Part 3: Hospitality

Having already discussed the psychology of disgust (Part One) and how this disgust psychology regulates moral decision-making, especially in terms of salvation (Part Two), Beck now turns to the social aspects of disgust psychology, the way disgust psychology makes us feel about and treat people (rather than just the decisions they make).  Spoiler Alert: It’s not good.

Sociomoral Disgust
When disgust psychology is applied toward people, rather than just actions, this is called “sociomoral disgust.”  In religious circles, this is primarily displayed by the “Purity/Sanctity” moral foundation.  When Jesus encounters sociomoral disgust at work in the gospels he does the opposite of what is expected, and in so doing, reframes Israel’s notion of sin.  Instead of focusing on people as unclean, Jesus focuses on the boundaries between people as unclean.  The Old Testament prophets had a similar message, claiming that God despised Israel’s religious rituals because of injustice. 

This displays tension between the “priestly” and “prophetic” traditions (or, as Beck terms it, tension between “sacrifice” and “mercy”).  Beck claims that these two ways of thinking are inherently incompatible.  Jesus resolved this tension by siding with the prophetic/merciful tradition.  Rather than negativity dominance (one drop of poison ruins the whole drink), in Jesus, the clean cleanses the unclean.  Jesus overturns the locus of purity in the Jewish world.  Purity is now an attitude of the heart; purity is mercy.  Like Israel, the church tends to deal in terms of purity, holiness, and sanctity.  Because of the tension inherent between mercy and sacrifice, when we appeal to the notions of mercy, love, and hospitality we are asking our churches to do contradictory things.  There is no “both/and” – more of one means less of the other.  It is hard, then, to make decisions.

In the extreme, sociomoral disgust displays itself as racism, even genocide.  On a day-to-day basis, individuals are not that bad.  But when things are stressful, sociomoral disgust crops up, and it doesn’t come from nowhere.  The self is defined by a boundary (literally – we swallow spit in our mouths without thinking twice, but would not drink our own spit from a cup).  This selfhood is also symbolic; it extends beyond the body.  People, places, events, ideas, etc that I identify with are inside the boundary of myself, and vice versa.  The entire world is broken down into “Me” and “Not-Me.”  Described another way, it is psychologically natural to differentiate “kin” from “non-kin,” and extend “kindness” to those that we consider to be “kin.”  Once a person is admitted to your “in-group” it is natural to be affectionate toward them.  Out-group people are treated as tools, as means to an end – whereas in-group people are an end in themselves. 

Monsters and Scapegoats
Stated extremely: we see outsiders as less than human, as lacking a vital human quality.  It is not a question of degree (they are less human than we are), but of essential quality (they are not human).  The in-group marks the fully human standard.  Out-group people give a community someone to blame in crisis situations.  They are made into “monsters,” literally dehumanized.  Monsters are hybrids, mixing things that should not be mixed (a bug-headed person is a monster; a centaur is a mythical creature).  Something high is mixed with something low (bugs and people are on wholly different levels).  This makes it easy to scapegoat the monster.  It doesn’t feel like scapegoating, because monsters don’t seem innocent.

A scapegoat unites people who would otherwise be divided by stress; peace (of a sort) is achieved.  Therefore, it seems to be effective, and restructures a group’s worldview to the point that “sacrificing” people seems like the right thing to do to appease the gods.  Christians who read the gospel story see Jesus as the ultimate scapegoat, because he was in every way innocent, and are therefore able to admit (logically) that scapegoating is bad.

But, somehow, we do not know that dehumanizing (monster-ifying) people is bad.  “Sociomoral disgust makes it difficult for us to step back from monster-hunting crusades to expose the scapegoating mechanisms at work within [us]” (p.99).  We should be concerned about this because these subconscious biases have measurable impact on behavior, of which we are also unaware.  “In good times and with good people, these fissures might not amount to much.  But the effects are scalable and can add up…During times of stress and panic these fissures begin to crack open” (p.105-6).

