Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Our Personal Lepers

This week's Grand Rounds included this post arguing for better and more compassionate treatment of sex offenders. Last winter, I gave a homily connected to this topic, so I thought I'd post it.

I preached this homily on February 12, 2006. The readings are 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-45.

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On January 26, 2006, just a few weeks ago, a group of twelve world leaders -- including Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama -- issued “a Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination Against People Affected by Leprosy.” Leprosy is one of the world’s oldest and most dreaded diseases. The first known written mention of it is dated 600 BC. Untreated, it causes terrible deformity, and for most of its long history, there has been no remedy. Because everyone knows that leprosy is highly contagious -- and because for centuries people believed that lepers were being punished by God for their sins -- lepers have typically been shunned by their communities. They have been outcasts.

In 1981, the World Health Organization discovered a cure for leprosy: a combination of three drugs that, if given early enough, also prevent deformity. The treatment makes the illness completely noncontagious, although it turns out that leprosy is not highly infectious. What “everyone knows” is wrong. Since 1995, the World Health Organization has provided free treatment to all leprosy patients, resulting in dramatically reduced disease rates. In 1985, there were 5.2 million leprosy patients worldwide. At the end of 2004, there were 286,000.

With all this progress, why did twelve world leaders need to issue a global appeal? Well, because community attitudes about leprosy have not kept up with medical knowledge. In too many places, people continue to believe the same things about leprosy they’ve always believed. A news article about the appeal describes the problem: “social attitudes continue to destroy lives, forcing even cured persons into lifelong isolation. The result is a vicious cycle; people who contract leprosy hide the disease until disfigurement appears. Disfigurement reinforces social stigma.” All leprosy patients have to do is take some medicine, but the medicine can’t work if no one knows it’s there, or if the people who need it are afraid to come forward to ask for it.

This morning’s Scripture readings are about the healing of two lepers, about the miracle of a cure from the illness long before the advent of the World Health Organization. These cures, like the cure offered today, seem deceptively simple. All Naaman has to do is wash seven times in the river Jordan. All the leper in Mark has to do is ask Jesus for healing and accept the touch of Jesus’ hand. But when we look at these stories against a background of social stigma and isolation, the cure from leprosy starts to seem less miraculous than the fact that these two lepers were willing to come forward, willing to name their illness and ask for help.

Naaman, the mighty warrior, had community support in seeking help. His wife’s servant told him about Elisha, the prophet who could cure him. His lord gave him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. When this powerful patient actually became annoyed at the simplicity of the treatment, his servants scolded him and told him to take his medicine. Naaman had a lot of help from people who loved him despite his disease, who did not stigmatize and isolate him.

We know much less about the leper in Mark. He comes to Jesus alone, already isolated. He says, poignantly,“If you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper believes that Jesus can cure him. But he also knows that Jesus might not offer the cure. Jesus may not think the leper is worth it. Jesus may not choose to spend precious healing resources on this wretched outcast.

Jesus, of course, does the right thing, and sends the cured patient off to the Temple to be declared clean by the priest there, to be received back into the community.

This morning’s readings are third in a series of healing miracles from Mark. We’ve heard healing stories for the past two weeks, and we’ll hear another next week. All of these miracles occur in the context of community. Last week, Sherry talked about how we become co-workers with God when we pray for healing. But we also become co-workers with God when we work to end stigma, when we refuse to make anyone an outcast. If we choose, we can offer the healing of acceptance, of a loving community that points people towards the resources they need and urges them to take their medicine. But to do that, we have to believe that they’re worth helping.

There aren’t many literal lepers in the United States, but there are certainly people who struggle with stigma. The poor, especially the homeless poor. Prison inmates, especially sex offenders. Alcoholics and drug addicts. Last October, Congress heard testimony from the American Bar Association about stigma against addicts. Republican congressman Jim Ramstad said, “One of the hardest steps for any addict or alcoholic to take is to ask for help.” Drug offenders, even if their crimes were non-violent, are often barred from receiving student loans, food stamps, or subsidized housing. In 2004, 178,000 young people were denied education benefits because of drug convictions, even though education is one of the key elements of overcoming addiction. After all, everyone knows that addicts, especially if they’ve been in prison, can’t be trusted and aren’t worth helping.

When my husband read this homily, he said that comparing criminals to lepers doesn’t make sense. Lepers have an illness they haven’t chosen. Criminals end up in prison because they’ve made bad choices. What’s happened to them is their own fault. And this is true. But if they want to make better choices and we choose not to help them, where does the fault lie then?

If someone came to St. Stephen’s and said, “I’m a convicted drug offender, but I’m trying to do better and I want to be part of your community,” what would we choose to do? What would Jesus do? If your personal answer is that of course you’d welcome this person, because you know that addicts can and do recover, then dig deeper. Who wouldn't you welcome? Who are the people you’d fight tooth and nail to keep out of this place? Who are the people you just know can’t be trusted and don’t deserve the healing gift of community? When you’ve answered that question, you’ve found your own personal lepers -- and believe me, we all have them. But once we’ve learned where stigma lives in our own hearts, we can begin to seek our own healing from it.

Stigma hurts us as much as it hurts those we cast out. It is a refusal of our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons. By separating us from other people, stigma also separates us from God, in whose image even the least of us is made. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who was “moved by pity” when he saw the leper, who reached out his hand to touch the untouchable, restoring a despised outcast to health and community. Stigma prevents us from doing those things.

I don’t have any easy cure for this condition, but I do have suggestions, a three-part plan for healing. The first step is to pray for compassion. When have I been cast out and rejected? How did that feel? Do I want other people to suffer that way? The second step is to seek humility. What do I really know about the people I’m casting out? What does “everyone know” about them? Are those “facts” actually true, and am I willing to do the research to find out? And the third step is to claim courage: the willingness to advocate for the despised, to share with others what I’ve learned.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to someone who does prison ministry with sex offenders on the East Coast. My friend complained about the stigma and isolation these men face when they’re released. I said, “But everybody knows that sex offenders can’t really be reformed. You can’t blame people for being scared of them.”

My friend responded by sending me a link to an article on the Unitarian Universalist national website. The article noted that “there is a generally held perception that sex offenders are untreatable.” As a result, several Unitarian congregations have voted to completely exclude people with sex-offense records. The author continues: “The problem is that [the assumption] isn’t true. The review of the literature . . . shows that with treatment, the majority of sex offenders will not recommit a sexual offense.” The article also notes, in bold print, that “involvement with a faith community may actually lessen the chance that a person will commit another sex offense.” Community support reduces isolation and increases accountability.

I really didn’t want to know any of that. Sex offenders are my own personal lepers; I’d much rather simply assume that they’re hopeless and banish them. The article has forced me to struggle with how I’d respond if a sex offender came to St. Stephen’s and said, “I’m trying to do better, and I want to be part of your community.” What would I choose to do?

I don’t know. And -- even though it’s cowardly of me -- I hope I’ll never have to find out. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I do know what Jesus would do.

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