Global Ministries: The United Methodist ChurchClick to skip to content.

 About Us  Our Work  Get Connected  How to Give  Resources  Mission News
Facebook Twitter YouTube print. email.

What is Clean and What is Unclean?

That is the question....
Four adults and an infant behind a dining table.
A leading Christian scholar and theologian and his professor wife receive the traditional New Year greeting in their home from missionaries Sonia and Dwight Strawn.
Image by: Dwight Strawn
Source: Mission Personnel
View of city above the treetops.  The Wesley Chapel of the Methodist Theological Seminary is visible.
One fourth of South Korea's population live in the capital city of Seoul and its surrounding areas. Also roughly 25% of the population profess to be Christians, making South Korea one of the largest Christian countries in Asia. Church steeples dot the landscape everywhere, but Buddhists and those who claim no religious connection are in the majority.
Image by: Dwight Strawn
Source: Mission Personnel

From Sonia and Dwight Strawn, Korea

Traditional cleanliness
Mark’s story of Jesus was the first gospel written, perhaps around 70 C.E, and many scholars believe it clearly and accurately conveys the core messages of Jesus because it was so close in time to his life. Jesus, his followers and his critics were all Jewish, and their cultural and religious tradition dictated certain behaviors to be followed by “good people.”  Obedience to those prescriptions made a person “clean” while disobedience or disregard made the person “unclean.”
“Clean” is a relatively easily defined word for most people today. In our own childhood days a popular product named Mr.Clean (interesting gender-reference indeed) made everything spotless and fresh-scented, removing unpleasant and undesirable appearances. Even in ordinary speech, we say that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Religious leaders, then as now, urge adherence to those words and customs which look respectable and acceptable on the outside – just as certain expectations of proper dress, orientation, speech and other outward manifestations are almost unquestioned parts of our lives today in the Christian community.

Christ’s challenge to the meaning of cleanliness
The problem arises, however, when someone like Jesus – and before him, the prophets of Israel - comes along and turns those expectations or rules upside down. The unconscious assumptions shared by many, or in other words, what is considered “clean, nice, right,” suddenly comes into question. For example, in the old traditional highly-stratified,  Korean society, such folk as butchers, soldiers, nurses and merchants were considered to be very low-class, with no possibility of being seen as individuals deserving of respect or dignity. The term “dirty” was often associated with any talk about them. Of course, today much has changed in Korea due to modernizing influences including that of Christianity, but there are still sad and enduring instances of what is “unclean.”

Separation in Korea
One of the most glaring is the marginalization of certain groups, notably the mixed-blood persons born to a Korean and a non-Korean parent (often a US serviceperson). Starting with the Korean War in the early 1950s this group has increased in size with the continuing presence of the US military (almost 30,000 today). Those who are African-American/Korean children are especially and easily singled out by the color of their skin in a society which prides itself on being homogeneous with one history, culture, language and blood  - pure and clean.

Interestingly enough, one of these adult mixed-blood children is the newly famous football player Hines Ward, MFP of the 2006 Super Bowl, whose Korean mother had to overcome many obstacles, both in Korea and the US, to raise her son alone. Ironically, his fame is lauded today not only in Pittsburgh, but also and especially in Korea. While the Korean media in the past week have excitedly extolled their newfound “Korean son,” the same society does not permit mixed-blood men to serve in their military, even though such service is obligatory for all adult men. The reason for this is that “they might not fit in.” On the other hand, it is hopeful that some voices are now being raised to say such a new attitude is too little and too late for the many children who have already suffered from the stigma of being unacceptable. An editorial in a leading Korean newspaper confesses that “Until now, we have overly emphasized the significance of our homogeneous society and have had too much pride about our pure blood tradition….Unless we change our thinking, no policy - no matter how good -will work.”

Ask yourself: What about us?
Our ‘clean’ religious traditions, often seemingly correct but at a great human cost, perhaps are not so clean after all. If Jesus talked with religious leaders in the US or in Korea or elsewhere today, he just might challenge them to a tougher and more just definition of “clean and unclean.” If Jesus appeared to the children with AIDS in Africa, the women hunted for honor killing in Pakistan or the migrant workers from southeast Asian countries coming to countries like Korea to take difficult, dangerous and dirty jobs in order to earn enough just to support their families back home, what would Jesus call clean and unclean?

It makes us tremble a bit to realize that we ourselves have often been the traditionally ‘clean,’ the good church people, who have chosen not to be with the so-called ‘unclean’ (whoever they are in each society) all around us. We have thought our words and practices were correct and spotless, but apparently, Jesus might not call them so. We feel uncomfortable and uncertain at the thought of making changes in our well-established practices. What to do now? Which parts of our lives are really the least clean on the inside?

What will you do?
Clean? Unclean? Yes, that is a big question. We do not have the one-answer-fits-all, but we do know that we can no longer comfortably ignore this question on which Jesus focuses such strong words as are recorded in Mark 7.

O God of the least of these your children, give us the courage and love to share their pain as we open our hearts to them and ask for the real cleansing that only you can give. Wash us clean and renew a right spirit within us so that what comes out from our inner being may be the kind of ‘clean’ you demand for your world today. Forgive our timidity and laziness, and somehow turn us into the “pure in heart” so we can see and know you in the world around us.   Amen.

Mark 7:1-23, NRSV

The Tradition of the Elders
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God )— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’


Your local church may choose to enter into a multi-year Covenant Relationship with Dwight Strawn, Sonia Reid Strawn,  or other United Methodist missionaries, for ongoing support of their work. For further information, please contact:

The Advance
General Board of Global Ministries
475 Riverside Dr, #350
New York, NY 10115
Phone: 212-870-3718
Fax: 212-870-3775



You can make gifts to support the mission work of Dwight Strawn, Sonia Reid Strawn, by making a donation through The Advance. The Advance is an accountable, designated giving arm of The United Methodist Church that ensures 100% of each gift reaches its intended mission or ministry.

Make a secure gift online: Visit Global Ministries Online Giving

Checks may be written to 'Advance GCFA' and placed in collection plates at United Methodist churches, or mailed directly to:

Advance GCFA,
P.O. Box 9068, GPO,
New York, NY 10087-9068.

Credit card donations may be made by calling
(888) 252-6174.

Please note on your check the name and The Advance Number of the missionary you are supporting:

Dwight Strawn, Advance Number: 03705Z
>> Biography
Sonia Reid Strawn, Advance Number: 03705Z
>> Biography

See Also...
Topic: Bible Christian love Communities Education Jesus Christ Lent United Methodist Church
Geographic Region: South KoreaKorea
Source: Mission Personnel

arrow icon. View Listing of Missionaries Currently Working in: South Korea    Korea |   

Date posted: Apr 03, 2006