by Esther Baruja
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A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. RVSV
Living in Impurity
Leprosy is now known as Hansen’s disease, and depending on the symptoms presented, not many cases are exactly the same as that we read of in the Hebrew Bible. According to the laws of purity, any stains, boils or skin inflammations could be considered a reason to declare a person “unclean” and marginalize him/her from the rest of Jewish society (Leviticus 13-14).
This statement about which person was worthy of staying in the community and which was not was sometimes an arbitrary decision. Even the scar of a burn could be considered a sign of impurity.
In some cases the “leprosy” disappeared and the priest declared the person “pure” again. In the Holiness Code, being pure has to do with the conditions required to continue participating in community life (in all possible roles) and to have access to the temple to worship the God of Israel. To be considered pure implied being accepted in that society.
According to Lev 13:45-46, to be unclean meant total marginalization of the person: The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Imagine the case of a man whom the Priest of the Temple declares unclean, and therefore the only place where he can live is outside the community-far from his social, religious and family environments. This man has to break ties with all the important people in his life; he can no longer come within 50 steps from them, or even dream of touching them again. An impure/unclean person should not be touched by any person considered ‘pure’, because of the risk of contagion. The person with leprosy was rejected for life and punished for a condition that he or she did not want or seek.
I have also been declared unclean. As a lesbian, the “Priests of the Temple”, the Church authorities, the pastors of Christian churches, and the members of evangelical congregations in my native South America have ordered me to wear torn clothes (….) and cover my upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’
As in the case of people with leprosy, queer people like me (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transsexual, Transgender persons) have been denied the opportunity to live in community; a community of healthy interpersonal relationships; a community living in equality. Just as the decision of who is “impure/unclean” was determined based on the interpretation of those who had power in the Jewish hierarchy, the decision to declare me and my whole community impure depended and depends on the powerful people of the Christian Church.
It has been 40 years since homosexuality was removed from the Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychological Association. Plenty of research from serious health organizations has been done, and the results have shown that sexual orientation and gender identity is diverse in humanity; that none of their variations are a disease; and therefore there is nothing to “restore” or “change” to conform with heterocentric regulations. Even now,despite what the science says, many Christian denominations are the first to declare people unclean and make them victims of the witch hunt in the name of “purity”.
Not only that, but some LGBTQ people also have to live with the stigma we are submitted to based on specific characteristics. For example, a person could suffer discrimination because of racism—in my case because I’m a Latina brown-skinned woman. My parents,brother/sisters, cousins, etc. almost all have the same skin color, so though I may feel and be discriminated against because of my appearance, something which is innate and not a choice, at least my family is the same as me in that sense, and we accept each other and support one another through that discrimination. However the gay or lesbian Christian whose family is Christian is rejected even by their “own” people, the people that he/she loves the most. We are rejected and forced to live in the loneliest “leper ghetto” because of the decision of those who label us as impure.
Many faith traditions justify the marginalization of people like me from the religious life of their communities using only 6 or 7 texts of doubtful and varied interpretations born out of terrible exegesis. For decades bible scholars have written about those “clobber” texts (so called because they are used to hit hard). There exist several hundred books with alternative interpretations, yet these communities refuse to re-examine their beliefs and thus their members continue to hold LGBTQ people isolated in their leprosy. They not only turn their backs on the science that has ‘normalized’ us, but even worse those churches have developed pseudo-compassionate thoughts like “love the sinner but hate the sin” that have no biblically or theologically consistent justification—at least from my point of view and how I understand Christianity.
If they really accept me, if they really loved me, they would accept me the way I am, with all the areas of my humanity—areas that cut across me, my body, my mind, my soul…the only me. That acceptance should include my sexual orientation and my gender identity, aspects of myself that I didn’t and don’t voluntarily decide to feel or experience but are simply me.
When God touches you
When the leper approaches Jesus he is committing a reprehensible act. The leper is approaching a person who has no leprosy, and even speaks to him, saying, ‘If you choose,you can make me clean.’ What gives a man marginalized by his community the impulse to reach out to Jesus? This man has been stripped of his rights, of all he enjoyed before he was declared unclean. He is a pariah now, someone who always should be avoided and not allowed to have any connection with the pure.
