Mark | You Are Not Defiled

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In tonight’s reading, religious leaders criticise Jesus’ disciples for failing to wash their hands in the correct ritual way before they eat. Jesus pushes back, hard, and goes on to say that we are not defiled by what we eat and drink. Instead, it’s the things we say and do which can defile us. But what if his disciples were criticised, not for failing to keep kosher, but for failing to maintain “Biblical family values”? For a region hard-hit by clergy abuse, here’s a new take on an old story.

When the bishops and the senior pastors came and spent time with him, they quickly noticed that some of his followers were same-sex attracted. Some of the men were flamboyantly gay; some of the women were partners. Some among the disciples had never married, but were living in de facto relationships. Others had divorced and re-married; some of them had divorced again. Some had had children with multiple partners. Some were raising children alone; and some of the lesbians had children.

So the bishops and the senior pastors asked him, “Why don’t your people have Biblical family values? They have sex before marriage, and some of them aren’t even married but are living together anyway. Many of your people have had multiple partners; and some of them engage in homosexual acts, which according to Leviticus is an abomination. Moreover, some of the children don’t live with their fathers; and whoever heard of a child having two mothers?”

At the time that they were asking these questions, there was a Royal Commission in the land. Behind closed doors, women and men described how they had been assaulted by religious officials. Some survivors explained that they hadn’t told anyone, because they knew that they just wouldn’t be believed. Others described the suicides of friends and classmates; or how they themselves had fallen into cycles of addiction and self-harm. Many survivors suffered from mental illness; many survivors were very poor. Doubts about their self-worth had led some into relationships with abusive partners. Many survivors felt defiled by the things that had been done to them; years after the abuse, even decades, many still felt this way.

The Royal Commission was also hearing from institutions. Gradually it pieced together a pattern of denial, even complicity, in the abuse. It found that offenders were rarely disciplined, but instead were quietly moved on. Some parishes had been sent a series of offending priests, so that grandparents, parents, and children had all been abused. There were allegations of a paedophile ring; and contemporary senior religious officials were implicated. Widespread abuse had rent the social fabric of some cities and towns, and the effects were ongoing.

For the most part, the religious officials denied all wrongdoing. Even those who were sentenced to prison showed little or no remorse, and senior religious officials stood by the offenders and supported them during their trials. Legal attempts at restitution or recompense were fought tooth and nail. Many survivors were pushed into processes which were re-traumatising, and which offered compensation only on condition of silence. Others ended up in protracted legal proceedings. Religious institutions spent millions of dollars on legal advice and representation, and let defence lawyers guide their policies and actions. Powerful religious people used their access to the media to mock survivors’ groups, and to make personal attacks on the victims and their families, and on the psychologists and lawyers who represented them.

It was in this context that the bishops and the senior pastors asked, “Why don’t your people live out Biblical family values?”

And he said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites. As it is written, ‘This people pays me lip-service, but their hearts are far from me; they worship me in vain, for they teach human commandments as doctrine.’ You abandon the commandment of God, and wield human tradition like a sword.”

Then he said, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For as the prophets said, ‘You must care for the vulnerable: those who have no one else to protect them.’ But instead you spout family values and say ‘Anyone who has sex outside marriage, or is in a homosexual relationship, cannot be part of the kingdom of heaven.’ You judge and reject people on the basis of their sexuality, but defend theology and structures which enable the abuse of vulnerable people. You have protected your colleagues at the expense of the victims, and you have worried about your own status.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile you. Nothing that anyone has done to you can defile you. No way that they have touched you can defile you. Nothing which has been forced upon you can make you unclean in my eyes. There is absolutely nothing that another person can do to you that makes you unfit for communion with me. The only thing that can get in the way of communion with me is using other people to satisfy your destructive desires, and failing to live with love. You might feel defiled, you might feel judged and rejected by religious types; but in my eyes, you are not defiled. And in my kingdom, you are beloved, and you are blessed, and you belong.” Ω

A reflection on Mark 7:1-8, 14-23 given to Sanctuary on 2 September 2018 (BP17; Year B Proper 17) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows Emmaus (2000) by Emmanuel Garibay, found here.

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