Saturday, September 22, 2012


For anyone who either grew up in the church or is familiar with the more often-told Bible stories, you probably know the story of the woman caught in adultery.  If you are not familiar, here is an excerpt from John 8:  
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her....” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I've seen this story come up multiple times in discussions over certain social issues around which there is much debate and disagreement.  When I read this story, two things stand out to me.  The first is, where the hell is the man?  Unless I'm misunderstanding something, it takes two people to commit an act of adultery.  Was he in the crowd with a rock in his hand?  What injustice that only this woman is facing death for a crime committed by two equal participants!

The second thing I see is how Jesus stands up for her, this scorned woman who is facing the judgment of the religious leaders of the day.  He not only saves her from a brutal death, but treats her with dignity.  What a scene that must have been and what confusion she must have experienced at this shocking change in her fate.  When I read this, I see a story of mercy, grace, and love, but also of justice -- the woman is treated equally with the man and does not receive solo punishment for the sin of two. Those are the things that stand out to me in this story

I've noticed, however, that what some people focus on in this story is that last line, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  In the KJV translation, it reads, "Go, and sin no more."  To some, it seems, the main point of this story is that Jesus tells her to stop sinning.  Sure, the rest of the story is nice, but look!  Jesus made it clear that she had to lead a blameless life for the rest of her days!

It has always troubled me, this split in how the story is explained and how some seem to use it like a weapon against those they believe are sinning in a way that is less acceptable than their own sin.  I would always be baffled that the proverbial "moral of the story" could be so completely different to people who all seem to agree on the basic tenets of the Christian faith. 

I just finished reading a book by Richard Beck titled Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality that shed light for me on why there is such a difference in approach when this type of story is discussed.  I wish I had read this years ago.  I have re-read this section of the book (below) numerous times, and now that I've had time to consider it, it makes perfect sense.  For anyone who has spent a lot of time studying psychology, this may be old news.  For me, well, mind = blown.
Given that the experience of the divine is often regulated by disgust psychology, conversations about God, sin and holiness are often being torpedoed at some deep level. A dumbfounding is occurring. These dynamics make conversations about God inherently difficult because our experience of the divine is being regulated by emotion rather than logic, affect rather than theology. I think people in churches have always known this, and felt that people in conflict within the church were generally talking past each other....
Conservatives make appeals to the Purity/Sanctity foundation while liberals restrict their moral judgments to the foundations of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. This is simply another way of saying that liberals, weakly or strongly, reject appeals to a vertical, transcendent dimension... in favor of the horizontal dimension of human affairs.
Conservatives will contend that there are times when the sacred...should be privileged over the... call for justice or equity.... For liberals, the metaphysical (“the sacred”) isn’t a category worthy of consideration if real world harm and injustice are at stake.... (emphasis mine)
 I highly recommend reading Dr. Beck's book, as this excerpt really doesn't do justice to his thorough examination of the analysis he offers, but I hope you can see what he is getting at here and what his words illuminated for me.  When I read it, I immediately thought of the different responses to the adulterous woman story. Due to our life experiences and the way our minds work, some of us are thinking more of what is fair, caring, and just when we consider what is "right" and what is "wrong" or what we focus on in certain issues.  Due to the same factors, others are thinking more of what is righteous, pure, or acceptable when considering what is "right" or what is "wrong."

I know this insight doesn't actually change anything.  It doesn't make me more likely to think about the story of the adulterous woman in a different way or change my mind about other frequently debated issues.  I will still disagree with people over where I stand.  However, it does help me see that there will be times when I need to step back and appreciate that I'm arguing in a completely different right vs. wrong "language" than another person.  It doesn't make either of us bad people, it just means that our brains work so differently that we may never be able to agree on that subject.

This knowledge reminds me that there will be times when I need to determine if my relationship with a person is more important than trying to get them to see where I am coming from.  I may never truly grasp the point of view of someone whose mind works differently, but there may be ways to compensate for this difference.  We may never gain full comprehension, but maybe we can get to understanding in the sense of "a state of cooperative or mutually tolerant relations between people."  If we can find a way to relate to those on the other side of this divide, cooperation may be possible.  I have to believe that even if we never get there, it is a goal worth pursuing.

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