Brian McLaren describes the deep and compelling attraction of the story of purification:
There’s a scary tendency you find across nations, across cultures, religions, centuries, social classes…. It’s called coalitionary aggression. There’s this tendency of human beings who form groups to then find some minority within their in-group, whom the majority then begins to bully, pick on, or marginalize. The majority calls itself clean and they call this minority unclean. The majority is acceptable, the minority is unacceptable. The majority is normal, and the minority is queer, odd, or different. The majority eventually creates a kind of coalition aggression against the minority. And in so doing, they make themselves feel good, and they unite themselves because now they’ve created a common enemy close at hand….
We see stories of purification going on in our politics, in our churches, in our business power dynamics, in our families, even in our own psyches. When we’re feeling guilty or tense about something, it really does help to find someone else to project our anxieties upon and to make ourselves feel innocent, pure, and clean…. [But] scapegoating others does not actually create peace and security. It almost creates an addiction. Every so often we need a new victim upon which to pour out our accumulated guilt or shame or fear or anxiety or hostility.
McLaren describes how Jesus directly challenges the purification story:
All the people that Jesus hangs out with and eats with are people who are being scapegoated, people who are being used for somebody else’s purification narrative. These are the people that Jesus humanizes: people such as Zacchaeus, Matthew and his tax collector friends, a leper, or the woman caught in adultery…. If you read that story in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, notice Jesus’ physical posture. It’s as if he’s using his body to draw attention away from the woman and becomes an interruption to a purification narrative that was heading toward a deadly end.
McLaren acknowledges the complexity that arises when we challenge these stories:
The purification story strikes me as especially dangerous to people who want to be good…. That desire to be good can then create in us this need, especially when we feel that we’re failing at being good, to find somebody who looks bad or somebody we can portray as bad to lift ourselves up.…
In a certain sense, what we’re inviting people to do [by identifying these stories at work] is not to make their lives simpler, but to give them some clarity on the complexity of life. We’re inviting people to see that there are these domination stories, revolution or revenge stories, and purification stories out there at work. It doesn’t make life simpler, but when we understand the stories that we find ourselves in, perhaps it gives us enough clarity to try to be a more moral and more peaceful agent in this world.
Adapted from Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, “Purification Stories,” Learning How to See, season 5, ep. 4 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2023), podcast. Available as MP3 audio and pdf transcript. For further resources, see The Seventh Story and The Porch Community.
So much depends on the stories we tell. What stories will we choose to pass on?
Story from Our Community:
In the midst of our shared sense of international breakdown and a dwindling church community, I find hope in the steady, visionary realism of Father Richard and the CAC team. Receiving the Daily Meditations each day offers my family and friends a generous reassurance and encouragement for which we share a sense of gratitude. I’m writing to offer heartfelt thanks from a quiet corner of the west of England. —Keith J.