So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” (Matthew 27:24)
Our contemporary culture has become so one-dimensional as to be utterly blind to the power of symbols. Take purity rituals: in the ancient world, as Matthew Thiessen most recently noted in Jesus and the Forces of Death, these rituals were both material (taking place in the realm of the biological and practical) and also transcendental (connected to a view of the mortality of human beings and their relationship to God). Modern recommendations on the spread of disease (“Stay six feet away from others…Wash your hands often,” according to the CDC) are, by contrast, issued and read in an entirely scientific manner: viruses spread through close contact, soap and water kills viruses. These recommendations are perfectly reasonable and practical during a pandemic. But can they also be read as symbolic?
To see the world symbolically is to see higher meaning in the ordinary, to understand that to practice social distancing and handwashing (however necessary) is to entrench certain spiritual realities, in which we begin to see others and the world around us as potentially contaminated. Social distancing and handwashing, once they become a habit, have the potential to transcend the mundane and become the rituals of a modern purity culture.
“Purity culture” is the term used to describe a form of evangelical Christian promotion of abstinence before marriage, one that has lately been much criticized. In the 1990s, evangelical Christian churches and communities, rightly worried about young people growing up in a world of early sexualization, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and broken families, sought to unravel the effects of the sexual revolution. To bring home the harms of sex before marriage, promiscuity was portrayed as physical defilement that contaminated marriage, grotesquely illustrated through props such as chewed gum and shared lollipops. “Chastity rings,” by contrast, signalled a commitment to spiritual cleanliness, the ring of purity worn before the ring of marriage, until impure sex became pure. Hence the slogan, “True Love Waits.”
In her book Pure, Linda Klein recounts experiences of those who grew up in this world. Klein and her fellow evangelical women heard less about love, and more about how to remain “pure” before the wedding day by tirelessly struggling with impure thoughts and desires. Failure, they were told, meant swift and terrible shame. “Shaming,” writes Klein, was “embedded into everyday language.” The result was, unsurprisingly, an anxious self-interrogation of thoughts and feelings. “Being ‘pure,’ one woman told Klein, “became this really heavy, heavy weight to bear all the time. It almost made me go crazy questioning, ‘Well, is this impure? . . . Is this wrong? . . . Is this okay? . .’.” Pastors and counselors often praised this very anxiety as the path to salvation: “If we wanted to be holy, another woman remembered, “it was going to have to be a struggle. So, you have to be struggling and suffering constantly. There is no happiness. There is no peace.” Purity would be bountifully rewarded: not only with a proper “white” wedding, but with long lasting marital bliss and the knowledge that personal virtue would contribute to the rehabilitation of marriage and family in society.
Decades later, promoters of purity culture, such as Joshua Harris, openly recanted their advocacy. His was originally among the gentler voices of the movement, emphasizing love and the possibility of forgiveness, but he saw the supposed blessings of purity turned into a curse. For so many, purity was no path to bliss, but rather to a kind of spiritual obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which relationships were forever perceived as potentially tainted. Pure compiles the voices of those who suffered, often alone, from their heroic struggles for purity – through broken relationships and self-hatred. The young women who were told to struggle against their sexual impulses, who were taught to avoid the men who might tempt them to sex, ended up hating their own bodies and unable to love others. Christians are now wrestling with the question of how the promotion of an essential (and universal, though often unacknowledged) human value, sexual self-control, ended up damaging the very people it intended to help.
For those of us who grew up in secular, progressive environments, evangelical purity culture is easily dismissed as rooted in outdated gender norms and atavistic notions about sexuality, based on a strictly “biblical” view of human relations. Purity rituals are, after all, ancient things. But what if, like the chastity rings and sticky tape it promotes, purity culture is instead very modern? After all, is not the alternative message of “safe sex” and “using protection” a similar modern emphasis on the disease of sexuality? What if obsession with infection and impurity is a habit of mind in our contemporary world – where we are told, literally and symbolically, in all things to stay apart from others and wash our hands?