Disgust may be rare, a “crisis-time emotion.”  But emotions like contempt, disdain, and superiority are more common.  These “day-to-day emotions” also signal a failure of inclusion (a failure to love).  This failure to love is displayed by the New Testament.  Despite the example of Jesus, Jews in the New Testament had a hard time eating with Gentiles (Peter in Acts 2, Paul in Galatians 2, 1 Corinthians 11).  Psychological habits were revealed by the practicality of table fellowship. This is ironic considering that the supper Jesus instituted was a symbol of fellowship, welcome, and inclusion.  At the meal Jesus instituted, the psychology of disgust is dismantled.  But our table does not always reflect that reality.  Now, just as then, it is hard for us to understand the radically egalitarian nature of the gospel.  The human tendency toward exclusion can reassert itself and cause us to import boundaries from culture into the life of the church.

Despite the many psychological forces working toward exclusion, hospitality serves as a positive action of inclusion.  The welcoming of strangers is the quintessential Christian practice.  It was the most controversial aspect of Jesus’ ministry, the most radical aspect of Israel’s God, and a defining feature of the early church.  What’s so great about hospitality?  Well, sin is dehumanizing; it divides between “in” and “out” – and those who are “out” are less than human.  Hospitality humanizes – it recognizes and embraces humanity in an outsider. Hospitality is countercultural.  Hospitality is resistance.

The potential critique is: If love (as displayed by inclusion through “extreme” hospitality) involves tearing down boundaries, aren’t we vulnerable?  This objection comes from two areas: psychotherapeutic and ecclesial.  In psychotherapeutic terms, talk of embrace flies in the face of recommendations to establish boundaries for your own emotional well-being.  Beck’s response to this critique is essentially, “That's right; love does not erect boundaries that psychotherapists recommend.”  Discussion of establishing boundaries does not have “love” in mind, but secular “healthy relationships.”  This is a secular idea that should not enter Christian psychotherapy.  The Christian “self” is in God’s triune, mutually self-giving image.

The objection in ecclesial terms is that boundaries are what make communities.  Scripture warns against losing our saltiness, and describes expulsive aspects of the early church (1 Corinthians 5).  Beck grants that this is true, but that it usually backfires.  In the extreme, it leads to scapegoating violence.  Mildly, it preserves rather than challenges the status quo.  Who are we to decide who is demon (out-group) and who is not?  Holiness pushes against hospitality – emphasizing withdrawal, expulsion, and quarantine.  Again we see tension between mercy and sacrifice. 

Ultimately, the question is not how churches handle discipline, communion, etc.  The question is whether those decisions/practices are affecting the way we experience others.  Are these practices reinforcing (or creating) sociomoral disgust?  It may be that boundaries are necessary for communal integrity, but these cannot be faithfully established before matters of the heart are addressed.

Unfortunately, many of these “matters of the heart” are subtle, subconscious psychological dynamics.  Therefore, we must be skeptical toward ourselves and assume that we are psychologically compromised by disgust.  “Discussions of purity and sin cannot be primary discussions.  For when the ‘will to purity’ trumps the ‘will to embrace’ (when sacrifice precedes mercy), the gears of sociomoral disgust begin to turn, poisoning the well of hospitality…The church begins to define its spiritual mission as the regulation of purity boundaries within the membership and between outsiders” (p.139).

--In Chapter Five, Beck emphasizes the number of times that Jesus does the opposite of what is expected (contact precedes purification in cleansing, for instance).  How can we do the opposite of what is expected now?  What is expected now?
--In Chapter Five, Beck says, “Calls for embrace are swimming upstream against an innate and ingrained psychology [of disgust and exclusion]” (p. 89).  If we can’t make “upstream” become “downstream” (if we can’t reverse the psychology) – what do we do?
--In Chapter Seven, Beck says, “After practicing welcome others (and being welcomed in return) to the ‘Lord’s Table’ Christians leave the ritual to practice embrace at every table…The Lord’s Supper, through its metaphors and the missional practices it promotes, is a ritual that is fundamentally altering and remaking the psyche.  The Lord’s Supper reconfigures the way we experience otherness.  [It] dismantles the psychic fissures within the heart that create otherness” (p.113).  How does the typical practice of communion in Churches of Christ (if there even is a typical practice anymore) achieve or not achieve this goal?  How could it?
--In Chapter Seven Beck discusses the tendency to import sociomoral boundaries from culture into church life.  Which boundaries are we importing?  Which boundaries have we created on our own, not found in either culture or in the gospel?
--Chapter Eight is all about hospitality.  What does hospitality look like?
--It seems like the big question is: How do we make the will to embrace the default position?


