2020 has certainly been a wild ride. We've faced threats of a second Cold War with Iran, coronavirus, quarantine, and now protests and riots about racial inequality are happening around the world. It feels as though we are living through a chapter in one of my high school history textbooks.
This year has been a unique experience for all of us, and I am learning something new each day, whether it’s appreciating something I once took for granted or understanding how little I need to be happy. Opportunities for growth pop up almost daily. In the past few weeks, I've found myself reflecting seriously on the divides that have run through our country for centuries and what they could mean for us as the Church. While Jesus did not live in a society exactly like ours, it is easy to assume what his position on the topic would be: love. But how exactly do we achieve this?
In the New Testament, Jesus is consistently depicted as a man who not only cared for all but respected all and taught others to love one another. Jesus healed the sick and honored people that societal elites looked down upon.
One story sticks out to me in particular – the story of when Jesus embraced and healed a leper. On the surface, the story seems a typical example of Jesus performing a miracle and blessing a man that others cast out. But if you look deeper into the history surrounding the event, the story unfolds differently.
During Jesus' time, leprosy, like many other illnesses, was not understood as a medical condition, but instead regarded as punishment from God for sinning. Lepers were thrown outside of their cities and towns, living alone in tents, forced into isolation from the communities they should have been able to call home. Though they did not know how the disease spread, Levitical law dictated that touching someone with leprosy made them unclean. Jesus willingly broke that law to heal this stranger. After healing him, Jesus said:
"...see that you don't tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." (Matthew 8:1-4)
At the time, a leper would not be welcomed into society until he was cured and blessed – a ritual Jesus instructs the man to ignore. We might ask: Why did Jesus do this? Why would he heal the man and then tell him to hide the fact that he was now healed? Or further, why did Jesus repeatedly violate the laws regarding "defiled" persons, touching lepers, dead people, and other outcasts, seemingly neglecting the necessary purification rites of the time? Perhaps he attempted to make a broader point, one that we have often forgotten, or morphed to fit our own ideology.
Today, we know these individuals were simply sick, not necessarily someone who should be rejected by family and friends. But while discrimination because of health conditions today has (seemingly) decreased, we find other ways to ostracize, and 2020 has served to bring that to light. As coronavirus cases skyrocketed in late March, we saw a surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprising, high ratio of minorities infected by the disease compared to white people. In 2018, close to 26 million Americans did not have health insurance. While eight percent of white and Asian American people were uninsured, 11 percent of black Americans, 17 percent of LGBT+ Americans, and a staggering 19 percent of Hispanic Americans went without healthcare. These three demographics also happen to be the same ones that are more affected by coronavirus. Why is that?
Several factors might contribute to this. Statistically, these minority groups are more likely to experience homelessness, have low-paying jobs, and encounter prejudice when seeking medical care. Particularly in the LGBT+ community, individuals reported going out of their way to avoid medical assistance for fear of discrimination. Almost 19 percent of LGBT+ individuals state that they had avoided seeking healthcare in the past year (Mirza). Eight percent reported they were turned away from doctors' offices and hospitals due to their identity as LGBTQ+. Not only are these communities more likely to suffer from lack of healthcare and overall health problems, but they also make up a staggering amount of hate crimes in America – 95 percent to be exact (Hate Crime Statistics). Over the last two years, the top three motivations in hate crime homicides have been race and ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation/gender identity.
As a society, we tend to separate ourselves from others. We naturally gravitate toward those who live like us, think like us, and pray like us. People, things and ideas that are unfamiliar to us scare us, making us retreat into the safety of what we know. And while we stay inside our comfortable cocoon, woven with threads of shelter and denial, we are oblivious to those outside who suffer. It is easy to look beyond our own country and find faults in other nations, simple to read an article in a newspaper and pray about it. It takes no effort at all to sympathize with the minute-long, flatly reported horrors we see on TV. What is difficult, what many of us push aside, is staring down the rotten parts of our own country, community, and even ourselves. We weave our shelters against these uncomfortable issues, willfully blinding ourselves to the injustices happening just a few blocks away from our homes. But perhaps now, amid a year that feels something akin to apocalyptic, we might be able to unwrap ourselves from our cocoons and face our community and country head-on. While we are literally trapped in our homes and our heads, we have the opportunity to reflect on the voices that have been so desperately crying out for justice. Not only black lives, but every minority in this country that has been criminally underserved and treated unfairly.
In my opinion, the best way to tackle these issues is to ask questions, in the same way the disciples and followers of Jesus did.
To start, we must abandon our outdated ideals of difference and separation. Often, we hear people saying things like, "I may not be black, but…" "I may not be Asian, but…" "I may not be LGBT+, but…" "I may not be Hispanic, but…" "I may not be Muslim, but…" No matter our country of origin, the color of our skin, the languages we speak, or the gender or sexual identities we claim, we live in the same country and the same world! Are we not all children of the same loving God? Though we may not know the struggles of others as we know our own, compassion and self-education shines a light on what we previously had difficulty understanding. If we believe that God makes no mistakes, then we must love each other for who we are without trying to change each other or argue against one another.
While our present struggles are not a perfect parallel to the story of Jesus and the leper, the lesson remains the same. We must accept that we have forced individuals, sometimes our own family and friends, to their isolated tents outside the city walls. We have condemned others to live a life plagued by judgment and disdain. They are forbidden acceptance as equals until they fulfill the empty rituals that we have put in place for them, rituals that require them to bend to fit our ideals of “normal” or “respectable.”
As Jesus taught, we must welcome everyone inside our city walls, discard the misguided purification practices, and forget our learned prejudices. Although we've certainly grown and progressed since Jesus walked the Earth, it appears that sometimes his lessons still need revisiting. And perhaps that's the whole point of this faith thing anyway.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
“Hate Crime Statistics.” The United States Department of Justice, 23 Nov. 2019, www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics.
Jean-Charles, Petruce. “LGBTQ Americans Are Getting Coronavirus, Losing Jobs. Anti-Gay Bias Is Making It Worse for Them.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 May 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/09/discrimination-racism-fuel-covid-19-woes-lgbtq-americans/3070036001/.
Mirza, Shabab Ahmed; Rooney, Caitlin. “Discrimination Prevents LGBTQ People From Accessing Health Care.” Center for American Progress, 13 Aug. 2019, www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/news/2018/01/18/445130/discrimination-prevents-lgbtq-people-accessing-health-care/.