Sunday, March 07, 2010


“The one thing visitors always comment about,” my friend in Delhi said to me recently, “ is how dirty India is.  I know there is a lot of trash and it’s not like America or Europe, but I’m amazed how that seems to be the only thing people from abroad talk about.”

A few days earlier in my class we discussed the issue of purity and profane from a cultural and biblical perspective.  In the Old Testament the book of Leviticus is a list of clean and unclean things, ranging from food, bodily fluids and even people.  In the New Testament Jesus rebuked the religious fundamentalist on their obsession with ritual purity.  While Jews, Muslims and Hindus abstain from pork as unclean, Americans believe a good ham on Thanksgiving or Christmas should be on every holiday table.  Americans wouldn’t think of eating a dog, but in the Orient it’s a delicacy.  Horse meat is still acceptable in France and, of course, the Chinese will eat just about anything.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas defines “unclean” as anything out of place.  Dirt in the yard is okay, but dirt in the house is considered unclean.  Hair, which we wash and shampoo to make it shiny, is a matter of personal beautification.  Hair found in food can be so repulsive that some people get physically ill at the thought.  Dirt is more about position than it is hygiene. 

While Americans believe that cleanliness is next to godliness, culture determines what is clean or unclean.  College kids visiting India may be horrified with the filth they see on the streets, but these same kids, with the grunge look, walk around in dirty clothes and unkept and mangy hair.

It’s true, in poor countries there is a lot of trash, open sewers and unsanitary habits, like urinating in public.  For most people, though they may wish they lived in a different environment, it’s a way of life.  Why?  Because dirt is placed where it should be, outside.  Inside their own dwellings it is well maintained and clean.

Jesus told His accusers that while they focused on outward dirt they were oblivious to the greater issue, uncleanliness of the heart.  I’m all for clean food, water and the environment, but rather being overwhelmed with the outward issue of dirt maybe we should deal with those unclean toxics of the heart and not so much on the things we see on the streets.