Disgust: Protection or Pathological

"Contamination-based reasoning, being governed by a unique set of rules, is often immune to reason and rationality"~Richard Beck in Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality

Matthew 9:10-11
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

Researchers have shown that the revulsion or disgust we feel towards things is a deeply embedded, psychological and sociological reality.  In a particular study, people were offered juice and just prior to receiving it, watched as a roach was dipped into the juice and removed immediately.  Most people kindly refused the juice.  The juice was then placed in filtering process, boiled, filtered again to so to prove by scientific method, it was free of any bug-related contaminants.  Most people, still refused to drink the juice even if they admitted logically, that the juice was completely safe to drink.

The issue of what appears polluted, contaminated, unclean, and disturbing is the subject of Dr. Richard Beck's book "Unclean".  Dr. Beck is a Christian Psychologist who is wrestling with the dialectic of Holiness/Purity/Exclusion against Mission/Engagement/Inclusion in the Bible.  His starting point is that of understanding the deep seated nature of disgust and contamination.

In the experiment above, it did not matter to the drinker how pure the juice was, because once it was contaminated, it was to be excluded and psychologically will never be fit for consumption.  The variability of this experiment is influenced culturally. For instance, in some cultures, insects are eaten quite often, yet American find insects as a pollutant or contaminant.  It does not just have a physical adversion, but our  disgusts take on a moral tone.  A grasshopper in our juice is not just unfortunate, it becomes "nasty", even if grasshoppers are edible.  

Interestingly, all humans experience disgust.  It began as an emotional experience that helped to protect us from bad foods, dangerous situations, threats, and villainous behavior.  It can be said that the experience of disgust is normative.

From a faith point of view, we need to understand that our understanding of disgust, contaminants, and revulsions is not relegated to food.  What happens when our deep seated revulsions and what we consider to be contaminants is expanded to include behaviors, characteristics, and even people groups.  What if people, in their desire to live Godly lives have been conditioned to see certain behaviors and people groups as revolting and polluting?

Just as most American's can not drink the bug-tainted juice without real psychological and physical reactions (nausea, vomiting, dread, anxiety), there may be culturally induced serious, subconscious adversive reactions when some Christians engage others whom they have been trained to understand as polluted, unclean, etc.  This has huge implications in ministry.

The key is initially understanding that your revulsion may not be "absolute" but relative.  In other words, what we find disgusting may not actually be disgusting but may be culturally unacceptable in our own cultures. Think bug-juice experiment as an example.  Secondly, your revulsion is not logical and rational.  Therefore, like fear, it may not "make sense".  Thirdly, it is a conditioned response and can often be de-conditioned.  In the context of people and behaviors, it does not mean that the offensive person or behavior has to be accepted or supported, but that you are aware of your tendency to want to exclude the person and behavior based upon your preconceived morality.

This does not mean that being disgusted in bad or unnatural.  When we see someone injured badly with blood all over, it is often revolting.  Many healthcare provider have to work to overcome the natural psychological and physical reactions to blood in order to provide care.  However, the disgust is helpful in that case to warn of the danger present.

I want to encourage you today to think of what pushes your buttons.  Who by their very nature or behaviors, disgusts you?  Remember, its natural, so everyone experiences them. Take time to pray about them and consider that they may be more cultural than absolute.  Ask God if they are protective or just in the way of being agents of God love to others.  Jesus understood this, the Pharisees never did.

May God bless you ,

Pastor Michael Traylor