  1. Naomi,

    Thanks for your summary, your questions (and thanks for waiting to hear from us)!

    Much of Beck’s writing, appropriately so, focuses on our view of others. Are we implicitly making people into monsters, scapegoats, and outsiders?

    Reflecting on this last section, though, I could not wonder if part of this problem that we have created in churches is largely due not to how we view others, but more so about how we view ourselves. This seems to be central to the Pharisees psychology—they viewed themselves as, literally, “the set apart ones.” And so like the Pharisees we say to ourselves, “Oh, I could not be wrong about this issue. Oh, I wish those people would just be enlightened as I have been. I wish they would come up to my level.” We implicitly elevate ourselves, and move ourselves closer to the divine.

    Into this predicament I think passages like Philippians 2 are instructive to Pharisaic thinking. This Christ hymn paints Jesus as being “up with God” and yet coming “down with the people.” Would it be extending Beck’s logic (page 94) too far to say that in this hymn we see Jesus making himself into a monster? In other words, in Jesus we find a combination of the “high” and “low.” Jesus makes himself monstrous.

    Notice the monstrous contrasts in the hymn: full/empty, Divine/slave, God-like/human likeness, up/down. (That makes sense in my head; hopefully it makes sense to you). The challenge of the Christ hymn, in this respect, is that even if we implicitly elevate ourselves as “up above the rest” this model of Jesus calls us to take on a monstrous form by joining in “down there.”

    So our view of self ultimately is concerned about conforming us into the model of Christ. We do not worry so much about where we are in relation to others (focusing on them); rather we worry more about if we are taking on the scandalous shape of Jesus’ life (focusing on us and ultimately on him).

    I wonder if this emphasis would help to fight against some of the implicit ways we build boundaries. I wonder if this would be a step toward swimming upstream.

    1. Wilson, I like the way you have placed Philippians 2 on the "divinity dimension." This is fertile ground for constructive thought that is practical and would communicate well I think. If Jesus doesn't make himself monstrous, he at very least makes himself "dirt." I think that such a movement does a fine job of exploring how Christian praxis discards the false assumptions behind the divinity dimension.

    2. Wilson, this is really insightful! Specifically, I'm reacting to your observation that the way we think about ourselves can lead to unhealthy divisions from those who are different that ourselves. Your example of the Pharisees' self-identity leading to a feeling of superiority over the ones to whom they were to be a blessing!

      Christians in our Western context have become obsessed with the idea of having separation from the world as a way of obtaining purity. The stated goal is to attain a level of purity, but I wonder how much of this is a cop out way for us to avoid the difficult work of discipleship and evangelism. Yes, we Christians are in this world, but not of this world. However, that doesn't fundamentally change that we share humanity with all others God created. My opinion: Western Christians have settled for the easy route: separation rather than genuine engagement.

      As I hinted at a moment ago, I think we should fundamentally see ourselves as part of God's creation, focusing on the fact that we share a human bond with one another.

      Sidenote: This separation between Christians and non-Christians is explored in a very provacative way in a book called "Unlikely Disciple" by Kevin Roose. He was a student at Brown University (an Ivy league school) who posed as a committed, fundamentalist Christian and spent a semester at Liberty University. He wrote about his experiences in this book. It was tremendous; I highly recommend it.

