One of my favorites from the now defunct Far Side cartoon depicted five people in a restaurant looking in horror toward the men's room. An embarrassed user thereof was emerging while a bell clanged and an illuminated sign read: “DIDN'T WASH HANDS.”
This reminded me of a survey I read recently but did not save and therefore probably should not cite. But as far as I can remember, the survey, relying on evidence recorded by cameras hidden in public restrooms, found that 80 percent did not wash their hands if they thought they were unobserved.
Commentators suggested that most people consider the purpose of this activity to be not handwashing but crowd-pleasing, or at least ministering to the scruples of someone they have probably never seen before and will never see again. I wonder whether the use of seat belts in a similar story.
The cartoon reminded me of another similar rigging about which I heard from a friend who visited Lake Tahoe. The story goes that in one gambling establishment the women's room (which accommodated only one user at a time) was at the top of a flight of stairs that was in full view of the diners. Inside the door of that room hung a painting or photograph of a nude male. Over his genitals hung a hinged fig leaf. Those curious enough to lift it would set off on the dining-room side of the door flashing lights, sirens and bells. When the blushing powder-room visitor emerged, she would be greeted by raucous ovations. Presumably, all fig leaves on hinges would henceforth remain untouched.
Of course, there has to be a theological point hidden somewhere in this column. These two images remind me of explanations some people offer for why they have left religion or church or God: in repressed pasts they got an impression of God as a Cosmic Snoop. There are billions of stars in billions of galaxies and billions of people on earth, yet somehow God has time to use a spyglass – in search of sinning mortals. “Gotcha!” According to this widely held view, liberation means being finally free of the Gotcha God. (I've never considered the people who talk about this freedom as being too free, but that's another theme.)
Wouldn't it be wonderful to retire this conception of God as Cosmic Snoop, a siren-sounding, bell-ringing, light-flashing “Didn't-Wash-Hands” figure? This would free people to relate to a God who has better things to do than to snoop and embarrass, and it would free God to save, judge, restore and heal.
However, as with most changes, with this one we lose something as we gain something. And while I would not think of the Didn't-Wash-Hands era as the good old days, one might well ponder what is missing in a culture where we as anonymous people leave washrooms with dirty hands because we think no one is looking or lift fig leaves because we think we won't be discovered.
In previous years I understand that the Japanese built police stations in easy range of many urban blocks. “Station” might be too big a word for it; some units were more like glass boxes. The duty of the police was to acquaint themselves with the people. Their responsibility was not to spy on folk or to turn in reports but rather to know the people personally. The temptation of people to do something wrong was thus countered by the fear of being shamed in the presence of someone who mattered.
People we see in public bathrooms, Far Side restaurants, Lake Tahoe clubs or wherever do not help us overcome the barrier of anonymity. But they do remind us of mutual accountability, even in an impersonal world. Perhaps we are a bit better off if we are accountable to people who count, and to a God who is not counting.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken's First Baptist Church.