None other than Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, first asserted that modernity began in quarantine. His detailed analysis of documents from the town of Vincennes at the end of the seventeenth century reveals that town officials worried not only about the spread of death and disease, but also the disorder that arose during plague times, when “bodies are mixed together.” The answer was a particularly modern form of absolute control: separating bodies and fixing them in space, individualizing them, laying down “for each individual his place, his body, his disease, and his death.” 
The success of quarantine led it to become the modern model for the containment of all ills, physical and social. Foucault extrapolates that the revolutionary practice of solitary confinement, experimentally introduced into the model prisons in Auburn and Philadelphia, was premised on the idea that crime was a plague, a “moral contagion.” Isolating prisoners not only prevented the spread of crime, but forced the criminal to cleanse his conscience, to repent of his immoral behaviour, and thus to achieve moral regeneration. Whatever we think of Foucault’s overall philosophy, we cannot accuse him of failing to think symbolically. In his book’s hyperbolic extended metaphor, modern individualism is solitary confinement. The liberal individual is an isolated, imprisoned being, forced by society to continually confront his own imperfections in solitude, for the sake of a well-ordered society.
If in quarantine individualism is born, then, following Foucault, in modern quarantine it finds its ultimate end. During the past year, the rules of quarantine, especially in the West, became ever finer grained and individualizing. First, the front doors to homes and businesses were closed to others, then, lines were drawn within homes. In a move that might have even surprised Foucault, Peel Region Public Health in Ontario introduced a rule (rescinded quickly after public outcry) that children as young as four should be entirely isolated from other family members for fourteen days if exposed to coronavirus. The Foucauldian symbolism was hard to miss: training for the solitary confinement of individualism was to begin at the earliest age possible.
The individuating logic of modern purity culture has been applied to every modern social ill. Individuals are asked, at every turn, to complete a kind of moral self-examination before interacting with others. In Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, the evil of structural racism that pervades our hierarchical society must be combatted by white individuals, who need to be trained to perform a kind of pandemic-style daily check for racist infections before interacting with people of color. Before any interracial encounter, I must ask myself: Will I interrupt a black person or desire to speak for them? Will I praise them excessively or, by contrast, insufficiently? Will I, heaven forbid, want to cry in front of them? If the answer to any of these is yes, then I have the symptoms of racism, and must “strive to be less white.”
The book is full of anecdotes and morality tales, in which white people who commit racist errors are singled out, publicly, so that they might try harder to rid themselves of racism and, in turn, provide “teachable moments” for others. DiAngelo has made women cry, but she is unapologetic: this is white fragility. With all the moral certainty of a purity culture evangelist, she sternly lectures us: “Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play, our learning will never be finished.”
The basic, underlying principle of purity culture is that salvation is of oneself alone. By my own will, I can resist sexual temptation, or struggle with my racism. By my own will, I can cleanse myself, so that I might be pure. If I fail, I must be singled out, quarantined until I have repented, and must endure the shame as instructive to others. “I” and “my” thus riddle the landscape of all modern purity rituals. Virtue belongs to me.
Perhaps one of the central failings of evangelical purity culture has been its inconsistent and weak answer to the central question of purity: why? Perhaps the promoters of purity culture might have paid more attention to symbolism. After all, how is sex like dirt on sticky tape? And why would virginity ever be represented by unchewed gum? Especially in its simplest forms, purity culture seems to rely on a kind of instinctive feeling that sex is contaminating, so the less of it the better. More recently, a stronger emphasis has been placed on the far more important biblical message that purity is part of God’s plan. Our bodies are not our own, we must keep them pure “for God.” But again, it is important to ask why. Is it simply that cleanliness is next to godliness – is virtue simply a kind of old-fashioned pulling up of one’s skirts lest they touch the mud? Does this not get everything exactly backward?
