The question of ‘taint’ came up recently in a conversation on the Methodist Conference’s Marriage and Relationships Report. It was in the context of being in a church where others adopt practices with which we disagree, and as a result, we are all ‘tainted’. I suppose in colloquial language, we would talk about ‘being tarred with the same brush’. I took the comment away with me because it challenged and disturbed me. I wondered if it was Biblical to talk about ‘taint’ in this way?
The Hebrew Bible is certainly a set of texts concerned with, among other things, purity. Washing and dietary laws, the relationship between people of different genders, menstruation, worship, and death all have aspects related to cleanliness and therefore the possibility of taint: corruption, defilement, ritual impurity. It is interesting, therefore, how often Jesus challenged these aspects of the law, especially when it came to fulfilling the central aspect of the law, namely loving service. The story of the Good Samaritan, where religious officials avoid contact for fear that the victim is already dead and therefore unclean, is a good example of Jesus’ attitude to purity laws. Or the story of the woman with haemorrhages, profoundly unclean, yet healed through touch. The list goes on of Jesus violating purity regulations in order to reach out in love and compassion. Eventually, the Church itself would adopt this radical gospel practice when it abandoned the mandatory keeping of Jewish dietary requirements (Acts 10 and 15).
Two passages from the gospels, for me, challenge completely the idea that a Christian can be, in any way, ‘tainted’ by association with another person:
It is important to set the context of Matthew’s gospel - one written to a predominantly Jewish Christian audience who would be well-acquainted with Jewish ritual purity laws. In chapter 11, Jesus despairs at those who proclaim his ‘guilt by association’. He is accused of gluttony and drunkenness for eating with sinners and tax collectors, whilst John the Baptist was branded demonic for being abstemious. Jesus brushes aside these charges of ‘taint’ and certainly does not change his practice of associating with those considered profane by his religious critics.
The second passage, I think, gives us an insight into Jesus’ theology of ‘taint’. In this, he argues that defilement is not caused by anything external, but ‘comes from the heart’. A person is to be judged, not by the company they keep, but by their actions and motivations.
This interpretation seems to challenge Paul’s advice to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 6:17, calling on Christians not to touch ‘unclean things’ and to separate from unbelievers. Is this not a call to purity and to avoid guilt by association? This text is still important to many modern Christians and was used in the recent past to justify apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, to insist of separate graveyards by the Free Presbyterians in Northern Ireland (even in death, taint is possible!) and to enforce segregation by Christians of many traditions in the American Deep South.
We are left with a profound Christian: can another human being, by their belief or action, taint a Christian? If the answer is ‘yes’, then I wonder how we can protect colleagues in our own Church who work among sex workers and drug addicts, or in prisons with unrepentant offenders? Or Christians in India who fight for justice and inclusion for Dalits whose very proximity, according to certain Indian cultures, taints people of caste?
For me, the very idea of taint or stain is profoundly anti-gospel. The reality of the Incarnation offers Christian the idea that mission can only be done in proximity, that God's love breaches every barrier. Jesus never seemed to avoid the physical touch of others and often reached out to others whose status had left them isolated for many years.
Fear of taint forced religious folk to cross by on the other side in the story of the Good Samaritan. They assumed that the object of faith was retaining a purity once given and so easily lost. No wonder it took the early Church so long to come to terms with the very physicality of the Incarnation - the Word made flesh - because they had argued against the flesh for so long. Jesus preached a God who seeks a purer love that ignores the filth and stigma, and focusses on the well-beloved child of God.
We can only be tainted by our own attitudes, and the words and actions that are the results.