Stigma and Solidarity


I sat with a group of people in silence yesterday, and it felt important.

Other than my own thoughts, I don’t know any of the particulars that arose in our minds collectively, but the silence felt powerful and energized toward commitment. It felt invigorated toward solidarity.  This silence took place at Northside Presbyterian Church. I had just finished speaking about a narrative that we read together. It’s only five verses long, but it’s a powerful story.

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the level of stigma and shame that people with leprosy carried in the 1st century. A leper was someone who had a variety of skin diseases that were considered to be unclean under the Levitical law. According to the law, people with leprous diseases were supposed to wear torn clothes, keep their hair disheveled, cover their upper lips and cry out everywhere, “Unclean! Unclean!” They had to announce their own condition everywhere. They were seen and known only through this label. Lepers were supposed to live alone, and they were supposed to stay outside the camp or city.

Yet amidst the shame, this person, this labeled one, had the audacity to approach Jesus. Likely terrified, he came close, aware that his presence could also render Jesus ritually unclean under the law. Yet he made his request, not with a question but with a conviction. “If you choose, you can  make me clean.”

Jesus answers him with powerful words. They’re powerful when we read them on the page but even more so when we hear them aloud.

I do choose.

“I do choose. Be made clean.” And more than voicing mere words, Jesus did something that was itself audacious. He touched this man. He touched this one labeled untouchable. And beyond even that, he exchanged places with this man. The healed man is empowered to go into the community freely, but after sharing his story, Jesus can no longer enter a town openly. Instead, he stays out in the country, and people come to him from every quarter. [1]

Such a convicting story about risk, choice, commitment, and solidarity.

Yesterday, we sat in silence and asked ourselves, what kinds of healing could happen if we made ourselves more deeply present to those who carry stigma and shame in our own culture? What could happen if we humbled ourselves to learn with empathy, and if we made choices to demonstrate deep care with solidarity? What kinds of healing could be possible?

Let’s think about solidarity this week, as we honor. . .

. . . People who are immigrants, refugees, undocumented workers,
. . . People who are transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer,
. . . People who are attacked with violence for their black and brown skin,
. . . People who are Muslim and painfully stereotyped,
. . . People who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,
. . . People who have been harmed by religion,
. . . People who have terminal illnesses,
. . . People who have mental illnesses,
. . . People who have disabilities that are culturally stigmatized,
. . . People who live by themselves and are desperately lonely,
. . . People who are imprisoned in cages,
. . . People, even little children, who know neglect and abuse,
. . . People, even young adults, who have grown up in the foster care system,
. . . And many others. . .

Renee Roederer

[1] I thank the Rev. Dr. John Alsup for this observation. Years ago, he taught this passage to my seminary Greek class, and his words about this passage, particularly about this exchange, have always stayed with me.




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