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?