Would you eat a cherry that was in a bowl of cockroaches? Would you eat a cherry if there was one cockroach in the bowl? How much impurity is too much? I had a boss years ago who would never eat anything at a potluck dinner because of her fear of food contamination.
When we lived in Singapore, we would start our weekly youth Sunday School class with an ice breaker. We would ask each student to introduce (him or) herself and share what was the most unusual food she had eaten. Answers included things like camel, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, emu, monkey, donkey, baloot, chicken palm, pigeon, snake, century egg. Living abroad, all of us were exposed to foods that are cultural taboos in the U.S. or whatever our native countries were. In fact, one of the things that was often required of me as an executive at business dinners was to prove my open-mindedness by eating whatever the locals were eating with them increasingly upping the stakes. (This was because I don’t drink, so I couldn’t simply drink them under the table like most business people do to prove their mettle.)
Our bishop in Singapore met with us when we first moved there, explaining that the expats met in our own ward, not one mixed with the locals. This was done because the locals tended to defer to input from members from western countries who had lived in Utah, and the stake’s preference was to grow local leadership and to avoid infiltration of western traditions that often get mixed in with the gospel. He concluded by testifying to us that “Utah Mormonism is not true.”
I saw this tendency to overwrite local culture when I served a mission in the Canary Islands, too. One senior missionary was appalled that the local sisters didn’t knit, so she “put things right” by highjacking the next enrichment meeting to teach them what she considered an indispensable skill. Of course, she neglected to consider that it’s a tropical climate, and people don’t wear sweaters there. And yet many converts are eager to learn about the culture of their new religion. They often adopt traditions like Halloween and funeral potatoes thinking that it’s part and parcel of the gospel culture.
Last Sunday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson was a personal favorite, and since I was asked to sub, I thought I’d share some of the timely insights from Acts 10. The story is about the first gentile convert, Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. He was friendly to the Jews, and after a vision, he seeks out Peter for further knowledge about Jesus. After Cornelius begins to seek him, Peter has a pivotal vision in the formation of the Christian church. From Acts 10: 11-15:
11 And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth:
12 Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
13 And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
14 But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
15 And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
Why didn’t Peter just kill and eat one of the “clean” animals when there were animals of all kinds? There is a distinction here between animals that are “unclean” or prohibited by the law of Moses (the Greek word is akathartos) and animals that are “common” or that are clean, but have been in contact with an unclean animal (the Greek word is koinos). The identification of clean and unclean animals is part of the Law of Moses, written in scripture. The idea that a clean animal is rendered “common” through contact with an unclean animal is a tradition of the Pharisees who loved to create hedges about the law. Peter is told to let go of the traditions he was raised with.
The word “common” to us means “base,” but it had a slightly different meaning to a Jew in that time. They were supposed to stay ritually pure, untouched by non-believers. Jesus was judged to be a “bad Jew” by the Pharisees because he did not observe these traditions of the Pharisees. How could the gospel spread if it was just a sect of semi-apostate Jews? The divisions that prevented them from interacting with other cultures had to be broken down.
Do we still have these attitudes among church members today? Clearly we do. A few that readily spring to mind:
- Kids not allowed to play with non-Mormons – mentioned in a recent conference talk.
- Missionaries making light of the beliefs of other religions
- Avoiding even the “appearance of evil” – Jesus certainly didn’t do this. Peter did, though.
- Conflating politics with doctrine.
I was on a flight a few months ago and coincidentally sat next to one of our stake leaders. We ended up talking about how we can make visitors feel welcome at church. He is a convert, and when I said we should not care whether women wear pants or skirts he agreed, but added conspiratorially, “They’ll get the message soon enough anyway.” Unfortunately, I suspect that’s true, and the way they get that message is through judgmental stares and double-takes or private take-downs that can cause embarrassment. I have seen several single sister converts in the last few years who go inactive soon after joining. Most of them are the sole pants-wearers in our ward. Skirts are a cultural tradition, and when you’re the only one not conforming to a tradition, you may feel like an outsider. Would they have left for other reasons? Who knows?
We may ask why, after walking with Jesus, did Peter still worry about eating something unclean or common?
The apostles, like all of us, were steeped in their time and culture. They were a product of how they had been raised. And observant Jews didn’t enter the homes of Roman centurions or eat with them.
 Oddly, the manual misquotes the scripture as saying that God says not to call an animal unclean that is clean, but God is saying don’t call a clean animal “common.”