When his friends found out that Peter was eating with gentiles, he told them a story, the story of his revelation from God. Peter explained it to them step by step. The key line is verse 9, after Peter tells God that “nothing profane or unclean has ever entered [his] mouth.” Then it says, “But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’” (Acts 11:9). What God has made clean, you must not call profane. And, a few verses later, Peter says, “The Spirit told me… not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). No distinction between them and us.
Pure and impure, clean and unclean, us and them. Societies are born from these distinctions; our lives look the way they do because of these differences, the difference between us and them. We’ve been taught to think this way from the beginning, by playground politics, the neighborhoods our parents took us to, the schools we were put into, who we ate lunch with, who sat at the other table, the sports we played.
To this day, I have a feeling in my gut, a bad feeling, whenever I’m around football players, because, growing up as a soccer player, there was competition between our two sports, competition for fans on Friday nights, competition for field space.
There’s a feeling inside me that comes from nowhere, when I think of football—they are “them,” in my mind, and as soon as I categorize them as them, I add all sorts of unhelpful stereotypes, of being impure, unclean, the worst of the worst when it comes to high school and college life.
This is why it was a good thing for me to watch all those seasons of Friday Night Lights, all those hours of TV, to get to know characters like Tim Riggins and Smash Williams and, my favorite guy, Landry.
Us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure. These categories are second-nature to us. We live in them. We benefit from them. We can spend our lives struggling to get beyond them, only for the categories to be beaten back into our world with a sexist or racist comment, distinctions forced upon us by a law, like this ridiculous bathroom legislation in North Carolina.
In the story from Acts, Peter gets in trouble for going where he’s not supposed to go, associating with people he’s not supposed to be around, crossing a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed. He eats with people who are unclean, dirty people. His friends ask him, “Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (11:3)
Us and them, clean and unclean. Here, in the South, bathrooms have been the center of these debates for a long time now. We’ve seen pictures of those old signs, above the doors of bathrooms—whites in this one, coloreds in this other one. Clean and unclean.
In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas gets to the heart of the matter, arguing that Western cultures are obsessed with creating and policing boundaries, divisions between pure and impure, between clean and dirty, between this race and that one, between male and female. Not that any of these distinctions are natural, because there are plenty of other cultures that don’t need them, that don’t have them, but that part of what it means to be Western is that we are obsessed with categorizing people. We sustain our societies by making up lines between this group and that one, lines that we police with bathroom legislation, with miscegenation and marriage laws, with real estate practices and voting rules, with prisons and borders.
These obsessions infuse our Western imagination, argues Mary Douglas. We’ve been told that a safe world means we have to police the boundaries between purity and impurity, between clean and unclean, between them and us. A safe world is made up of people we can control, people we can fit into our categories.
Purity means a safe world. Impurity means danger. And no mixing allowed. Because that would destabilize everything—that’s the worry, that’s the fear, that society would collapse if we stopped policing the divisions we’ve created, these discriminations between people, distinctions that sustain our culture.
Back to bathrooms. In the 1970s, Junichirō Tanizaki noticed that bathrooms in Western cultures are usually white—white paint, white tile, white tubs, white sinks. “There is no denying the cleanliness,” he wrote, “every nook and corner is pure white.” There is a Western obsession “to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it,”[i] Tanizaki said.
Bodily fluids have always been at the center of our worries about purity and danger, about clean and unclean, especially what our culture does to women, to their bodies and fluids. We (and by we, I’m definitely thinking about men here, the category of people who have been empowered, generation after generation, to make the rules, to write the laws and to enforce them)—we have made a world that has a lot to say about a woman’s body, your bodies, about milk and blood, the weight of a culture bearing down on a body.
Our culture, our laws, try to control the flow of fluids, making judgments, regulating where they can go, what can be seen and what must remain unseen, what belongs in this bathroom and not that one. The white toilet is a cultural statement about what clean looks like, and what is unclean, what needs to be wiped away, sanitized, disposed, hidden.
