Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Myth of Purity

"A Rainbow in the Wilderness"

A few days ago I heard a very disturbing news report about the series of revenge murders that have led to the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three Israeli teenagers were murdered followed by the tragic killing of 16-year old Palestinian boy who was burned alive. The part of this story that I found particularly "chilling" was that the suspects in the death of that Palestinian boy were members of a Jewish militant group committed to Jewish "racial purity" - devoted to cleansing Israel of Arabs and eliminating those who are not of pure Jewish blood.   

I found this to be particularly reprehensible especially in light of the fact that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs were committed to this exact same principle of ethnic cleaning and racial purity. Only back then the tables were turned, and it was Jewish people who were targeted and systematically eliminated from a society that aspired to "Aryan" purity. 

I've been thinking about that word "purity." Growing up, it was a word frequently used in my spiritual-religious lexicon. As a boy I was taught all about the virtues of purity and urged to aspire to this virtue by avoiding sin (especially sexual sins). The lives of great saints were often upheld as models to be emulated - they were so much better than us and we should aspire to be like them by keeping the commandments, going to church, saying our prayers, and leading a life of "purity" in body, mind and spirit. 

I have since come to believe that the aspiration to "purity" is inherently dangerous and an impediment rather than a virtue on the spiritual journey.  As I see it, "purity" is little more than a sense of "moral superiority." People who think of themselves as "pure"or who wish to be "pure" believe that somehow they are better than others or at least desire to be so. 

On a spiritual journey we recognize that we are all a web of interdependence - each and every one of us in a place of equal dignity and equal value. There are no different others--some who are superior and some who are inferior. We all belong to the one "human race."

There are plenty of people today who believe they are superior to others. Many White people believe they are superior to people of color, citizens are superior to and more worthy than immigrants. There are still plenty of Christians who believe they have a moral superiority over Jews and Muslims, and lots of religious people who think they have a moral edge over non-believers, atheists or agnostics.

When people believe they are superior to others, they aspire to "purity," -motivated by a desire  to cleanse themselves of those who are "supposedly" impure, tainted and inferior.

There is another reason why I think "purity" is a serious impediment on the spiritual journey. If I am always supposed to be pure, it's pretty hard to recognize the value of mistakes and failure along the way.  And yet, human beings are beautifully imperfect and wonderfully flawed - we all make mistakes, we fall short of our ideals and don't live up to our potential. Our failures and our flaws are opportunities for us to learn forgiveness and practice compassion, reaching out to one another in care and support.

From time to time, when there is monsoonal moisture in the air, a rainbow will appear over the desert mountains in the summertime. The rainbow always teaches me that there is no such thing as "pure light." All light is actually a wonderful chaotic mixture of many hues and colors - and light emerges out of the mix.

 So it is with us in our human existence. None of us is "pure light."  We are all a messy mix of hue and color - all walking hand in hand in the beautiful struggle of living every day.

Purity is a dangerous myth.

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