Our collective dismay and compassion for victims and for our human family in general is immediate and profound in the aftermath of such horrific events as the Orlando shooting.
Some have observed that we as a society are more “together” than any other time in response to such things as 9/11, Sandy Hook, Charleston, the Paris attacks and now Orlando.
Others note the short-lived nature of this togetherness and the ease with which we move back into our polarized and alienated routines of thought and action.
While some of our large-scale tragedies can be attributed primarily to the mental derangement of one or a few individuals, those with the “hate crime” feature, such as seems clear in Orlando, prompt us to deeper reflection.
For me, this reflection has made clear an important distinction between an ethics of purity and an ethics of wholeness. Purity and wholeness are both good things, but as guides for an ethical perspective, they can lead in different directions.
It was a concern for purity that led the Judaizers of the early church to insist that Gentile newcomers to the movement adhere first to Jewish rites before being accepted.
It was a concern for wholeness that led Paul to challenge their assumption that said, “You will be welcome if you become like us first.”
Throughout Christian history, theological orthodoxy has defended the purity of its beliefs against those who would raise questions, rejecting and, at times, severely persecuting those “others” whose presence and ideas threaten the comfort and security of a closed system.
The vantage point of later reflection usually sees that the wholeness of a faith tradition is better served by embracing the “other” and being refined by the encounter than by a protective passion for the purity of a given point of the process.
It was an appeal and passion for purity that enabled totalitarian nationalism to thrive in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the Holocaust solution to the “Jewish problem.”
It was an ethics of purity that fueled and guided white supremacist groups like the KKK to terrorize the American South for generations, seeking to suppress and eliminate those who would “contaminate” the human race.
An ethics of purity operates from an image of perfection and prompts a defensive reaction to any “other” whose life, values and perspective represent a contamination of what one believes is right. The ease with which it can lead to violence in that defense is becoming obvious.
An ethics of wholeness, on the other hand, looks through a different lens at the “other.”
Embracing the covenant concept of “shalom,” this ethical perspective affirms the interrelatedness of all of life and sees the “other” as an essential complement to life and a necessary ingredient to the fulfillment of community.
Wholeness does not require perfection, but seeks the kind of life and community that transcends the perfect/imperfect measures to a deeper pattern of thinking of what is good and true.
An important part of the danger of an ethics of purity is the ease with which it can be made to seem virtuous – “we must protect what is right and true at all costs.”
We can see this among the “true believers” in distorted forms of both Islam and Christianity, whose fear of contamination from other ways of thinking is easily “radicalized” into patterns of thought and behavior that are detrimental to the health of community and can lead to violent reactions.
An ethics of perfection serves an illusion of perfection that can be restored by the elimination of whatever challenge has contaminated it.
An ethics of wholeness – shalom – serves the hopeful possibility of a community that moves toward what the Gospels call the Kingdom of God.
An ethics of wholeness can be risky because it opens up a vulnerability to be changed by our embrace and encounter with the “other.”
It seems that we should be learning the lesson by now that an ethics of purity is far riskier in where it can lead.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.