To be accepted into the community, the leper had to go through the ritual of being declared clean and pure again. The act is only performed in the temple by a priest and following the strict procedures of the Holiness Code. This marginalized person is turning instead to Jesus, perhaps believing that he will be able to release him from his social stigma.
When I was spiritually marred by the rejection, denied by those who I believed were my brothers and sisters, when I was in the required leprosarium, I also looked for Jesus from my marginalized shore—the Jesus with whom I had walked so many years and from whom they tried to snatch me out of his hands.
As a lesbian, I also live stripped of my most basic rights, rights that no faith tradition should be able to deny to a human being. The laws of independent states and laity can not and should not be legislated based on religious dogma. Even if a majority faction of the evangelical circles disagree with the legitimacy of civil unions between same sex couples, they do not have the right to promote this status quo of inequality.
However, despite all the stigma, I broke the rules established by the dogmas, all by myself crossed the 49 steps that separated me from Jesus, the truly pure, and I, the leper, spoke to him. I spoke the words that I was denied, the words I believed I had no right to say because I am a lesbian.
Mark says that Jesus looked at the leper with mercy (or rage, depending on the translation) and then he touched him.
Although the official voices of the conservative church have told me to repeat: “I am impure!” and made me walk away, ashamed to live my supposed “sinful lifestyle” in solitude, nevertheless in his grace Jesus looked at me! And not only that, he touched me! God in his/her mercy has allowed me to have many other experiences outside of the “temple” where I was also touched by grace. Jesus wasn’t waiting for a steering committee to decide my dignity as a person nor a manifesto to state my inalienable right for respect and equality.
No, Jesus affirmed me in my dignity, because I have always had it, as every human being deserves to be affirmed. Jesus has declared me pure, not because I was impure due to my sexual orientation, but rather because he has taken me back to a faith community life from which I had been excluded because of the interpretation of certain biblical texts that some churches have.
Fortunately, as we see in the text of Mark, the processes of healing/cleaning/purifying do not depend exclusively on the priests of the temple, nor on religious institutions sealed inside their walls of self-complacency.
After my coming out I found many compassionate gazes and attitudes, and since then many people have touched me and healed my soul. Eventually after a few years I have found some Christian denominations more healing than others.
Though I should have been isolated in my impurity, imposed upon me by fundamentalism, I have met some people who came to me in my ‘solitary confinement.’ I have met these people in non-religious meetings, people who have no religious institutional authority but yet looked at me, also with the power of the Holy Spirit which manifests herself in their prophetic voices (uncomfortable for some). This spirit of acceptance was evident in their desire to see me and accept me as such as I am, as a HUMAN BEING.
Many families of people from my community are in doubt of whether or not they should offer a liberating touch or even a loving embrace to their gay son or lesbian daughter. These Christian families are in the dilemma of following the Spirit of grace or following the dogmas of supposed purity.
The corporate message tells them to refuse to give the healing touch of acceptance. It is based on the fundamentalist doctrine preached passionately from the pulpit, sermons wielded in the “defense of the family.” That message does not take into account MY family, the one that suffers, the one which learns to reject its own children based on biblical texts taken out of context in the name of faith. Mothers and fathers learn that they must pray to God for “change” but in reality there is nothing to change in those children, at least in regard to sexual orientation.
Who is this simple carpenter from Nazareth who thinks has the power to do what only a priest/pastor of the church could do? Who is this that outside of the prevailing religious institution decides to break the rules and touch an “untouchable”? How many Jesuses do we have in churches with enough courage to touch me?
Jesus touches him, touches me. Jesus also risks being considered impure and says to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ and the man was clean. Jesus wanted this person to have a full life. This person has regained his place and was again accepted in his society with the healing touch of Jesus.
Leaving the Temple to touch and be touched
If we translate these ideas of purity/impurity to modern day, who would be the “untouchables”of our society now? We have many unfortunately; they are the poor, women, children of the street, our indigenous peoples, and undocumented immigrants to name few. We have so many people that need to be touched. There are so many people that need to receive a direct and real, honest look so that we can see them on the same level on equal terms, and not from the top to bottom with an air of superiority.