  2. Naomi, excellent summary of a lot of complex material. You ask the question about ch5 and Jesus doing the opposite of what was expected, and in particular how we can accomplish the same--do the unexpected.

    I think that one of the most influential ideas in this section has to do with the tracing out of the dichotomy that really exists between the prophetic and the priestly threads. In this light, it is essential that we see that it is the pharisees who are expecting his behavior to be a certain way--they want him to act according to the priestly tradition. Jesus surprises them by revealing himself to be a prophet calling God's people away from pharisaic reliance on priestly purity understandings.

    Sadly, I think that Jesus' behavior is unexpected to us because many of us understand priestly purity as the defining characteristic of the church. We are not perfect--just forgiven. But that forgivenness makes us closer to God and the rest of you folks are all monsters.

    At base, I think we must find ways to embrace the prophetic call of Jesus so that this becomes our fundamental default position--then the actions of Jesus won't shock us or surprise us. This leads to your last question... how do we teach people to set the will to embrace as the default. To this question I think that we must embrace praxis. Carlos Mesters once said that "God is known through one's feet." Our people must be asked to physically do it--not simply hear a couple sermons on it. I think all too often we overvalue the effect of verbal instruction, but this is especially exacerbated in this case where disgust is not logical but psychologically rooted.

    In our church--which is not the greatest example of the will to embrace, but is genuinely trying--our most successful means of this is seen in our oppenness to homeless and poor in metro Detroit. Yes, in some ways this is simple charity, but we are not content with simply handing out food. We make a meal then share it with those in need--we eat the same meal with them while talking and physically being with them. We are also growing in our practice of confession of sin--more and more people are coming to us confessing moral shortcomings and struggles because they feel that while we will call them to a higher accountability and standard they will be affirmed and loved through it. This posture of openness toward the failing is a sign of grace as a default and a practice that develops into a culture of hospitality.

  3. I believe that the standard understanding of the eucharist within churches of Christ is woefully inadequate to accomplish the goals that Beck presents. I can think of three ways that we have dislocated the eucharist from a meal that cultivates hospitality and equality.

    1. We very rarely practice a true open communion. Despite the fact that most restoration fathers lauded an open communion, the truth is that most of our churches reserve eucharist for the baptized believers. I believe that this is a mistake. Closing communion accomplishes the goal of making sure that the participants have a rudimentary knowledge of what they are doing--it keeps the communion of Christ from those who have no relationship with him. But are these goals laudable or even scriptural? The church that I am with now practices open communion--for guests, children and all. In one of our services we practice what we call family communion where we do not pass trays, but families come tables set up throughout the room and partake together as we fellowship and love on one another (communing together). We believe that the eucharist provides us with an opportunity to tell the countercultural story of the kingdom in tangible ways. The table can do exactly what Beck has said--it can cut through divisions and contempt and disgust if we are willing to tell and hear its narrative. By opening the table we live into what that meal prefigures--the heaven banquet where all are together and equal and united in Christ. There are perhaps no more politically revolutionary moments in our worship than the eucharist (possibly giving).

    2. We fail to seize the opportunity to tell these revolutionary and countercultural stories because of our Zwinglian heritage. Within my own experience, most of the churches I attended did not view communion as a story or a praxis of the kingdom, rather it was simply a requirement for sound worship practice. We did not speak of the inclusion of others and hospitality. We spoke of a cracker and juice that represented the body and blood of Jesus on the cross. We pointed out that the cracker and juice never changed into anything--they were simply emblems. Jesus was symbolically present by our collective memory. Our symbolic view of eucharist has greatly kept us from making any of the connections to the larger story that communion really tells. We lose the opportunity to speak of Christ's real presence (borrowing that phrase from other reformers) and how that makes this experience together life-changing. Sadly, for many churches communion involves very little communing together--it is the quietest time in the church. It seems that many times we are not trying to tell any story other than efficiency--we must find ways to distribute the emblems as quickly as possible so that we can get on with it. We hurry through and we miss the point that might be the most important thing that we are doing that day.

