author Andre Rabe said, “It seems that only the context in which we meet Jesus and see the Father for who he really is, is amongst the outcasts.” His is an illuminating thought, that we cannot fully see the love of the Father without the presence of those who may trigger our social disgust response. Proximity disciples. Proximity can lead us to a greater vision of God, inspiring worship. It’s no wonder Jesus commanded us to keep having these dinner parties; we call them the Lord’s Supper. And, Beck proposes that the Lord’s Supper is God’s chosen place to retrain His people’s neurological disgust response into love.
So, let’s go back to the Table, the Lord’s Supper, that we talked about in [Part 1]. A Roman New Testament era church membership roster read more like the cast of a saucy reality TV show than a pious fellowship. I’ll recap and embellish a little… reality TV style. The dinner party may include:
When I teach in discipleship schools, I often have the students role play an early church Lord’s Supper. Frequently a person of color will play the master. A male might play a temple prostitute. A white person often chooses the role of the slave. We sit around an actual table with food, introduce “ourselves”, tell a bit of our character’s story and then wrestle with this revolutionary passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatian house church: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28,29).
Normally, the conversations get lively. How does a Jew feel as he dips his hand into the same bowl of hummus as a sinful pagan temple prostitute? Who is going to serve this meal? The women are seated with the men. The slaves, as well, are full participants at the Lord’s table, not servants. Can you imagine the tension rising as this particular scripture is read? Can you see the furtive glances as the women look at the men? As the Jews clear their throats and try not to look at the Gentiles? As the slaves search out their master’s reaction? As the master feels his station deflated while his slaves are elevated?
Once, a student playing the Master stated, “But, I don’t get anything out of this! I just go down and you all come up!” To which another student, an African (who has the value of family and sharing infused into his cultural bones) replied: “You get to be one of us. We will actually become family, rather than just pretend to make you feel good.” I got the sense he had ample practice at this with his more privileged acquaintances. He could see what the Master was missing, even when the Master felt he had everything.
“It’s the oppressed that sets the oppressor free.” Paulo Friere
Jesus knew that if his followers were to be a people living out the radical gospel of love, they had to be eye-to-eye, shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing space and stories and body odors. In the age of globalization, we can listen to the stories refugees without inviting them into our homes. We attend church via satellite. We send shoe boxes of Christmas goodies to Africa. This is not bad, but it lacks the transformational power of proximity. According to Beck, love must transgress these barriers and boundaries to be love. While you may be disgusted that my spit is in your water bottle, my husband is not disgusted at all if I give him a sloppy, wet kiss. Quite the opposite!
“Love must transgress to be love.” - Steve Schallert
The Lord’s Supper was a revolutionary training ground for God’s people. It was a listening fellowship that restored dignity. It was a fellowship of proximity that defied all the social hierarchies upon which the Roman empire had built itself, and the government feared it. It offered equality and belonging to those who had never known it. It offered repentance and forgiveness to those who grown fat on the system and forgotten the hungry… and it actually physically fed them. This unlikely guest list had the power to destabilize every system set up against God’s love of reign on earth, both inward ones and outward ones. Which begs the question: Who is on the guest list at your dinner table? Or more importantly, who is not? Who do you not have proximity with?
“We need a generation that doesn’t separate the way of Jesus from Jesus being the way.”
Photo Credit: Iknuitsin Studio
Richard Beck: Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality
Scot McKnight: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together
Rachel Held Evans: The Letter to Nympha’s Church (a creative interpretation of Colossians) Retrieved from: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/letter-to-nypha-church-submission
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also has a teaching, writing, and speaking ministry. Her heart is to raise, deepen, and challenge disciples of Jesus. She's part of the Center for Christian Formation and Discipleship and lectures at both a Masters and Undergraduate level for YWAM's University of the Nations. She's also training to be a spiritual director and is an enneagram coach. We thought you might enjoy some of her blogs...