I’ve had the opportunity to hear Tony Campolo, icon of the evangelical left and legendary educator-minister, preach three times. I would have had good reason to come away from those encounters with a bad taste in my mouth. In two out of the three sermons, Campolo used the same incredibly problematic illustration of buying ice cream for trafficked child prostitutes in a developing country. He cast himself as the protagonist of the story and used the most vulnerable of people as foils. He made himself the hero of the illustration, something I make my students promise they will never do in their preaching. But I didn’t care: he was riveting, and I loved it.
On one of the occasions when I heard Campolo preach, a group of his friends had come from far away to support him. They and his spouse were sitting in the front row when they did something strange as Campolo rose to the pulpit. They opened umbrellas and held them between him and themselves. Campolo busted up laughing so hard that he had to descend from the dais, hug his friends and wife, and collect himself before he could go on. Why did they do this? Because, evidently, Tony spits when he preaches. Spits a lot, spits far, spits so much that those in the front row feel like it’s raining. When Tony Campolo is in the pulpit, my friends, spit happens.
As the Omicron wave of the Covid-19 pandemic subsides here in New England, the leaders of the institution I serve, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, are working to interpret new public health guidelines that seem to change every day. Yale University publishes resources to help us make good and healthy decisions, and I’m grateful to be part of a university with globally recognized epidemiologists on the faculty. Yale is also a Western institution, through and through, which means it embraces some of the disembodied habits of the Enlightenment and modernity. One of those habits is that we don’t talk about the yuckier parts of being human.
Case in point: it’s pretty much impossible to understand new Covid guidelines without knowing that they’re mostly designed to avoid flying spit. I learned a new word a couple of weeks ago, “aerosolization,” and it’s a word we don’t need. To aerosolize is to breathe out so hard that fluid accompanies air. Gross? Not really; it’s just what our bodies do. Especially when we preach emotionally, or sing, or huff and puff while we’re dancing.
I remember hearing an exchange in the news between a health clinician and an anti-mask demonstrator. The doctor exasperatedly, impatiently asked, “You notice how, when you take off your mask, it’s a bit damp? That’s because you were spitting while you were talking.” The liquor store where I either do or don’t shop (wink) has a sign on its door indicating that masks must cover both nose and mouth, because “new research shows they’re actually connected.”
Why the sarcasm? Because people really ought to know that the upper-respiratory system emits saliva. But in fairness, how could they? We never really talk about that which our bodies do when the doing isn’t prettified and sanitized. We use euphemisms for menstruation, which for many women, happens… often. Ordinary t.v. shows depict graphic sex scenes, yet we’re afraid to say the word “urine” in mixed company.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and that rule applies to our communal avoidance of acknowledging our bodies’ occasional grossness. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Leviticus dedicates five chapters to purity laws. A large proportion of them relate to practices for selecting and cooking meat without mentioning the added benefit of not getting worms — worms! — in one’s digestive system. Some of the laws attend to keeping oppressed people in their places, however, while others seek to protect communal health. It’s hard to know which ones are which sometimes.
Similarly, people who don’t want to wear masks might have suspicions that today’s purity laws aren’t there to help them, but to control them. Debates over public health rules aren’t just about science, they’re about power dynamics and trust. We won’t find our way to trust if we don’t know how to talk with each other about the yucky stuff.
The theology of incarnation — God with us not just metaphorically, but in the flesh — provides a way out of black-and-white thinking. Tony Campolo is a preacher who blew my mind while also using a sermon illustration that made me cringe, twice. I have a lot of good qualities, and I also have many flaws on which I’m working; I know I’ll never be perfect on this side of the grave. Our bodies do magical and wonderful things, and they also emit fluids.
Disembodiment is an inherently broken way to think about life, in that it sets us up to think perfection equals sanitariness. Jesus taught us that perfection is found in love, and love is anything but sanitary, anything but controllable. Incarnational thinking makes it possible to have a life that’s both happy and hard, or a relationship that’s both important and challenging. Incarnation means that both awe and awfulness can and do coexist without posing an existential threat to our identities. Human love is a heady and abstract concept, and yet we express it in cleaving and sighing and weeping. Love is our highest pursuit as Christians, and it’s messy by design.
Jesus wept. He also spat, as we see in John 9:6, where Jesus mixes saliva with dirt, concocting a poultice to cure a man of his blindness. Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time, which meant that he had a body that did the things bodies do. He suffered, and he died. That death wasn’t the end of Jesus’ story teaches us that nothing about the human condition is beyond what God can make new. So of what should we be ashamed? Nothing. Including our flaws, including our spit, and including our fumbling foibles as we attempt to build community in a challenging season for us all.