Lust is a sin, wrote the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, because it is comparable to necrophilia. A prostitute, for instance, is never desired as a full human being – body, soul, and mind – but is reduced to dead flesh used for someone’s pleasure. The sin of lust is objectification, treating another human being as an object, a means to an end. There is perhaps no better way to understand the essence of all of our sexual evils, ancient and modern: adultery, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape.
Therefore, when I struggle against lust, against “impure” thoughts and desires, I do so not for myself, nor for the sake of my moral virtue. I do it for the other person, the unique human being with divine significance, whom I might desire, but whom I should not objectify, harass, or abuse. Is this not at the heart of 1 Thessalonians 4:6, a verse so often cited by evangelical purity activists? One should “abstain from sexual immorality” so as not to “transgress and wrong his brother in this matter.” Marriage may well be the best way to avoid the abuse and neglect that sexual promiscuity often brings, but marriage by no means concludes the struggle to treat others as ends in themselves.
It is a sad paradox of modern purity culture that it not only fails to emphasize this precise purpose of purity, but that it also often leads to the objectification that it should prevent. When I am completely focused on myself, the fullness of the humanity of others is lost. Others become not the end of my striving, but obstacles along the way. In Pure, Klein reveals that she broke up with her high school boyfriend because he had become too much of a temptation. Purity culture, it seemed, did not want her to purify herself for him, for a better relationship with him, but asked her to purify herself of him, to shun him as an object of temptation that might stain her reputation.
The central problem of purity culture is thus not the purity, then, but the fact that we have lost the other person in our ceaseless self-cleansing. Purity becomes performance, a public act in which we separate ourselves from the impure and demonstrate our virtue – what else are chastity rings for? In White Fragility, the white individual is so paramount that we rarely hear a black voice – people of color are relegated to the backdrops against which white self-searching is performed. I must rid myself of my own racism, I must call out the racism of others, I must rid myself of the stain of others who are racist.
But how shall I relate to people of color? No better illustration is found than DiAngelo’s own account of a humiliating moment in her career, when she accidentally insulted “Deborah,” a black woman, by joking about her hair. DiAngelo is refreshingly honest about her mistake, and she spares us no detail of the soul-searching she underwent, or the final act of contrition that she performed. Instructively, she issued a model apology to “Angela,” the woman who pointed out the insult. But what happened to “Deborah”? In her care to document her own thoughts and feelings, DiAngelo forgot to give Deborah any voice at all. “Deborah” was merely a mute prop in a morality tale. It is no wonder that John McWhorter felt that the book “dehumanized” him and other black people. “White Fragility is,” he wrote, “in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves.”
“Individualism,” wrote the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev in 1923, “chained” man and “cut him off from other men and from the world at large.” The central problem of purity culture is not the purity, then, but the individualism that lies at its heart. It calls people to self-transformation, which is laudable, but leaves out God and our fellow human beings. “The idea of transcendental egoism,” Berdiaev wrote, “of the exclusive concern for the salvation of one’s own soul, which some people deduce from ascetic literature, is a satanic idea, a satanic caricature of Christianity.”
In purity culture, the world and other people are potentially contaminating objects to be avoided. So many modern phenomena, however well-meaning, slip into this worldview: cancel culture and the Benedict option, the Pence rule and political dating apps, blocking people on Twitter and unfriending them on Facebook. Each of us maintains our purity by casting off the things and people that may defile us, by washing our hands of them: friends and neighbors, Trump supporters and Biden voters, Christians and atheists, those who test positive for COVID, or who think or act differently. In my hometown, a new habit has been born during the coronavirus epidemic – we instinctively cross the street when we see another person coming toward us. Necessary, perhaps, during a time of infection, but remember – so also did the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, lest they touch the “impure” blood of the man who lay beaten in the middle of the road.
