EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Full Disclosure: This is actually an adaptation of an article I published back in 2013 relative to the above texts. I repeat it because the issue seems as ugent as ever today and perhaps more so.
Who are today’s lepers? Who are the people for whom no one has any sympathy? The people none of us want living in our neighborhoods? The folks whose suffering we deem just and well deserved? While it is true (and unfortunate) that many people regard illegal residents, sexual minorities or particular racial groups as unwelcome and unwanted, thankfully these groups today have their advocates and supporters. We are a long way from full equality on all these fronts, but there is at the very least a struggle going on to achieve that goal. Nobody supported lepers in the first century or advocated for their well being. No one in that age (except Jesus) would so much as touch a leper. It didn’t matter that leprosy is not highly contagious or that most of the people classified and shunned as lepers actually had benign skin diseases that were altogether harmless. Once that dreaded label attached, your life in the community was over-until a priest declared you officially cured.
I think that the closest thing to a leper we have in our society today is the registered sex offender. You might object that, unlike the sex offender, lepers did nothing evil to merit their disease or the social isolation it earned them. But that is not how leprosy was viewed in the first century. Like blindness, paralysis and other debilitating diseases, leprosy was commonly understood as a punishment for sin. So pervasive was this notion that Jesus’ disciples presumptively asked him whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. John 9:2. It has to be somebody’s sin, right? Jesus rejected that notion altogether. Though he does not explain where the man’s blindness came from, he does let his disciples know that human suffering is for them an opportunity to manifest the glory of God through the exercise of compassion. John 9:3 Such compassion extends to all people-even lepers.
Our feelings about sex offenders are in many ways similar to the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt about lepers. Lepers were believed to pose a serious danger to the rest of the community. They were therefore feared and kept at a distance. It was assumed that such a terrible disease could only have come about as punishment for an equally terrible sin. Ignorance and fear coupled with a lack of compassion led to branding and ostracism. The same can be said of those folks on the registry of sexual offenders. We find their violent and exploitive acts repulsive. We see them as a threat to our communities and we regard their placement on the registry as both just and necessary. Pity is out of place.
While there is much that we don’t know about the perverse twists that surface in some individuals driving them to acts of sexual violence, a few things are clear. Violence is pervasive in our culture. The fact that nearly half the population of the United States believes that we need to keep guns in order to preserve our freedom testifies to our acceptance of violence as a normal and necessary component of our lives. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but what little I have seen is enough to convince me that the portrayal of violence against women and children is becoming ever more common and increasingly graphic. The plot line from so many of these shows reinforces our societal creed: the only way to fight violence is with more violence. I don’t know whether shows like Hawaii Five O, Criminal Intent and CSI make us more violent, but their popularity certainly demonstrates that we find violence enormously entertaining. Our civil discourse, whether in the halls of congress or in the barbershop, has degenerated into name calling, character assassination and even death threats. Is it at all surprising that this tidal wave of anger and ill will infecting our common life spills over into our sexual lives as well? Maybe we hate and abhor the sexual predator so much because he reflects the beast within us all and the vortex into which it is sucking us.
Another thing we know about sexual predators: they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. No, that does not justify their acts, but it does help us understand the source of their deep seated anger and violent tendencies. It also forces us to ask ourselves the question I posed in last week’s post: does the entire responsibility for the crimes of sexual predators rest with them alone? Is their evil not also the responsibility of the neighbors who heard the terrified cries of an abused child, but turned up the television set to drown them out figuring that it was none of their business? What about the pastors, teachers and coaches who noticed odd bruises and welts on a child but didn’t bother to investigate or inquire about them? Is there not a sense in which all of us share responsibility for the abuse such abused children ultimately commit?
It is not my purpose here to criticize the statute creating the sexual offender registry or suggest an alternative law. Clearly, the criminal justice system is in dire need of an overhaul. That issue is addressed in the ELCA’s recent statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. But my concern here goes beyond legislation and social policy. While we might debate what society ought to do about sexual violence, there can be no question about what Jesus requires of his church. Let us be perfectly clear that sexual predators are dangerous people and the crimes they commit wreak unspeakable sorrow and pain upon their victims. Laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens from sexual violence and harassment need to be enforced scrupulously and with rigor. But disciples of Jesus, and especially those of us who claim Martin Luther as our spiritual mentor, know that laws and penalties are not enough. Beneath the most heinous of labels society places on convicted criminals there are human beings. However marred and disfigured, these people bear the image of their Creator. I might not want to touch them, but Jesus does. That leaves me no choice.
I am not sure how we reach out to touch the lepers on the sex offender registry. I am not sure how we include them as part of our faith communities. That is clearly a daunting challenge for churches desiring to create a safe space for women, children and persons recovering from the trauma of past abuse. Obviously, we need to keep the safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities foremost in our minds as we minister to these folks. To borrow a phrase from the little known and seldom quoted New Testament Book of Jude: “on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 23. Despite the obvious dangers involved, I think we need to find ways to show mercy, even if tempered by fear. It seems to me that we who follow Jesus have a particular obligation towards these people so hated and ostracized by the rest of society. If the Body of Christ will not touch them, who will? And if no one touches them; if they remain hated and feared outsiders; if they are never offered forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption, then their hatred and loneliness will only increase, making them more violent and more dangerous than ever.
Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson about the conditions that might well breed those we label as monsters and ostracize.
Group Home Before Ms. Edna’s House
The monsters that come at night don’t
breathe fire, have two heads or long claws.
The monsters that come at night don’t
come bloody and half-dead and calling your name.
They come looking like regular boys
going through your drawers and pockets saying
You better not tell Counselor else I’ll beat you down.
The monsters that come at night snatch
the covers off your bed, take your
pillow and in the morning
steal your bacon when the cook’s back is turned
call themselves The Throwaway Boys, say
You one of us now.
When the relatives stop coming
When you don’t know where your sister is anymore
When every sign around you says
Group Home Rules: Don’t
do this and don’t do that
until it sinks in one rainy Saturday afternoon
while you’re sitting at the Group Home window
reading a beat-up Group Home book,
wearing a Group Home hand-me-down shirt
hearing all the Group Home loudness, that
you are a Throwaway Boy.
And the news just sits in your stomach
hard and heavy as Group Home food.
Source: Locomotion (Puffin Books, 2003). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.