To be LGBTQ in our day is to be considered unclean by most Christian denominations in Latin America. I know there are some Christians with a sincere heart, who have come to understand that homosexual orientation is not sin and sincerely have made the effort to show me the grace of God with their accompaniment. Some of them are in positions of power in political positions that respond to denominational structures which means that for them to”touch me” outside of the temple, in public, will make them become “impure” as I am for many others.
Jesus does not depend on structures or steering committees. Jesus touched the leper outside the temple and cleaned him. Jesus came to this person and gave him back the possibility of being a fully human being that results from the interaction between two people who look at each other and recognize the other as an individual inherently worthy of respect. Yes, according to Mark, Jesus the man spoke, walked, ate, laughed with other human beings and made a difference in their lives.
Many of these people who are healing me in my life have no religious affiliation; some are atheists or agnostics, but they have been the first to show me Jesus, although the latter may not see it that way.
Activist groups for the rights of LGBTQ people are fulfilling the healing role that the Christian church refuses to perform by insisting on maintaining patriarchal heterocentric dogmas over the two greatest commandments given by Jesus in Luke 10:27 ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’
I thank God for the social activists who play a liberating role in the lives of many people in my community, just as Jesus was not accepted at the official level of worship in the Temple, and was rejected by those considered themselves better than him and more worthy to be sons and daughters of God. In the same way, these activists are rejected just as Jesus was.Certainly their political positions endanger the good life, the comfortable lives of the religious leadership. That is why those positions must be dismissed for not passing the current “evangelical Holiness Code.”
On the other hand, what do those Christians that are in positions of power—those who know that being a LGBTQ person is not a sin per se—do about this issue? Do they remain in silence for fear of losing their privileges in the churches? Do they keep quiet because they are afraid of losing parishioners and donations coming from conservative entities?
The more silence is created, the more people in my community remain isolated, thinking of themselves as “impure”. Many cannot withstand the social pressure of being ostracized by their families, which were influenced by the churches to continue to deny the healing touch of acceptance.
The rate of depression in my community is high, not because we are LGBTQ, but because the stigma and discrimination which we have to survive is difficult to bear. Recently cases of queer teenage suicide have shaken the media, but we will never know the exact numbers of this silent annihilation because Christian families that have a son or daughter who is gay or lesbian are ashamed to tell the real motive of their childrens’ decisions. Fundamentalism has put them in constant denial of their own childrens’ feelings.
The prophet Hosea said ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’ in 4:6. My people, my community, literally dies, many are dying, in an attempt to erase themselves,to escape from the lonely dehumanization where we are put because of the so called sin of homosexuality, our leprosy.
Where are the followers of Jesus who dare to touch the leper? Is a person’s life not worth more than a seat on a committee? Was not Jesus rejected by the top leadership of his time for going against precepts that burdened the people instead of liberating the oppressed?
What do the institutions and their official representatives do while so many LGBTQ people who want to be part of a Christian community of faith walk alone like sheep without a shepherd? While they are despised and vehemently persecuted by Christians who believe that being “heterosexual” is a requirement to be a Christian?
What happens to the Jesus who reaches out and touches the person, himself becoming LGBTQ person for me, in order to feel rejection and discrimination like me? Will they reject him too? Will you turn away and go to refuge in temples, or just go out to hold marches against Same Sex Marriage while singing hymns?
Still, the liberating Spirit flows and heals. It is not up to you or us, the people naming us as impure or those of us called impure by the majority of christianity in Latin America. Outside of the temple or inside the Temple, God is still God and we who believe that God exists and has power to heal us, also still believe we are God’s beloved children.
What is up to you, brothers and sisters in faith, is to decide to continue opposing the Spirit or to join in her liberating work to minister life and not death.
What it is up to you is to be on the right side now and not to wait 100 years to apologize for being complicit in the damage done.
What does depend on you is to have the willingness to reach out to us and touch us. To release us from the homophobic stigma that separates us. To work together to bring the beloved Kin-dom of God.