What Defiles, What Defines

What Defiles, What Defines August 24, 2015

Pentecost 16  Elijah and theFalse Prophets, Outside the Cave Church at the Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey.It’s election year in the US, and the mudslinging has begun. Score-keeping, which is tracked by the pollsters, records what mud is thrown, how badly it stinks, and whether it sticks. Right now there is a hunger for what the press terms ‘red meat’. But by the end of the season, a year from now, we will be groaning for an end to this.

So many candidates are in the field it resembles the Hunger Games. When at last some are driven out, cheers will go up, except from their home districts. It is a national entertainment, a blood sport.

Mark tells the story of Jesus being rebuked by some local pious folks because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. Americans, who eat a lot of drive-through meals in their cars, will find this amusing.  And candidates, who have to eat food from stalls at State Fairs while walking around and talking to the press, will wish they could sit down at a table and at least wipe their hands with a towelette.

Pentecost 16 William Blake, 1804, To annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit and False Forgiveness, NY Public LibraryJesus, who constantly battles against judging people by rules of piety, takes on his critics, quoting Scripture and adding his own emphasis to Isaiah’s words, that pious disclaimers do not begin to make up for insincere spirits.  In fact, Jesus turns the tables on his critics, saying that carping criticism and smear campaigns arise from defiled spirits, and that it isn’t what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out of our mouths is what defiles.  He gets specific:  “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Already a number of these defilements are being slung about in the political fracas, some of them by conservative Christian candidates.

And there are a surprising number of these conservative Christians running, in a country that is shrugging its shoulders at religion, as data like the Pew Report shows. Large declines in church attendance are reported across the board. All sorts of Christians share this decline, evangelicals, mainlines, Catholics, Pentecostals.  In a nation of people who are now largely ignorant about the Bible, it becomes hard to challenge candidates hurling charges of defilement a Christian duty, and citing their prized pieties.

And yet, in the midst of all this, we have had three inspiring witnesses to real Christian faith and duty recently, and the nation has been, for a moment, deeply moved by each:

Pentecost 16, Henn, Ulrich 2008, Healing the Sick, St. James Cathedral door, Seattle, WADr.  Kent Brantly, who contracted ebola in Africa as a missionary doctor, was interviewed on the PBS News Hour about his recovery. When asked if he thought his healing had been a miracle, brought about by his faith and prayer, Dr. Brantly said No. He said his healing had been the result of hard work by nurses, doctors, and researchers who had offered him an experimental medicine. He made this distinction, that it was his faith that brought him into contact with ebola, to which he would not have been exposed if he had not, in faith, volunteered to serve there. And of his healing, he said God was involved, but he thanks and love went to the community of people who were dedicated to healing.

The Charleston AME church, in the wake of horrific shootings, gave us another witness to deep faith, in the testimonies of their grieving families who refused to hate the killer, and in their slow and prayerful walk with the body of Clementa Pinckney, as he was carried from the State Capitol to the Arena where his funeral was held. The absence of blame in their many words in these days was unexpected, and deeply moving to most folks I know.

Replace 11 Pres Carter  Carter Ctr photo PCportrait2000And last week, former President Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation acknowledging his grave medical situation, saying that he was grateful to be filled with peace, not fear and not anger, in response to this news, and that he looked forward to the next adventure, relying on his faith.

All these witnesses spoke with a graciousness that has become rare in America. We have become inured to bickering and name-calling, and we are entertained by bombast and outrageous words. Yet the power of Christian faith, expressed by those who spirits are undefiled by envy, slander, pride, folly, deceit, wickedness, and all the other feelings Jesus named, feelings that have no gracious voice in them, has held our attention far more than any rhetoric of politics so far.

Two decades of unrelenting scandals exposing the defilement of the church has left Americans skeptical that there can be such a thing as holy faith.  Dr. Brantly, the AME community, and Jimmy Carter remind us that Christian faith is not about pietistic living, but is about a trust in God that will allow us to walk into the presence of painful life and horrific death, filled with the grace of the Spirit and able to honor it in everyone.



1. Elijah and the False Prophets. Outside the Cave Church at the Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey.  Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

2.  To annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit and False Forgiveness,William Blake, 1804. New York Public Library, prints. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

3.  Healing the Sick. Henn, Ulrich. 2008. St. James Cathedral, door, Seattle, WA.Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

4.  President Jimmy Carter, 2000, Carter Center photo from Biography page.

Browse Our Archives