the new "unclean"

Environmental concerns have been drawing more and more attention and support in recent years, especially among younger people. And among the groups I've been involved with, like Catholic Workers, communally-minded folk, progressives, etc. So I've heard a lot about recycling, composting, global warming, environmental impact of our consumption, treatment of growers and workers in the developing world, treatment of animals in the meat industry, vegetarianism, buying local, organic, and so on.

And I've noticed (in those last few concerns especially) that there seems to have developed a new sense of the "unclean." For a growing number of people, there are foods that are to be carefully avoided—for moral reasons. And health reasons as well, which make sense to me; I'd rather eat fresher, riper, less processed foods that haven't been sprayed with chemicals. But the new moral standards for eating make me wonder. The way some people avoid certain foods with such strictness (even with an obvious revulsion in some cases) seems very similar to biblical concerns about uncleanness. The moral reasoning is somewhat different now, a combination of concerns about unhealthy additives and not wanting to financially support industries that abuse workers or animals or the environment. But even when the food is not being purchased (a gift from someone else, for example), and so not supporting any industry, it is often rejected as somehow tainted. Unclean.

This brings to mind Jesus' response when his disciples were criticized for eating in an unclean way:

Jesus called the people to him again, and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him."

And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

And he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man." (Mk 7.14-23)

Those who have defined the new unclean would probably argue that Jesus was speaking of something very different, that his concerns here seem primarily spiritual. Because how could Jesus make such a broad statement, how could he say "nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him," when what we eat certainly impacts our bodily health? And how are we not defiled when (no matter how hard we try) our consumption can always be economically linked to abuses and/or some negative environmental impact?

Excellent questions. But I think those are questions that challenge their assumptions, not Jesus.