Religions are at their worst when focusing on purity and power and are at their best when focusing on love and justice.
A patriarchally conceived notion of purity has been used for centuries to control women, persons of different sexual orientations and gender identities, persons of different ethnicities and cultures, and persons who orient themselves to religion differently than the dominant religion. It has nothing to do with love or working for the well being of others. It is about maintenance of patriarchal, imperial, and colonial power.
An obsession with purity is expressed by control over others, while a commitment to love and justice is expressed through liberation of others. A focus on purity prioritizes moral prescriptions over people even to the point of exclusion, while a focus on love and justice prioritizes the sacred worth of all persons and strives for the inclusion of all in beloved community. Too often religions use purity as a test for who gets to be included, a tool to keep those included under control, and an excuse to exclude and punish persons who do not conform.
It is not an accident that Christians who focus on enforcing purity tend to emphasize a Caesar-like coercive power of God and require strict adherence to a set of prescribed doctrinal standards in a predetermined orthodoxy of belief while those who focus primarily on God as love are less obsessed with purity, doctrine, and control and more concerned with establishing justice and engaging in liberative practice. Enforcing orthodoxy of belief has been the agenda of empires and colonial powers for centuries as way of establishing political and economic control, while love and justice call us to liberate persons from these imperial and colonial powers that have coopted and corrupted Christianity for so long.
The 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead understood this corruption of Christianity when he noted that “the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar” (Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 342). Whitehead illustrates the juxtaposition of power and purity versus love and justice quite eloquently when he wrote:
There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.Process and Reality, 343
Love in the present. Justice in this world. Real liberation for actual persons in the here and now. This is religion at its best; not an obsession with purity and power that has been misused and abused by patriarchal empires using religious coercion to gain, maintain, and expand their control over the lives and the lands of others.