Much has been made of the comparison between the coronavirus epidemic and the Spanish flu of 100 years ago. But one of the greatest differences may well be that, given the scarcity of hospital beds and medicines, family and neighbors nursed each other through the sickness, knowing fully the risk of contagion. “I was sick and you visited me,” Christ praises the “sheep,” speaking in a time when visiting a sick person meant grave risk of illness and death. Social distancing and hand washing are important for our sake and also for the sake of others. But like the Good Samaritan, we are called to risk contamination if our neighbor is lying bruised and beaten in front of us, to overcome our own individualism and visit the one suffering from coronavirus or any other malady.
“The meaning and value of love,” Soloviev wrote, “consists of the fact that love compels us effectively to acknowledge in another, with all our being, the unconditional, central significance that, on the strength of egoism, we sense only in ourselves.” For personalists like Nikolai Berdiaev and Jacques Maritain, this Solovievian maxim was the difference between individualism and personalism. The liberal individual is an atom, walled off from others, relating to others according to self-interest and condemned to save himself through self-will. A person, though also uniquely individual and having infinite dignity and value, is made in the divine image, and exists in relationship with and for other persons, who also have infinite dignity and value and also contain the divine.
For Berdiaev and other personalists, personalism is imitation of the Trinity: “The Holy Trinity is a Trinity of Persons just because they presuppose one another and imply mutual love and intercommunion.” Therefore, the human personality “must come out of itself, must transcend itself – this is the task set to it by God.” In sum, wrote Berdiaev, “We must think of God and not of ourselves…And no one should dare to regard himself as righteous and others as sinners.” It is perhaps not surprising that Martin Luther King, Jr. called himself a personalist, finding inspiration precisely in the philosophies of Berdiaev and Maritain.
What then is purity for? It is for love. Not just for married love, but for the love of our neighbor, however impure, for the man lying beaten on the side of the road, lying in his contaminated blood. Love is from God, and it allows us to see the divine in the other. Struggling with lust, with racism, with any other immoral and sinful impulse should not confer abstract righteousness or individual virtue, should not be an outward show of cleanliness, a cleansing of the “cup and the plate.” It should be a sign of our self-effacing love for another person, seeing in them the image and likeness of God. In doing so, of course, we serve ourselves as well. The experiments in solitary confinement in Auburn and Pennsylvania eventually had to be abandoned, because it was discovered that too much solitude led to insanity. It turns out that, as persons, we ultimately cannot attempt to save ourselves, and we need God and the love of others to become full human beings.
Pilate, in a misappropriation of Jewish purity ritual, washed his hands of the “blood” of the living God that stood before him and of the Jewish crowd that he despised. Standing alone, in splendid isolation, he satisfied himself that he had preserved his Roman virtue. It therefore seems symbolically fitting that, according to one Swiss legend, the ghost of Pilate rises every Good Friday on a mountain lake, condemned to repeatedly wash his hands.
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- Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020). ↑
- Linda Kay Klein, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (New York: Atria Books, 2018), pp. 12-13, 21. ↑
- Klein, Pure, p. 45. ↑
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage: 1979), p. 197. ↑
- Foucault, Discipline, p. 238 ↑
- Matthew Bingley, “Coronavirus: Peel Region clarifies student isolation policy following online backlash” (March 1, 2021), https://globalnews.ca/news/7669482/coronavirus-peel-region-student-isolation-policy/, last accessed 3/12/2021. ↑
- Robin D’Angelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, Beacon Press, 2018), p. 150. ↑
- Robin D’Angelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, Beacon Press, 2018), p. 9 ↑
- John McWhorter, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” The Atlantic (July 15, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescension-white-fragility/614146/ (last accessed 3/16/2021). ↑
- Nicolas Berdyaev, The End of Our Time, trans. Donald Attwater (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009), p. 86. ↑
- Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009), p. 114. ↑
- Vladimir Soloviev, “The Meaning of Love,” in V.S. Soloviev, The Heart of Reality: Essays on Beauty, Love, and Ethics, ed. and trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), p. 100. ↑
- Berdyaev, Destiny, p. 114. ↑