Saint John the Forerunner (image from here)
When I was a child we were all afraid of cooties—those invisible (and non-existent) things about people who were different. Cooties were highly contagious. If you socialized with someone who was different, you could catch their differentness and you too would be ostracized, shunned, and mocked.
I remember a girl in our class in the third grade had several superficial differences from most of us. No one would use the same faucet at the drinking fountain after seeing her drink from it. We didn’t want her cooties. We didn’t want to be different in the way she was different. For decades I have carried the guilt of that behavior since I knew, even then, that it was wrong but I could not rise above it.
Why do I bring this up?
Well, the Bible, in this and in most things, has multiple strands of thought. Which is why folks arguing over theology and practice quote from the Bible to support antithetical positions, both sides claiming God’s authority.
There is the “we believe in cooties and don’t want them” strand that served a purpose in helping a people survive with their identity intact.
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
This is right out of the tradition of Ezra the scribe calling for purity and separation when the Jewish people were re-establishing themselves in Judea after the Exile.
It seems that non-Jews (Gentiles, the nations) had serious cooties. Being around them would lead to corruption of faith, moral degeneracy, and loss of ethnic identity. Remember what a challenge it was for Peter to enter the house of Cornelius? God had to send a vision three times to make the point that what God has called clean Peter should not call unclean.
That is the other strand in the Bible, the one that dismantles the barriers we are so certain were ordained forever by God.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name"; and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:4-13)Taken in its totality, the Bible follows a trajectory that establishes a narrower identity and then expands that identity until all creation is taken into it. In the end the God who made us all different decrees that there are no cooties in the reign of God or in the New Jerusalem. No more cootie divisions over male and female, slave and free, Jew or non-Jew.
Last May, GetSamuel wrote one hell of a fine article from the standpoint of the Millennial generation. It is titled “Cooties! The Future of American Christianity and Politics.” He discusses how some folks in the Anglican Communion have decided that certain people (yes, this means the queers—choose your own favorite word of political correctitude) have cooties. The Episcopal Church has decided otherwise. GetSamuel summarized the House of Bishops’ response to the Dar es Salaam communiqué this way:
“Bitch, step off. First off, we don't believe in cooties anyway, and neither did J-dog. Read your fuckin' bible already.”
My faith in the younger generation soared after reading that.
We underestimate the immensity, the passion, the fear and distrust and bitterness of that first great squabble in the Church: the question of whether non-Jews could be included and, if so, under what conditions. The first church council was called in Jerusalem over this issue and, though a decision was made, the matter was far from settled. Integration took a while and the influx of Gentiles influenced the teaching and practices of the Church. Every time we open our doors a little wider (consider those awful barbarians that came in during the so-called Dark Ages) we face new challenges, new insights, new points of view, new riches, and—to state it again—new challenges.
I believe the long-range purposes of God come out rather clearly against the idea of cooties and discrimination based on alleged cooties. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the first century violated any number of biblical teachings and saying otherwise is crap.
I wish I knew how to apologize to my classmate, the sweet girl we all shunned. I have often, since then, wished and hoped and prayed that she has had a good life. A., I’m sorry.
Here’s to Church that does not fear cooties because it knows they are figments of our fearful imagination.