Sunday, September 20, 2009


I have rarely been made as angry by a church--or, really, by any institutional body--as I was this morning. This story will not take long to tell.

I'd decided to try our local outpost of the Congregational Church (which already required relinquishing, for a moment, my conviction that if there is no eucharist, there is seriously no fucking point) and I found myself, consequently, in the most bourgeois neighborhood of my little town, one of those neighborhoods whose exclusiveness is broadcast to the world by the serpentine, mostly sidewalk-free streets designed to be navigated only by those in the know. I already hated myself a little (and my town, unsurprisingly, a lot) as I parked my car and headed past the usual array of Subarus up to the door.

I know: it was not an auspicious beginning. But nothing could prepare me for what lay inside.

A phalanx of grey-haired matrons stood guard at the sanctuary doors--nothing out of the ordinary there--and one of them handed me a bulletin. It was, in fact, her companion who swiftly and innocently dealt the fatal blow. As I turned toward the entrance, she turned toward me, and I realized that she was cradling some kind of liturgical object in her hands. At first I couldn't figure out what it was. A chalice? A pitcher of some kind? It wasn't Maundy Thursday. Who, I thought to myself, could have predicted that congregationalists, of all people, would incorporate some kind of physical rite into their worship?

These thoughts were cut short by the woman's gentle, revolting question. "Would you," she asked, "care for some hand sanitizer?" It wasn't, in other words, a chalice that she was brandishing; it was an enormous pump bottle of alcohol-based disinfectant, the exact size and shape of bottles that might appear in the margins of a Larry Sultan photograph.

I politely declined her offer, even as it prompted in me the kind of rage I hadn't felt--righteous, religious rage--since the early days of hitting my head against holy homophobia. Is there anything less Christian, anything further from the Gospel, than disinfecting your hands before entering a church?

I cannot begin to tell you how my hands still tremble as I write this. I understand that Ithaca, my hallowed home, is a community currently swept up in a very clear paranoia, some of it justified, about illness. (It is not incidental that this illness is attributed, in name if not in fact, to animals whose reputation for dirt precedes them.) Still, when I saw the giant bottle of hand sanitizer, I thought--and how could someone at that church not have anticipated this?--of all the things that Christendom, and its complicit and corresponding institutions, has wanted to protect itself from. I thought of the dirty people, the gay people, the people with AIDS, the people too poor or too sick or too depraved to be incorporated into what so often passes for the body of Christ. I thought of how fearful we still are.

Don't touch me. I'd hate to catch whatever you might have. I can imagine nothing worse than your unsanitized hand.

What, I thought, would have happened if churches still commonly exchanged the peace not with a handshake but, instead, with a kiss? What would it take to clean our mouths? Would there be bars of soap to bite, the way there were when I was little and prone (as I am, alas, still) to swearing in front of my parents?

I want to write the kinds of sentences worthy of one of Flannery O'Connor's prophets, but I will turn to Mark 7 instead. This is, many of you will realize, the chapter of Mark's gospel in which Jesus most dramatically transgresses, at times in spite of himself, the purity codes that his opponents are portrayed as upholding. It is the chapter in which the Syrophoenician woman asks him to cast a demon out of her daughter and Jesus calls her a dog, relenting only when she talks back: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (Mk 7.28, NRSV). It is the chapter in which Jesus spits as he heals a deaf man. It is the chapter in which Jesus affirms that "whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile" (Mk 7.18, NRSV). It is the chapter that the church this morning needed to remember; that we could all, Christian or not, stand to remember. Our business in this life, to the extent that we have a business or a task in common, is to resist the temptation to remind others that they aren't clean enough for us, that they remind us of animals, that they eat weird things. Our business in this life--and yes, I am preaching this now--is to talk back.

I walked out of the sanctuary during the announcements, barely five minutes after declining the lubricant-shaped bottle. The pastor was explaining the weekly washing of toys and the various other sanitizing procedures that the church was in the process of undertaking. I bailed. Any religious rite that begins under the sign of mass purification--of affirming not our communal dirt but our communal paranoia about infection--is no rite worth celebrating. A little later in Mark's gospel, merchants are chased out of the temple for less.

I am not prone to visions. Nonetheless, imagine this: at the moment I left the cold, quiet church, a pack of dogs--not a few, not fifty, but hundreds and hundreds of dogs, mutts and tripods and, come to think of it, pigs too, beautiful multi-colored enormous pigs--barged into that stale sanctuary. Border collies herded the screaming children; Saint Bernards pounced upon the matrons, scattering their plastic bottles. Mud was flung everywhere. Fleas--yes, even fleas--abounded. Perhaps some of the terriers were even under the weather; perhaps some of them were sneezing. Bulletins, tossed in the air by panicked faculty wives and mothers, were caught by retrievers and shredded and eaten and, if my vision was true, even pooped out blithely. Pigs squealed and snorted.

I didn't look back. I've learned from Lot's wife to keep on walking when you've left the burning city.