I don’t usually engage the public with concern for suffering stigma. I do not have any obvious mental or physical ailments or oddities that call for attention (or inattention). And so, as a day in/day out reality, I do not worry about such things. And I almost could have gone my whole life, I think, without considering it much.
I think one of the first times I dealt with suffering stigma was in my early adult life, and I joined a family I had just met at church for lunch in a public restaurant. When our food came, they all wanted to pray over the food. The prayer was not flamboyant, but it was still a public display of what otherwise had always been a matter of private piety for me. The father of this family prayed over the food for almost 2 minutes as we all dutifully bowed, and the kids clasped their hands in an overt prayer posture.
I was not exactly mortified, but I felt a heavy cloud come over me all through my meal in that place. I reflected on it as a matter of faith for years afterward. I certainly discovered that I was ashamed of my faith in Jesus (Mark 8:38; Rom. 1:16; 2 Tim. 1:8 …anyone???), which came home to roost again when I went to college and took evangelism coursework that required me to approach strangers in the local mall with the Gospel.
(When was the last time you spoke to a complete stranger about Jesus?)
Shortly after that public prayer experience, I dated a lovely, young lady briefly who had a brother with Down’s Syndrome. He was a younger brother who still lived at home with his parents. His affliction was obvious, but not commonly understood by the public at large. I quickly found this family discussing, with great frequency, the stigma they suffered – usually through gawking stares but sometimes off-hand (even back-handed) comments etc. And on a couple of occasions, I accompanied this family in public where I learned first-hand exactly what they meant.
In my adult life, I have come to be concerned with a social phenom I call “invisible people.” Shortly before I went to college, I read about the Caste System in India and of course the “untouchables” – the lowest caste of people there that most other people avoid as a matter of practice. But then I learned of a non-caste (out-caste) even below the “untouchables” that, as one writer put it, “In centuries of British presence, no one even knew they were there. They were ‘invisible.’” (That actually is a para-phrase, and the writer was Phillip Yancey.) Apparently, it was so socially unacceptable to be around these invisibles, that if their very shadow were to fall upon a pot of stew, it would “pollute” the food and dictate that it be thrown out!
These people only came out at night. They washed the clothes of the “untouchables” and went unseen and unspoken in the larger population. A whole lost caste!
Discovering that story helped to shape my career. I began looking for invisible people in my own culture. I found them – at least a close equivalent. I found them among the custodians. I did social experiments in college that demonstrated that even I could vanish right in front of my own friends eyes if I dressed a certain way and engaged in a custodial activity just a couple of feet away!
I began to realize that the world is a stage. We take up roles to play in the eyes of our fellow creatures. Shame seems to seek the wings while pride seeks center stage. But humanity was created to bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Ever wonder why you can’t see, touch, taste, smell, or hear God with empirical verification, like a scientist in the lab? Well, it’s because you were designed to bear his image in the world. You are the empirical evidence, if there is any. And when you enter the stage with pride, it dictates that God is not actually center stage in the world he created! So, I found this polarity between hiding from view and seeking attention – and “humanity” seems to have it all backwards!
So, later in my prophetic career, I began dressing like a homeless person and eating lunch on street corners or outside of businesses where people walk by and see me. I made cardboard placards announcing: “Pray for the homeless.” It was not exactly begging, but kind of like a slight of hand, it SEEMED like begging. The first time I did it, I felt a mortal shame well up in me. I almost choked on it. I worried I would bump into someone who knew me personally (perhaps my boss). How could I look them in the eye???
That seems strange to me now, because I was just playing a role that I could easily discard by simply walking away at any moment – even if I bumped into someone I knew. But I toughed it out and stayed. I bore the burden of the stigma of homelessness, even if only briefly. But I did it again and again too. I have done it so many times now, I have lost count. And I have gone one better too, I have camped with the homeless through the night on numerous occasions. I went without a shower and blended in as best I could numerous times. I walked a mile (or two) in their shoes.
It turns out that a lot of my homeless friends suffer severe mental illness too. In fact, the illnesses are one of the main factors landing these folks in the streets to begin with. (I worked in a psych hospital too for 4 years, so I have that experience to enlighten me too.) Those suffering with such illnesses cannot shed the stigma, and I now find whole blogs dedicated to dealing with it.
I do not claim to know it all. That is not my point. I learn more all the time, actually, and I realize how little I actually do know after all. But I have put a foot in that other world. It means I have a foot in both. I am a bridge person, of sorts. There was a personal Rubicon of SHAME to cross, and I crossed it. And I think most “normal” people are AFRAID to cross it.
It’s not that they fear afflicted people will take over the world like as if some zombie apocalypse – such is often the banter in political spheres. It’s not that they “fear the unknown” – though that is involved. It’s more that they fear having to feel ashamed, like somehow the stigma will stick to them too. And ironically, the knee jerk reaction to that fear dictates that you pump up that stigma and heap it on others you sense already bear its burden.
What is also ironic (and truly sad) is that people suffering that kind of fear of shame are the real victims. They are victims of their own lack of faith and imagination. And their scorn, and the evil they inflict so easily, has, more often than not, to do with their mistaken way of defending against their own fears. They are the victims, and they don’t even know it. And they are victims of their own contempt.
What does this say about our relationship with Jesus?
I think this is largely why my whole ministry goes shunned by the “mainstream” church. It is too convenient to ignore me when and where possible and to shun me when you can’t do that. To actually answer the call of this Jesus to come into your life, your church, your home is to face the fears of shame in your own contempt. And until you do, is that really Jesus you have a “relationship” with?
Jesus died on that cross bearing the contempt of the world AS he bore the naked image of God. He too remained below the contempt of the official “people of God” until he picked a fight with their temple by pitching the money-changers’ tables and driving out everyone with a whip! (John 2:14-15). He forced the hand of those who did their best to marginalize him by ignoring him. (Some exceptions to be sure, but the high priest and friends in Jerusalem were the ones with the clout to get him killed.) When he forced the “people of God” to deal with their contempt of him, they chose to do so with violence!
That is the crucified Jesus we claim we follow today. But if you can’t even talk to a stranger about him in a mall, if you drive past a homeless beggar on the corner rolling up your window and locking your door, then how can you demonstrate that he is not beneath your contempt? And, what kind of relationship do you have with someone beneath your contempt?
Getting the picture???
This analysis should fill out your understanding of the Fat Beggars School of Prophets mission statement: We go to the place of shame, pain, and despair in our community and bear the image of God there. This is how we help Lubbock’s homeless prophetically bear the image of God in the streets: we break the communion bread among those who have no home and invite those with homes to join us. It’s a lot more gentle than turning tables and driving out parishioners with a whip, but it still confronts the same contempt.