What A Man Peeing on My Neighbor’s House Taught Me about America’s Ability to Learn God’s Holiness

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Anger, Disgust, Outrage

So I’m driving out of the church parking lot in a rush to play taxi for my children and I see a guy standing with his back to me in that little space between the fence, the bush and the house across Amherst from the church. I instinctively and immediately know what he’s doing, he’s relieving himself in the corner on my neighbor’s home.

Immediately a whole set of impulses and emotions flash through my mind.

  • I’m angry at the gall of such a person to be so vulgar and inconsiderate not just to my neighbor but to everyone who has to drive by on this busy intersection.
  • My mind immediately flashed back to life in the Dominican Republic where public urination is a very common thing. I remember an occasion when after a drive up into a mountain community a pastor who I had just transported stepped out and urinated on the wheel of the jeep. With 50 trees all around us I wondered why he couldn’t have peed on a tree rather than my jeep. I wasn’t happy.
  • I remembered the time I caught a mentally ill woman urinated on the paved courtyard of the church. I told her very clearly that if she needs to use the restroom I’d be happy to open it for her.
  • As I saw the man doing this I was torn between pulling the car over and having words with him, venting my righteous indignation and needing to get to my waiting children. I drove on.

In a moment like this the mind moves so quickly with memories, emotions and impulses that the conscious mind has to struggle to keep up and process all of it. This reminded me of the reading I’ve been doing Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist. The “elephant” of our automatic mind producing moral intuitions and feelings far before the rational, conscious mind can catch up.

Harm? 

Why was I so outraged by what this man did? My outrage was mild compared to what it would be if coming home I were to discover someone urinating on MY home. I would have surely had strong and direct words with such a person.

There were old Dutch ladies living in the upstairs apartment to the home I grew up in. I remember one day one of the women looking down to see my other neighbor, a small Yugoslavian boy urinating on the bush in the space between the houses. Nelly was furious at Lindy “making water” in our yard. I didn’t worry much about that. I knew Lindy, he was a boy, no harm done.

  • The average person has a bladder capacity of around 300ml, or close to a 12 oz can of soda.
  • Urine is principally water. It is not toxic and is sterile until it hits the urethra. It contains an assortment of salts and other chemicals the body wants to eliminate.

One man urinating in this corner will do little harm. He picked a spot that was sufficiently concealed so as not to expose his private parts to public display. So why did this bother me?

I found his actions unnecessary (there is a gas station within a couple hundred feet whose restroom he could use), disrespectful to the general public but especially my neighbor. I would not want me home being urinated upon by an adult stranger without permission.

Moral Intuition

For centuries philosophers and social psychologist have been debating the source of our moral notions.

  • Are our moral ideas rationally constructed?
  • Are our moral ideas socially constructed and transmitted by culture?
  • Are our moral ideas innate? Is our conscience built into us by God or evolution or both?

Jonathan Haidt and others today claim that our moral feelings are pre-rational, arising from automatic places in our brains that work far more quickly than our rational, conscious parts do.

When I saw this man urinating I didn’t sit and ponder the chemical composition of urine or whether he was actually harming anything or anyone. I was angry and disgusted and part of me wanted to rise up in moral indignation to denounce the man’s behavior in an effort to discourage it from happening again. Only later, in the cool confines of my office can I rationally weigh the finer points.

Most of us can easily understand this. When something happens we experience an emotion first, but later can evaluate what we said or did in the heat of the moment usually from a different point of view.

Haidt offers a word picture of how we work. The elephant is our automatic minds that well up with emotions when we see something that triggers a response. The rider atop the elephant is our conscious selves that we experience as our self. The rider tries to influence the elephant often with limited success.

Often the rider acts as a lawyer for the elephant. When we feel disgust or anger the rider will jump in and offer rational reasons to justify the moral intuitions of the elephant.

