THE SCOURGE OF STIGMA
I remember the time when I had to go for a job interview in an agency that worked in the field of HIV & AIDS. After a round or so of questions, my interviewer (and eventually boss) asked in what way could people who were HIV positive be accommodated in the organisation? Having never worked in this sector before, I was a little stumped. My reply was that they could be offered any job that they were qualified for and were healthy enough to do.
For added measure, I added that if any one of them was better equipped for the job than me, they ought to be taken in as any other candidate would be. In spite of that somewhat naïve answer, I was offered the job. It was only after having accepted the job and beginning work that the import of the question that was asked in the interview came through. For, stigma against those who were HIV positive was just about everywhere and the effects of stigma translating into discrimination in different spheres of life was equally pervasive.
It is not easy to discover the odour of stigma – an attitude that attacks like a mad dog, without reason and rationale, but bites to kill and maim. In spite of everything, an understanding of stigma in a scientific age still eludes me. I remember the time when I first met a gay person, a chap who had done his MBA from a reputed institute and was dressed like any other man in the room and looked the same. He spoke for an hour on the discrimination that he faced from childhood, wanting desperately to be like other men, attracted to girls and women and not other men, but it never happened. His parents tried everything they knew from science to faith healers; when they gave up and he grew up, he tried everything, but nothing worked. Finally, when stigma caught up with him even in the starched world of his corporate sector job, he quit to lend his talents to a Trust involved with sexual minorities.
I haven’t forgotten that man yet and I doubt that it will ever will any time soon. From him I learnt the lesson that stigma not only has no reason, it is no respecter of class either. Education will not necessarily eradicate it, in a grotesque fashion; it may actually amplify your hates and dislikes. I know many, many people who have probably never really known a single gay person in their entire life as friends or even acquaintances in any depth, but have read a book or two or may be just one book…. And based on what they have read, ghosts and images appear that they then learn to shun.
There are many suffering as victims of undeserved stigma in our world today. They are the forgotten people. Most have become invisible to us. What is our responsibility? What can we do? "What would Jesus do?" I think the right answer is to "do what Jesus did!" But how do we know what Jesus did? Good question! We find the answer in Luke 7:11-17. The widow in the story looked up just as He walked toward her. He was hot and sweaty. The difficult 25 mile walk from Capernaum took most of the day and He was breathing hard from the journey.
She heard someone say “it's Jesus.” She had heard of this teacher. He was the one who had healed the sick and lame. She asked herself, why didn't this Jesus come yesterday while her son was still alive? How could she have known Jesus walked all the way just to meet her need? Out of His love and compassion, He had gone out of His way for her! He had just finished preaching to a crowd of nearly 10,000. He was hot. He was thirsty. She might have thought! Jesus could heal the sick, but her son was already dead. But in the blink of an eye, everything changed! Jesus touched the son's dead body and commanded him to get up and return to his mother. Awe filled crowds as they responded by praising God. A widow's world changed in an instant.
Only Luke included this story in his gospel account. We could wonder why? One writer suggested the healing aspect intrigued Luke, a Gentile physician. Certainly, Jesus defied current medical practices. Jesus did not carry a little black bag, nor express the whimsical and colourful language and practices of a magician. He made no animal sacrifices and did not chant prayers to God. Jesus simply spoke and the dead son came back to life. I think Luke included this story for a different reason: barriers.
This story demonstrated God's willingness to cross any barrier to extend grace to His creation. Luke was a Gentile who wrote his account for a Gentile audience. If there was tough boundary to cross it was the Gentile, Samaritan, Jew-barrier. In this story Luke describes the barriers Jesus crossed to meet the widow's need. Distance and personal comfort was no barrier for Jesus. Jesus walked 25 miles to an unremarkable town to show compassion for a poor distraught widow. Reputation was no barrier for Jesus. Jesus defiled himself by touching the dead. No good teacher of the law would defile himself this way. Even death was no barrier for Jesus. Jesus simply spoke and the dead came back to life. Crossing barriers is the key to understanding Jesus and understanding God's grace for us. The real reason Luke included this story was to establish Jesus' willingness to cross all barriers, even ethnicity and culture. This is the key to "doing what Jesus did!"
Good News. We must "do as Jesus did." We are to risk our own reputations by eliminating barriers resulting in alienating the lost and causing them to feel unwelcome. We must "do what Jesus did" at school, at the workplace, and in the church. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus reminds us, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for Me." God never wanted the “least of these” to be ignored, exploited, or stigmatised. There are no barriers to God's grace. There is no place too small, no disease too great, no person too insignificant, and no sin too costly for Jesus. Like Jesus, we must willingly cross social, racial, and economic boundaries to bring good news to a dying world. "When the Lord saw her, His heart went out to her and said, 'Don't Cry.' God's people must go and do the same.