    3. I think that the final hallmark of our communion service in churches of Christ that really flies in the face of it being a meal of inclusion is the fact that the service of the eucharist is male-dominated. Yes, this is a much larger issue that touches almost all facets of worship in the communal worship in churches of Christ; however, it comes to a particular head, I believe, in terms of the Lord's Table where the primary witness of the table speaks of equality and community and common unity in Christ (Gal 3:28 is a table text if ever there was one, right?). In most of our churches women are not able to lead a devotional, read scripture or pray publicly, or even stand in the aisle and pass trays. This gender division absolutely undercuts whatever we try and say about equality and community to the point that it is almost absurd. And I do not believe that I have overstated. I chose my words carefully.

    Okay, enough from me. I look forward to hearing from you all.

    1. Like Adam, my observations about the practice of communion in Churches of Christ is largely critical, not complimentary.

      "Typical" Church of Christ practice of the Lord's Supper is primarily focused on the individual taking and their personal relationship with God. It shares little communal elements other than sharing physical space with other believers and sharing the potential for germs to be communicated. [While I would not label myself a germaphobe, it seems to be that one would have lots of fodder from our Communion practices!] We do little to celebrate the radical community of God's kingdom other than share the same meal with believers who usually are pretty similar to me, in most respects.

      Even at Rochester Church's second assembly, where our Communion practice requires people to stand and take communion at tables situated around the room, we don't see a ton of interaction between people. Yes, I see individuals talking with others, but for the most part those taking communion form silent lines to walk to a table for a practice that is more or less focused on families sharing communion with one another.

      We posit communion as a meal, but it's not. When I ask someone to have lunch with me, it is specifically because I want to spend time with them, exchange ideas, encourage them, or to learn from them. Our communion practice has to fit within "X" number of minutes (or "Y" number of songs). We don't engage with one another. We are so inured in the practice of communion as being hurried, individualistic, and Christ-centered that we don't really image the community of Christ very well, let alone genuinely experience it.

      As I think back on the ways I've taught the theology of the Eucharist, I'm even more convicted of these points. Generally, the tack I take when teaching is two-fold. One, I try to help people engage in the supreme depth of meaning in communion. Two, I ask them to take our current experience of communion as symbols they can use to engage in that depth of meaning. Essentially, in the manner in which I've taught this, I'm acknowledging that our practice is broken (or, at minimum, severely lacking), and I'm trying give them a couple of tools to try and patch over the gaps.

      I'm just dreaming here, but it would be great if we could reclaim Communion as a meal, where we engage in life with one another. I dream of a communion practice that isn't rushed, hurried, and standardized. Now THAT would help us to overcome the clean/unclean divide. Our theology of the Eucharist proclaims the radically inclusive community of Christ; I long for a practice that allows us to engage this in more fully.

    2. Quote:
      We very rarely practice a true open communion. Despite the fact that most restoration fathers lauded an open communion, the truth is that most of our churches reserve eucharist for the baptized believers. I believe that this is a mistake.

      I do too. I can't help but think of Sara Miles' book "Take this bread" where she (an atheist) wanders into an Episcopal church and takes communion and has a conversion experience. By limiting communion, we not only set boundaries and other those not within them, we get in the way of what God may be doing in someone's life.

  4. "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice" is my bedrock for searching out the heart of God. But I am not a biblical scholar and so reading thru Beck and discussions on Beck, sometimes leaves me behind or re-reading closely to grasp what is being shared. So I really appreciated coming across this phrase in your blog which gave me a great laugh: "Scripture warns against losing our saltines," - I thought - really - losing our saltines? (as in crackers?) and then realized it was just missing the final "s" to make it saltiness. Or maybe we really need to be careful about losing our crackers?
    Anyway - I DO appreciate everyone's thoughtfulness on the subject and am greatly looking forward to Streaming this year and be enriched and encouraged in understanding God's call in our life to live out mercy. After all, it is not often we get such a directive to "Go and Learn" what something means ... and for me it will be a lifetime pursuit.