My favorite bathroom is at a coffee shop in Durham. It’s blood red, the color of life.
Acts 11:9, “The voice from heaven [said to Peter], ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ ” Pure and profane, them and us, white and brown, clean and dirty.
A while ago I was working at a community garden around here, and I was digging beside a little girl, seven years old, I’d never met her before. We were talking about worms and grubs, all the creeping and crawling things in the ground. She said that her mom always warned her to beware of lice. I asked if she knew what to watch out for, I asked her how we would know if lice were around, so I could make sure we didn’t get any on us. I was being playful, curious.
She turned her head up to me, and her eyes narrowed, squinting because, I guessed, of the bright sun shining down from above me. She told me that she had to stay away from the Mexicans, because they carry lice on their bodies, dirty bodies she said, and I looked down at my arms and hands, and wondered if she noticed how brown I am, if she knew that my blood flows from dark people, brown people, from places further south than Mexico.
As a kid our only family vacation was a once a year trip from Tucson, Arizona to San Diego, California, driving West on interstate 8. I remember two checkpoints. The first one was right after Yuma, as we crossed into California. The other was somewhere before El Cajon, I think. We’d get pulled over every time, my dad driving our Ford Aerostar, and we would have to wait on the side of the highway, watching all the white people get waved through. Sometimes we’d wait for a long time, because they’d take my dad into a trailer, for questioning. Sometimes we’d have to get out of the van so the border patrol agents could look through our stuff, with dogs sniffing around our vehicle. Those are the memories that flash into my mind when I think about traveling, when I think about vacations.
Acts 11:8-9, “But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ ”
Acts 11:12, “The Spirit told me… not to make a distinction between them and us.”
I preached a sermon a couple years ago about working in prisons. I told you a story of the chaplain at Central Prison in Raleigh, how he told me that prisoners are a different kind of human than us. “They are not like us,” he told me during my first visit at the facility. I told you how he made me repeat that sentence back to him, before he gave me an official visitation card. “Before you go in there,” he said, “you’ve gotta know that they are not like us. Repeat after me, they are not like us.”
I told you about how I said it, even though I didn’t believe it, because I wanted to teach a class in there. I told you about how much I enjoyed working with the prisoners, how we read and wrote stories, sharing our lives together, and how we ended our year with a big meal, a communion of sorts. But I didn’t tell you this next part.
One day, when we finished our class inside the prison, as I was being led out of the classroom by a guard, my escort, I noticed that he reached into his pocket to pull out a latex glove, which he used to open each door we passed through, each door that prisoners had access to. He wouldn’t let his bare skin touch the same handle as the men in that facility. As soon as we made it to the corridors of the facility that were off limits to the prisoners, he put away his glove, touching doors and handles with his bare hands. These doors were clean, the others were unclean.
And here’s what I didn’t tell you. Here’s my confession. After class that day, when I got home, I did what I do every time I came home after class, automatically, as a reflex, without a thought, without ever knowing what I was doing, until this one day, because the memory of that latex glove was in my mind. Every Monday, when I got home from prison, I would walk to the kitchen sink, turn on the water and scrub my hands with soap, washing them, cleansing myself from prison.
I have never thought it important to wash my hands after church, after shaking all your hands. I’ve never thought of you as dirty, as unclean. Yet, somewhere, hidden in shadows of my mind, as I stood in front of my kitchen sink, I realized that I believed something that I didn’t think I believed—that, as much as I wanted to reject the mantra of the chaplain, that they are not like us, as much as I hated those words, as much as it made me sick to repeat after him, that there is a part of me, hidden in an unconscious place, that believes him. That’s what my body told me, when I noticed what it was doing with the soap and water.
The voice that spoke from heaven to Peter also speaks to me. It’s a word for us. The voice saying again and again, wherever we go, wherever we are: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
It’s a word from God about your neighbors. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” They are not unclean, they are not dirty, instead they are beloved by God.
It’s a word from God about you. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” You are not unclean, you are beloved.