A Cup In Common?

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Do not touch ANYTHING. No, No. Stop it. Put that down. It has germs. Wash your hands. Wash them really, really well. Scrub!

By Dr. Amy Laura Hall
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Duke Divinity School

Do not touch ANYTHING. No, No. Stop it. Put that down. It has germs. Wash your hands. Wash them really, really well. Scrub!

Go hang out in the bathroom at your local children’s museum. This is what you will hear. Again, and again, and again. This was true way before H1N1. Go outside the bathroom, and stand by the drinking fountain. You will hear a related liturgy. Do NOT put your mouth on the spigot. Stop it. You are too close. Don’t lick the metal! It has germs.

Do we have a cup in common? After whom am I willing to drink?

A beloved friend whose family owned a Drug Store during Jim Crow told me a story about the Lord’s Supper. It wasn’t explicitly a story about the Lord’s Supper. But it was, in a way. When his parents made the decision to integrate the soda counter, they changed to paper cups. They were already going to lose white customers when those customers had to sit elbow to elbow with their African-American neighbors. But they figured they might not lose as many if people could drink their soda without wondering whether the cup was sufficiently washed free of their neighbor’s germs.

There is a line in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that seared me. (If you are white, don’t read Gilead unless you are willing to go on and read Home.) Robinson has a Black character aver that “all white men are atheists, the only difference is that some of them are aware of it.”

Paper cups are a sign of unbelief. Lord, help our unbelief.

Several years ago a student in one of my large classes had most of us suspecting ourselves of atheism. We had been talking about our fears of germs, and about the ways that our parishioners are afraid of a cup in common. Stan then gently explained how his congregation who used a common cup dealt with the revelation that a member was HIV positive. “First, we prayed and fasted.” Ok, well, that left out about half of the room. (Prayed and fasted? His congregation prays and fasts when faced with conflict?) But then he went on to explain that the congregation decided that they would continue to use the common cup. Only they would make sure that the HIV positive member was invited to partake first.

Bingo. Nope. Never mind. I did not sign up for that sort of faith. Thank you very much. People shook their heads in disbelief. Stan told us that the others in the congregation realized that their germs were much more dangerous to their loved one than their loved one’s germs were to them. The last shall be first. Maybe this sounds beautiful in an anthem, but it is really, really hard to sing.

Now, if we get going on a conversation about biology, about the technical specifications of particular germs, about the composition of the wine or the Welch’s, we’ve missed a chance to get a clue.

This cup of blessing which we bless, is it or is it not, a sharing in the blood of Christ?


The Body of Christ is ill, yet the cup of blessing which we share is the blood of Christ and the blood of Christ is pure.
Tony M

Wow! I must say that I am under the persuasion to "not touch", or "sanitize". But I wrestle with this because, I didn't see Jesus running to the sink or his pocket-sized hand sanitizer after folks touched Him, or after He touched those who were sick and diseased. So how much do I believe in the power of Christ in me that is able to touch what is sick, dead, dirty, etc., and instead of me getting sick and dirty, I heal and make clean. Holy Spirit, we need you.

(Sarah Morice Brubaker here... Couldn't figure out how to put my name!)

Hm. I think I disagree, and usually when I disagree with Amy Laura Hall it means I have a lot to learn, so let me lay it out and be open to correction. :)

Re: parents sanitizing everything... Y'know, as a parent of two young kids I'm not abounding in time or emotional fortitude or social support to spare. So, well, yeah, I do what I can to keep my kids from getting sick. And I think a lot of parents are barely hanging on to their sanity -- and that's perhaps especially true for mothers who among other things encounter public mommy-blame no matter what they do. I confess I felt an inward groan reading the first part, the familiar, "Oh, there's number 1,988,923,344 on the list of things that some parents are doing that some other parents think are wrong wrong wrong and misguided and wrong!"

But also, more broadly, there's many many many people can't afford to get sick. My senior colleague's wife for example would probably die if she got even seasonal flu. It's great to imagine a church that could say, "It's okay! If you get H1N1 from communion, fall seriously ill, and die, we'll support your family!!" or "It's okay! If your kid gets the flu and you lose your job because you need to stay home for a few days we'll pay you what you need!" or "Don't worry if you develop complications, get seriously sick and have no insurance; we'll foot the bill!"

But if we admire that kind of profligacy with life, and that high level of mutual support, does that mean we have to fault someone, or a church community, for concluding that maybe the MOST prudent thing to do would be to try and stave off illness in the first place, particularly if it takes just a few adjustments? I think of the (very appropriate IMO) feminist objections to the pious tales of St. Maria Goretti, who is praised for having asked her would-be rapist to kill her rather than sully her purity with rape. Would we really rather see someone else -- someone already socially vulnerable -- behave in a way that's *heroically* faithful but winds them up beaten down and dead? I don't know; I guess at one point in my life I'd have said yes. Now I don't, but maybe I'm wrong, or just unfaithful, or just post-Christian. Regardless, I don't think I can prescribe it for someone else, especially if they're more vulnerable than I am. Which is true of someone who lacks health insurance, or who is medically fragile, or who would lose his or her job if s/he had to stay home with sick kids.

I guess for me, the lesson to take from the church in the example is not the conclusion they reached, heroic though it may be, but the fact that they had the discussion at all. And the fact that (I assume) it accommodated the bodies of *those* people in *that* community, in all their specificity and fragility. If that's the case, then I think it's fine if a different community with a different set of vulnerable bodies reaches a different conclusion.

Now I'm going to go to church, where I will preside at the Lord's Table, and I'll be less easy abou it.

We had a long discussion about how to serve communion in the age of swine flu. We got opinions and did research but, as best as I can remember, we never prayed about it (and we certainly never fasted). It's our loss, though I suppose it's never too late to pray or fast.

Rev. Ben Daniel
San Jose, CA

Sarah, yes. Amen. Which is why I don't know how to write and preach at the privileged spot at Duke, except to keep witnessing to the word my students often give me. Did the cup/race question make some sense? This also is so salient. Germs = Black bodies is written all over the lives we grew up with, or at least my life.

At the church where I serve we've been thinking seriously about our practice surrounding the Eucharist. I was gone from worship for a time while my wife recovered from a life threatening illness. While I was gone, the church began the practice of using hand sanitizer as part of the communion ritual.

After months in a hospital while Emily recovered, I appreciate the power of germs and viruses, and I understood why they might be trying to implement this as a way to care for the people of the congregation, but still it broke my heart.

There is nowhere in our churches where we learn about our identity more immediately and deeply than in the sacraments, and to interject a practice into this highly symbolic ritual inevitably invests the practice with symbolic weight. The problem was, in an effort to care for one another, we had interposed a symbol of fear.

Rather than making many one, we had just made them many again. And not just many, but an inherently dangerous many.

When I expressed my theological reservations with hand sanitizer as the third element of communion, I expected to be met with unswerving resistance and the results of scientific studies. Instead, it has lead our church staff into a serious and prayerful time of discernment, and have begun to think more creatively about how we might care for one another and teach trust and acceptance rather than fear. The answer has come in bowls of soapy water.

We have discerned that perhaps we can resurrect this practice for servers as an act of cleansing and a symbol of service. In place of a symbol that invokes fear, we've decided to enact a symbol that recalls our baptisms, and our injunction to serve as demonstrated by Jesus at the last supper as he washed the feet of the disciples.

It's probably more effective against germs as well!

I pray that as Christians we may be lead by the Spirit to engage this opportunity creatively and faithfully, rather than retreat in fear.

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