Leprosy is understood by the Bible to be highly contagious, dangerous, and even deadly.
The ancient Israelites had laws about how to identify leprosy, how to know if it had been healed, and how to prevent it from spreading. Leviticus chapter 13 deals with nothing else. After an extensive 44 verses about how to examine sores to determine if they are leprosy, the chapter concludes, “Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev 13:45-46, NRSV)
Now that doesn’t sound awesome at ALL, but the New Interpreter’s Bible informs me that it is far worse than it sounds. They say, “All three of these actions – tearing the clothes, messing up the hair, and covering the lower part of the face – are signs of mourning for the dead. So serious is the state of uncleanness that it is similar to the state of death.”1 Leprosy in Ancient Israel, referred to a wide variety of skin diseases, some of which likely were highly contagious and potentially deadly, but most of which were not. Yet, it because it was poorly understood, and dangerous to the community, a person with leprosy was exiled from the community, which is itself a form of death.
The Bible is primarily a communal document, a reflection of the way that society was supposed to act. As such, it was worried about the spread of dangerous disease within society, and took the well-being of the whole more seriously than the well-being of the individual. That is, the stigma of being removed from society, and having to go around yelling “unclean” so no one would touch you, was clearly TERRIBLE for the individual, but kept the community safe. Leprosy was the ultimate stigma: something entirely beyond the individual’s control that isolated them from their entire community. (Hmm, what else is like that?)
The irony of course is that germ theory hadn’t come into being yet, and there wasn’t much differentiation of skin diseases. In fact, the Bible spends a lot of time differentiating between a SCAR and a SCAB, indicating that people thought that was important – that people not become lepers because of SCARS. Medical science still had some development to do, but people had noticed the contagion idea, and they did what they could to care for the whole.
If there is any good news in this, it is that there was a way to be UN-DECLARED a leper, it was not a permanent stigma. Or at least, it didn’t have to be if one’s skin cleared up. Heaven help those with eczema though. And, of course, we want to be aware in any conversation about leprosy that this not an ancient problem that is now simply a good metaphor. Today, about 180,000 people a year contract leprosy, although it is now treatable. Also, it isn’t really THAT contagious. You have to have repeated contact with “nose or mouth droplets” from someone who is infected. It isn’t, say, the measles. (Perhaps the measles were also considered part of leprosy in Biblical times??? That would actually explain A LOT.)
I’ve gone deep into explaining leprosy in Ancient Israel, because the story indicates that leprosy was understood differently in the neighboring country of Aram (modern Syria). While the Israelites expelled lepers from society, in Aram the general of the King’s army had leprosy, and was regularly talking to the king. I’m not sure what to make of this. Perhaps this is a bit of a Biblical dig at Aram, indicating they didn’t know how to care for society. Perhaps, though, it reflects some historical memory. What if Aram didn’t expel its lepers? What if something that created a stigma in Israel, didn’t in Aram? The two countries were neighbors, and were eternally in skirmishes with each other, so were likely pretty equally matched, which would indicate that perhaps excluding lepers didn’t really help.
What if there didn’t have to be a stigma, and people could still survive as a society without kicking others out?
What if, instead of observations about contagions, Ancient Israel was really allowing the natural human tendency of “ick, get away from me!” to have its way? What if people just didn’t want to see the ways that skin diseases can disfigure? What if fear simply got the best of them?
The human response “ick, get away from me” is real. It has applied to many individuals and groups over the eons, perhaps it is a defining factor of society about who is called “icky” and who has the power to decide who is “icky” and who isn’t. This is the power to define stigma.
People who are transgender are most likely to be violently assaulted and murdered in our society, and the greatest danger is for tranwomen of color. There isn’t any logical reason for this. It has basically come down to a response from individuals of “But gender is supposed to work the way I thought it did when I was a kid, and if it doesn’t, ick.” The power of stigma is the power of murder.
