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Pure Religion?

Much evil has been committed in the name of religion when people are obsessed with spiritual purity and set up an authoritarian system to prevent spiritual contamination.
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When Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt the relationship between the Hebrews and the Egyptians was good. But after a while all that changed. What caused the Egyptians to enslave the Hebrews and treat them so roughly?

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with cleanliness and hygiene. No wonder, because with living on the Nile Delta, pathogens and parasites were rife. The Roman historian Herodotus records, “Their priests shave the whole body every other day, so that no lice or anything else foul may infest them as they attend upon the gods.” (Histories 2.37).

The Egyptians invented such things as deodorant, toothpaste, and breath mints; such was their distaste for bad smells and anything that would remind them of the rottenness of disease. The magicians we read about in Exodus were the priests of the Egyptian cult and doubled as physicians, warding off the evil spirits they regarded as responsible for disease.

The Egyptians also regarded anyone and anything outside of Egypt as part of the chaos that challenged the “ma’at,” or order, of Egypt. The fact they were a foreign people wasn’t the only thing going against the Hebrews. As recorded in Exodus 1:8, a new Pharaoh arose who “did not know Joseph.” That doesn’t mean he had never heard of Joseph but that the personal relationship between Egypt and Israel had been lost.

Pharaoh’s speech to the Egyptians, as the Hebrews continued to multiply, is insightful:

“Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Exo. 1:9-10)

That’s the language of fear and anti-Hebrew propaganda. If we don’t do something about them, Pharaoh told the people, they’ll take our jobs, our houses, and our land.

Just before Pharaoh’s speech, there’s an ambiguous reference to the growth of the Hebrews – “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (v7).

That sounds like an echo of Genesis 1:28, where God told men and women to be fruitful and multiply. It uses that language, but there’s one word used here in Exodus that isn’t in that verse in Genesis. It’s the word “increased,” which is also used in Genesis 1, but in verses 20-21 where it talks about the animal kingdom, which is also commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but also to “swarm” – the word used here of the Hebrews. The only other time that word is used in Exodus is in chapter 8 and the plague of frogs which swarmed all over the land.

Why was Pharaoh so harsh towards the Hebrews?

What’s going on here is the dehumanization of the Hebrew people. To the Egyptians, they were like creepy crawlies, swarming about filling the land and threatening their livelihood. Later, when Moses and Aaron first asked Pharaoh to let the people go, and he responded by making their lives even harder, the complaint of the Hebrews was, “you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants” (Exo. 5:21).

Why was Pharaoh so harsh towards the Hebrews? A curiosity of ancient and modern societies is that the prevalence of infectious diseases is often linked with authoritarianism. That was the state the Hebrews found themselves in under Pharoah’s regime in the Nile delta. But why should authoritarianism be correlated with disease? Here’s a suggestion:

“The hypothesis follows from an analysis of several defining characteristics of authoritarian political systems (such as institutionalized emphasis on social conformity, intolerance of dissent, and ethnocentrism) that may have implications for the spread of infectious disease.

“Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions therefore posed a health threat to self and others.” (Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism, Damian R. Murray, Mark Schaller, Peter Suedfeld, May 1, 2013)

In another paper entitled “How Does Ideological Disgust Lead to Cultural Authoritarianism?” (Craig Harper, Dec 25, 2017, Open Psychological Science), the author writes,

“Given how disgust is intrinsically linked to contamination, we can see how an ideological form of disgust could lead to authoritarian behaviours to stop the spread of ‘infectious ideas… Authoritarianism, then, is an appropriate behavioural safeguard against the spread of infectious ideas.”

A modern-day example of this phenomenon is seen in Rwanda, famous for being at the center of genocide in 1994. The regime there is an autocratic dictatorship, and its capital, Kigali, is noted for its extreme cleanliness. But more eerily, we look to the words of Adolf Hitler, who was a germaphobe and obsessed with the idea of infection. He is famous for using language that dehumanized the Jews.

In his speeches, he would say things like this, referring to the Jewish people: “This is the battle against a veritable world sickness which threatens to infect the peoples, a plague that devastates whole peoples… an international pestilence.” He also consistently referred to the Jews as parasites. This rhetoric and dehumanization of the Jews were crucial in carrying out the Final Solution because if the Jews were parasites, they needed to be stamped out.

However, things may not need to be as bad as the taskmasters of Egypt, the Rwandan genocide, or the Holocaust for this kind of thing to rear its ugly head. Many of us struggle with those who we consider different. Our world is full of xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, discrimination against disabled people, and a whole host of other ways that people we’re uncomfortable around are labeled negatively and derided.

It should not be the case for brothers and sisters in Christ. While we might not think we’re xenophobic or racist, we can betray our natural prejudices in little ways, like referring to other ecclesias, groups of ecclesias, fellowships, or other churches, with derogatory terms. We can be just like the scribes and Pharisees who belittled a group in society, labeling them as “tax collectors and sinners.” Or when we’re part of a clique and don’t want other people in our group.

Much evil has been committed in the name of religion when people are obsessed with spiritual purity and set up an authoritarian system to prevent spiritual contamination. Let’s not allow ourselves to descend to such depths but realize instead that because of the gospel,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Richard Morgan

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In today’s reading from James 1 we have a very succinct summary of what true religion entails – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27). It’s a curious verse for several reasons, one of which is James’ use of the word “religion”.
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