Who is unclean?

Two days after the window’s installation, Peregrine and I held a housewarming. We kept it intimate – the only people invited were our good Australian friends who have been living in local slums for 17 years, our Hindu landlady Gulshan Didi, and the Muslim family who was renting the room below ours.

As Gulshan Didi and my Australian friend both worked for development organizations, the conversation soon focused around development and helping people. There was tense conversation about “bad people” versus “good people”, about whether it is love or money that really makes a difference in people’s lives, and whether “good people” are corrupted by “bad people” or whether the influence of “good people” can help these “bad people” become better. We talked about Jesus, and his example and what he has asked us Christians to do, and prayed together for the room and our lives and the whole slum in the end.

Gulshan Didi’s view of what makes a person “good” or “bad” enveloped several internal contradictions. She felt that money, not love, is what changes people. She spoke proudly of how she was helping the family downstairs, but at the same time referred to Muslims as “dirty” and stated that she hated to have to live among them. While commenting on the work we wished to do, she suggested that all those “dirty people” should just be avoided.

We live in a neighborhood where Muslim families and Hindu families get along fairly well, living in the same alleyways and sometimes even in the same homes. Yet there are tensions. When expressing those tensions, this word “dirty” comes up most often. Muslims often think Hindus are dirty, Hindus often think Muslims are dirty, and everyone thinks that everyone poorer (or lower caste) than them is dirty.

Of course, this concept of uncleanliness is not limited to local tensions. In India I found that many foreigners think Indians are dirty, while many Indians think foreigners are dirty. The rationales given for those positions are fascinating. Listen to a Westerner claim that Indians are dirty, and they might variously mention that Indians aren’t sanitary in their cooking practices, eat with their hands, use water in their hands to clean when using the toilet, have different funeral practices, and live in poor-quality dwellings. Listen to an Indian claim that Westerners are dirty, and they might mention that Westerners eat pigs and worms, eat with the same utensils that other people have put in their mouths, use their right hand (but no water) to clean when using the toilet, express sexual activity right out in the open, and go out in public with their hair and clothing unkempt.

Back in America, of course, I have met plenty of Black people who think White people are dirty, White people who think Black people are dirty, 20th-century immigrants who think 21st-century immigrants are dirty (and 19th to 20th and so on), everyone thinks anyone poorer than themselves is dirty, etc. Even back when the first Europeans appeared on American shores, the Europeans couldn’t believe how little clothing the “savage” Native Americans wore, and the Native Americans couldn’t believe how rarely the “savage” Europeans bathed.

You don’t need to do much reading to realize that all the way back in Jesus’s time, Jews thought the Gentiles were dirty, Samaritans thought the Jews were dirty, and on and on.

You must know that it is forbidden for a Jewish man to mix with or visit a Gentile. But God showed me that I should call nobody ‘common’ or ‘unclean.’ So I came when I was asked, and raised no objections.1

When God told Peter not to regard others as “common” or “unclean,” it was in the context of ritual Jewish purity codes. I don’t think it is a stretch to apply this understanding to other communal and cultural differences. To regard another community as “dirty” appears to be a universal human tendency, a way to elevate ourselves above others. We can find all sorts of reasons to justify it, from differing hygiene standards to differing eating habits. But the more time you spend in different cultures, the more those “reasons” begin to feel like “justifications” for something deeper.

What need are your people trying to meet when they refer to another people as dirty? How could you help them to meet that need in a more fulfilling way?


[1] Acts 10:28

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