In the past few years there have been culture wars over bathrooms, and who gets to use them. (eyeroll) Somewhere along the line, I read a piece2 that clarified that bathroom wars were an old trick being revived. In our shared past of segregation, bathrooms were segregated. White women sought to maintain segregation by indicating they were afraid of getting diseases from sharing toilets with women of color. That is, they said they were afraid of contracting sexually transmitted infections from toilet seats. That was another way, among a myriad of ways, that white society indicated that bodies of people who weren’t white were “icky.” This is how marginalization works. 🙁 This is also how we get concentration camps on our Southern border filled with people with dark skin, because stigma dehumanizes and allows inhumane treatment of God’s beloved people.
As a child I was taught not to sit on the toilet seat in public bathrooms by my Grandmother, but was told I could by my mother, and it took a loooong time to figure out why they disagreed about that. Today the fear of bathrooms has been transformed to create fear of sexual assault in bathrooms, when the truth is that what we’ve done is make going to the bathroom a terrifying experience for transgender people – who are themselves especially vulnerable.
Yet, there are Arams. Many societies in the past, and many in the present, recognize more than 2 genders, and a lot of countries have better protections for trans people than we do. The United States has created racism in its own image, and we have managed to export it along the way, but societies and countries in the past and the present are able to show us other ways to understand race, identity, and ethnicity.
Years ago now, Sylvester stood in this pulpit and preached about what it was like when he was first diagnosed with HIV. He talked about visiting his sister and knowing that his cup would be thrown away and his sheets burned when he left. A United Methodist retreat for people living with HIV and AIDS that I once got to volunteer at offered massages for the retreat participants – because of reality that people with HIV and AIDS don’t get enough human touch. I’m not sure I know of places in the world where this has been solved, although basic education and the passing of years has decreased the stigma some, and intentionality to include and TOUCH has mattered.
I also think there is a stigma in our society around poverty. “Don’t get too close, or it will get you” seems to be an unspoken fear. I suspect the danger really is, “don’t get too close, or you’ll be motivated to change things, and that will change your life forever.” Yet, we live in a society that is comfortable with obscene wealth for a very few at the expense of the lives of nearly half. Yet, by associating a stigma with people living in poverty, it becomes “their problem” instead of the reality that poverty is the natural outcome of our societal laws and priorities.
Stigma is POWERFUL. It is dangerous. It is contagious, and it is deadly.
It is a far bigger problem than the people who get forced to hold it. One of the worse parts of stigmas is when they get internalized by the people who have been stigmatized.
In 2 Kings, God has the power to free Naaman from the stigma of leprosy. Elisha is God’s prophet in this story, and he is able to offer a means of healing in God’s name. Of course, Naaman doesn’t have all the stigma of leprosy in Ancient Israel, but he does have leprosy, and then he comes into Ancient Israel with it at which point he was a foreigner, who had bested them in war, who had the stigma of leprosy too. (They must have been terrified.)
The story says God healed him, and he was clean, and free of stigma, and very, very grateful. Just because was healed doesn’t meant that others were, and that also draws some big questions about who gets access to let go of stigma and why. However, I’m firmly in the camp that God is anti-stigma. Or, perhaps I should say, God doesn’t DO stigma. God is against stigma, and the ways that it gets used to dehumanize, violate, dismiss, and separate people. God is about shared humanity, peace, acknowledgment, and connection. Stigmas work against God.
We know and love a God who welcomes and delights in a lovely diversity of human beings and human bodies. God is the one who who says, “Blest are people who are transgender; they shall know my complexities. Blessed are people who are marginalized because of their race; they are able to build the kindom. Blessed are the people who live with HIV and AIDS; they are holding my hand already. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kindom. Blessed are the lepers, for they shall be healed.” Stigma just doesn’t hold up under the weight and power of God’s love.
And it isn’t supposed to hold up for us either. May God heal us, that the stigma society places on God’s beloveds might lose their power for us. May we, like Namaan and Elisha, trust in God’s power to eliminate the power of the things that keep us from a full and abundant life. May we build a society more like Aram – able to welcome people into our midst as full partners in our shared work, regardless of the stigmas others would want to put on anyone. May we follow our God who is against stigma and for connection. Amen
1Walter C. Kaiser Jr. “The Book of Leviticus: Introduction, Comment and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 1., ed. Leander E. Keck, convener (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1097.
Rev. Sara E. Baron First United Methodist Church of Schenectady 603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305 Pronouns: she/her/hers
July 7, 2019