Posted by: Carl Magruder | January 16, 2009

Cleanliness and Godliness

                      My dad used to say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” when encouraging my siblings and me to wash hands before a meal or help with laundry. The saying actually has implications that a “godly” person would be clean as a result of his/her godliness. There is a connection with being clean in the kosher sense. In the Bible lepers are “cleansed” rather than “healed.” In a movie when a bodyguard pats down an unknown person, if they are found to have no weapons on them, they are pronounced clean.  Boy Scouts are supposed to be clean as part of their code.  Back when I spent a lot of time modifying and repairing motorcycles, a well restored or modified bike was referred to as clean.  We associate “cleanness” with health, beauty, competence, righteousness, and safety.  It is a pretty big deal.

                It is ironic, then, that many of the products we use to attain cleanliness actually work against health and safety. Some of the chemicals found in cleaning products have been found to cause various kinds of harm to those who manufacture them, use them, or even just occupy spaces where they have been used.  These include cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, chemical burns, learning disabilities, asthma, kidney and liver damage, reduced sperm count, cataracts and corneal damage.

My own chemical sensitivity, though mild compared to some, has taught me to avoid commercial furniture polishes, floor shines, disinfectant cleaners, window cleaners, air fresheners, oven degreasers, and myriad others.  I have to admit that with regard to my own well-being, I take a prejudiced view of these products, assuming guilt until innocence is established.  Otherwise, I find that fatigue, dizziness, headache, allergy symptoms, and a corresponding decline in mood result. I shudder to think of what the long term health effects may be. 

                Because of my aversion to commercial cleaning products, I downloaded “Cleanliness and Godliness: a Green Cleaning Toolkit” from the NCC Eco-Justice website when I first moved into my house here.  The house needed cleaning, and I didn’t have any cleaning products, so it was a good opportunity to start fresh. 

                I was pleased to find that the alternative cleaning materials recommended in the Guide were readily available, with the exception of washing soda (sodium carbonate), which I eventually tracked down as ARM & HAMMER Super Washing Soda Detergent Booster. On the whole, the things I use—vinegar, washing soda, pure soap, baking soda, and borax—have been inexpensive. I was prepared to put up with their not to working terribly well, but have been pleasantly surprised by their effectiveness. The first time I used castile soap and borax to clean my oven, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a bunch of suds and fizzing.  However, I learned not to be fooled by the fact that these safer cleansers don’t have dyes, perfumes, foaming agents, or fancy dispensing containers to give the impression that they are working. They just work without all the fuss.

                And, of course, they are non-toxic. I believe that people like me who are chemically sensitive are the canaries in the coal mine.  You may recall that even into the 20th century, miners took canaries into mines to warn of the presence of toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide.  Because the birds are more sensitive to poor air quality, they would stop singing and become sick before the miners, who could then take appropriate action.  What I mean by this is that while your oven cleaner may not give you a headache, it probably isn’t doing you any good either.  Children, as with all toxics, are particularly vulnerable. To find out about safe and effective alternative cleaners, download your own free copy of “Cleanliness and Godliness: A Green Cleaning Toolkit” from the Resources page of the NCC Eco-Justice Programs website.  ( 

                If you would like to include your community in an opportunity to learn about green cleaning, and to have fun doing it, download “Cleanliness and Godliness: A Guide for Planning a Green Cleaning Fellowship Event.” This step-by-step guide walks you through the process of putting together a guest list, arranging the meeting space, and offering an informative, hands-on, one-time session on green cleaning to a church or community group.

                The sacred tradition of hospitality encourages us to make our homes and churches a safe haven for everyone. Cleanliness, in the sense of safe and healthy, really is part of our faith; our godliness.




  1. Aloha! I’m delighted to have found you! We share a passion for eco-justice. I would love to read the Green Cleaning Toolkit but am having trouble with the “submit” button to the pdf. Can you help me understand how to download or email me the doc? Thank you!

  2. Thanks – that technical problem should be fixed. Don’t hesitate to email at if you continue have troubles!

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