  • “It is unsanitary for this man to urinate in this public space!”
  • “It is inappropriate for him to do so because he is a bad example to others. If everyone starts urinating publicly we’ll have some real problems.” (This is an argument about fairness, we’ll look at those soon too.)
  • “It is illegal to even potentially expose your private parts in public. He could and should be ticketed for public urination. In 13 states this will land you on the sex offender registry.”
  • “It is disrespectful to the public and especially to the homeowner to do this.”

Justifying Your Response

Haidt’s insight is that you feel the anger BEFORE you discover reasons for your anger. He tests this by making up unreal stories about things like sex and food that most of us would find immoral but would struggle to find justification WHY these things are immoral.

If you want to read more about this check out his two books and this interview.

Morality, Cultural Convention or Superstition

Why talk about public urination and morality? We are not currently having a cultural debate on the subject of public urination. I don’t hear anyone advocating that people should be free to urinate where-ever and when-ever the natural urge occurs. Even libertarians aren’t advocating for the FREEDOM to urinate at will where you please. All political parties endorse the restriction of this freedom on everyone but the most young or infirm under penalty of law and we don’t think a thing of it.

Social psychologists have, however, begun to recognize a variety of strange patterns among human cultures, however, with respect to these kinds of differences.

Take for example a survey in India with the question of whether it would be wrong for a widow to go into her home and hot foods. Americans would say “if she likes hot foods she should be able to eat whatever she wants.”

Some Indian groups note, however, that they believe the eating of hot food would stimulate her sexual appetite. She would then be tempted to have sex with someone, thus offending the spirit of her dead husband and putting in jeopardy her status in her next life after reincarnation. Some groups in India would say it’s WRONG for her to do such a thing.

Most Americans would call this “superstition”. I’d expect most Americans would have thoughts like these.

  • If we don’t find by empirical science that eating hot foods makes you want sex then it isn’t true.
  • Maybe an American might like the idea of reincarnation and karma but would probably reject the notion that events in one life have moral consequences in another.
  • An egalitarian American would bristle at the idea of caste and reincarnation to a lower status.
  • The idea of a verbal moral sanction is itself morally sanctioned as intolerant and judgmental in America
  • We don’t want to say anything bad about someone else’s culture but individual liberty should trump social convention.

WEIRD

What social psychologists have noticed is that people in the Western world have reject whole ranges of assumed morality commonly embraced by most of the rest of human cultures. They have begun to label our own culture as WEIRD.

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

In Jonathan Haidt’s work he noted that across human cultures 5 moral “channels” or “taste buds” tend to show the areas of morality across cultures.

  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/ Reciprocity
  3. Ingroup / Loyalty: only among humans can large groups join together.
  4. Authority/Respect:
  5. Purity/Sanctity

What Haidt and others have noticed, however, is that in WEIRD cultures political and social liberals tend to reduce this to two: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity while conservatives tend to keep all 5. These are generalizations of course but he’s got the data to back it up in a way that WEIRD people understand: social science.

Leviticus

OK, why talk about all this stuff in church?

We just finished the book of Exodus and we’re on to the book of Leviticus, but the book of Leviticus is the book that nobody wants.

If you are a WEIRD westerner, especially if you are socially and/or politically liberal you have probably never read the book of Leviticus for devotions. You skipped it if you ever tried to read through the Bible.

The book of Leviticus is a book that some of us may be embarrassed by and would like to, like Joseph to pregnant Mary dismiss quietly.

We look at the book of Leviticus like the story of the Indian woman heating hot food.

Even conservative Christians who proudly and quickly proclaim “The Bible is the Word of God” ignore the book of Leviticus. We have theological ways of dismissing it, “Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial, dietary and ceremonial law.”

OK, but there are lot of other things in there:

Leviticus 19:19 (NIV)

19 “ ‘Keep my decrees. “ ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. “ ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. “ ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

  • To my knowledge Christian farmers have been breeding mules, the offspring of donkeys and horses.
  • We play around with breeds of dogs for all sorts of reasons
  • We not only have multiple seeds in one field we have multiple kinds of trees on one plant. We graft one type of tree on the root of another to determine the characteristics of the fruit.
  • How many of you are currently wearing material woven of different fabric. Cotton/polyester blend anyone?

