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.
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?