Moral Issues

Tim Keller diagnosed the moral assumptions of our culture in this way:

  1. No moral authority other or higher than the self. My personal happiness is the highest good.
  2. In the end the good of the individual always trumps the good of the community.
  3. If God does exist he does for our benefit to make this a good world to live in (MTD)
  4. Whatever meaning or happiness there is must be found within this material world

For most of us the book of Leviticus is somewhere between idiotic and offense, only brought out selectively if a person wants to try to leverage “Biblical authority” to shell someone probably for political or culture war reasons.

The political, social and religious right will respond that the left are relativists, but that is also unfair and untrue. The left is deeply concerned about morals, just different moral values.

We believe that we need morals for humanity to flourish but we are deeply divided about the content of morality and the source of morality. This makes a book like Leviticus extremely timely. Can we make sense of it?

I would assert a few things about all of us in our present moral and cultural context:

  1. We are ALL (liberal and conservative, Christian and non-Christian) more WEIRD than we care to admit.
  2. We are ALL (liberal and conservative, Christian and non-Christian) using all 5 moral tastebuds more than we realize because we need to.
  3. The book of Leviticus has something deeply profound and important for us all if we will do a bit of work to understand what it is about and how it speaks.

Leviticus in the Story Line

The Hebrew authors of Scripture paid a lot of attention to placement and order.

  • It is not mistake the Leviticus follows Exodus.
  • It is not mistake that Leviticus stands at the center of the 5 Books of Moses.

The book of Leviticus was seen as deeply foundational to the entire enterprise of God working to redeem the earth from our rebellion.

In the story line

  • God has chosen his people through Abraham
  • God has rescued his people from Egypt
  • After the renewed rebellion of the Golden Calf episode God has chosen to proceed with his plan for the tabernacle to live among his people working to under the rupture of the Garden of Eden.

Now in Leviticus the plan is to teach the people how they might actually live together. Leviticus 19:1-2 is the thesis statement of the book of Leviticus

Leviticus 19:1–2 (NIV)

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

God’s goal is to make us like him.

  • You can’t understand Israel without the book of Leviticus
  • You can’t understand Jesus without the book of Leviticus
  • You can’t understand Christianity without the book of Leviticus.
  • You can’t understand holiness without the book of Leviticus
  • You can’t understand godliness without the book of Leviticus

Leviticus is Like and Unlike its Ancient Near East Neighbors

The goal of most religion in the world is to discover and develop relational machinery by which to leverage the power of the spiritual realm in order to make our or my life to my liking.

You might imagine that our scientific age is very different from those ancient peoples but you would be completely wrong. We may use science and our belief in the material world of physics, chemistry and biology instead of their ideas of a “spiritual” realm, but it’s the same game. We want to learn science to discover technology to get what we want.

If you read Leviticus you would be struck at many similarities between other religious writings of its day. There are details of sacrifice, procedures for priests, etc. A lot of it looks similar. We begin to see, however, some significant differences.

Whereas law collections outside the Bible devote considerable space to procedures and principles governing various facets of commercial and family economic life, such civil matters are a lower priority in the Pentateuch, including Leviticus. Conversely, some topics in Leviticus are not represented in the extrabiblical collections: commands to show respect for parents and the elderly (19:3, 32; 20:9), provisions for care of the poor and resident aliens (19:9–10, 33–34), regulation of inner attitudes (19:17–18), and prohibitions against divination (19:26, 31; 20:6, 27). By far the biggest difference is that Leviticus includes religious law as the most important component (chs. 1–7; 11–17; 21:1–24:9; ch. 27) alongside “secular” law, and in places interspersed with it (ch. 19; even integrated in the same law in 19:20–22!). Only in biblical law collections “are moral exhortations and religious injunctions combined with legal prescriptions; elsewhere … these three distinct spheres are found in separate independent collections.”

Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 288). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Why would the book be different on this score?

What we see is that Leviticus is NOT a “how to” book on the feed, caring, management and manipulation of the divine realm, it is an invitation into the relational community of God set within a specific culture in a specific time and place. It is about how the people of God can be holy, being in the relational community of God, in their own time and space.

How WEIRD People Need Extra Help

The problem we have with this is that we, and this is deep within human nature, would rather control God than relate to him. How do I know this? This is how we are with each other.

Look at what Haidt notices about WEIRD people.

The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 113). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is why we reduce our moral channels to harm and fairness and ignore purity, authority and loyalty. It’s convenient to us as individuals.

What our Anger about Public Urination Teaches Us

We do, however, still have some capacity to get this. How do I know? Because you would get angry if someone pees on your house no matter what I say about how innocuous urine is.

  • You still understand respect. “it is disrespectful to pee on someone’s house!”
  • You still understand authority “they have no right to pee on my house!”
  • You still understand sanctity “this is the place I raised my children. How dare they defile it in this way!”

Do You Want To Learn About God’s Emotional World? 

Why do you want to know about God’s emotional world?

If you want to learn about it so that you can manipulate God and have him give you the life you’ve always wanted I’ll tell you right now to not bother with any of this. Why not?

If you a scientist at NASA you wanted to learn about the sun so that you could turn it up and down down depending on how you wished to dress that day they would tell you that right away you reveal you know nothing about the sun. Why? Because the sun is the kind of thing in relation to you that you cannot control. The sun can burn you, you can’t adjust it according to your fashion particularities. If this is true of the sun, how much more would it be true of the kind of being that created billions of suns?

Then why are we doing this? Our attempt to do this reveals our basic ignorance of God that even general revelation abundantly manifests.

Misery

If you know yourself you know that you are not much different than the guy who peed on the house across the street.

Oh you might say “I don’t urinate publicly!” but I would bet that you have done so metaphorically on all sorts of people.

  • Maybe you urinate on social or political conservatives.
  • Maybe you urinate on social or political liberals.
  • Maybe you have done so to your parents, your children, your co-workers, your spouses or ex-spouses.

We are bad at relationships and we demonstrate it regularly. We don’t honor, we don’t love well, we don’t follow through.

In fact, this is true of ourselves but we see it most clearly in others. We imagine ourselves the exception to this, but ask your enemy. They’ll show you your faults and the little rider of your elephant will jump to your defense.

Deliverance

God knows we are NOT holy, and yet he continues to persist in trying to relate to us in a healthy way. What he did was send his son, and we peed on him. We ignored him, cursed him, humiliated him, crucified him and while we were doing it he was forgiving us.

While we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Over the next few weeks we’ll get into how this relates to the book of Leviticus. We’ll get into how this connects with God’s quest to bring us into his relational community.

Gratitude

The goal of studying the book of Leviticus is not to put God in our debt, but to learn how to please him from within his relational community having been invited and brought there by Jesus.

This will mean engaging our 5 tastes buds or channels of morality

  • Learning how to care for our neighbor
  • Learning to recognize our natural self-serving bias in order to seek justice for our neighbor
  • Learning how to be loyal to God and our neighbor
  • Learning how to recognize, respect and submit to God’s authority and the authorities he establishes
  • Learning to seek and love purity and sanctity.

As Christians we don’t do this to put God in our debt in order to manipulate him and our neighbor. That violates all 5 moral channels. We learn to do this for God’s joy and glory that he shares and longs for for his creation.

Join me on this journey through Leviticus as we respond to God’s invitation to be holy like He is holy, to be part of the relational community of God.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What A Man Peeing on My Neighbor’s House Taught Me about America’s Ability to Learn God’s Holiness

  1. Pingback: Seeing Doubt as a Tool of My Prideful Ego | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Pingback: How Yhwh Talks to the Elephant in Leviticus | Leadingchurch.com

  3. Pingback: Do We Build Wonders for Rain or Wonders for Glory? | Leadingchurch.com

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