A few years ago, my wife and I lead a short term mission trip to India to work with an orphanage of a few thousand kids. While we were there, one of the leaders asked us if our team of college students would be willing to go with them to visit a leprosarium in a nearby village.
I assumed that, it being the 21st century, and what we now know about medicine and hygiene, our experience would be somewhat intense, but still a tame, sanitary experience.
I was wrong.
When we walked in, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was thick and putrid. The people were at various stages of disfigurement and I was surprised by how hard I found it to look directly at most of them.
I’m not proud of this, but if I had to put a word on the primary emotion I felt there, it would be disgust.
After a couple of hours there, we got back on our bus and one of the young men from our trip began to weep while his body shook with deep sobs.
So I’m in a series reviewing friend Richard Beck’s new book Stranger God:Meeting Jesus in Disguise, and I wanted to start with that story because Beck’s main premise is that much of what keeps us from acting like Jesus in the world is that we all have these kinds of emotional triggers that keep us from spending time with certain people.
Those triggers can be a lot of different things. For some, it’s a disability, or hygiene or smell or clothing, for others it can be political or religious, race or ethnicity or socio-economic. But we all have certain people we seem to be hard-wired to avoid. And here’s where Beck is helpful.
Because Richard is a psychologist and his great insight is bringing together his faith in Jesus with the theories of boundary psychology.
Spitting in Dixie Cups
For years, when I’ve described Beck’s ideas to friends I’ve told them about how he describes boundary psychology.
Every minute you swallow your own saliva. There’s nothing gross about that, we all do it, it’s a totally normal thing. But, Beck points out, if you were to spit that same saliva into a Dixie Cup would you then turn around and immediately drink it?
Turns out, that changes everything. Even though it’s still the same saliva, once it crosses the boundary of your body you see it as something foreign and other. You experience feelings of revulsion.
You feel disgust.
Now pay attention to the common everyday words we use to describe disgust and disgusting things/people. “Gross, creepy, icky, trashy, nasty, rotten, slimy, sleazy’ and so on. When we experience disgust in our interactions with people it triggers dehumanization and makes us carve us the world into insiders and outsiders.
So is it any wonder that so many of the stories of the New Testament are God specifically coming to these new Christians and telling them to go to and accept the outsiders?
Beck walks through story after story in the Bible of God telling this new band of Christians to broaden their circle of affections.
Like in Acts 10, where Peter is dreaming on a roof, and God comes to him in a dream and shows Peter a vision of unclean animals. God tells Peter to “get up! Kill and eat!” (a favorite verse for all hunters) and Peter argues back with God, reminding God that these are animals that God specifically had told them not to eat, and that he had never broken that rule.
And that’s when God tells Peter “Do not call anything unclean that I’ve made clean”
This vision, Beck points out, is all about disgust and contamination. As the story unfolds, we realize that this isn’t God being super concerned that Peter might miss out on the joys of Bacon-wrapped Lobster, but a command to welcome Gentiles into fellowship with them.
The issue wasn’t unclean food, the issue was disgust and rejection of unclean people.
If You are Willing
So back to that leprosarium in India. For months afterward I was disappointed in myself for the way I withdrew from those hurting people. I thought I was better, more like Jesus, than that.
It turns out I loved lepers in theory, but only because I had never met a leper.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story right in chapter one, of Jesus healing a leper. The interesting thing about that story is that the leper approaches Jesus-having heard about some of the other healing stories-and makes this observation: “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean”
Notice exactly what the leper is saying, and the sentiment behind it. He doesn’t ask Jesus if he can heal him, he believes that he can, he is asking Jesus if He is willing to.
The world that first heard this story would have understood it much better than us modern, Western readers. When they heard the story of the leper, they would know the smells, sights and dangers of what was actually happening.
They would have understood that just by having this conversation Jesus was putting his life at risk, and that’s what made Jesus’ response so dramatic.
Jesus reached out the man and touched him.
There’s a great story about St. Francis of Assisi that happened shortly after his conversion, He was travelling along the road and met a leper. From childhood, Francis had been terrified of lepers (and understandably so), so when he saw this leper he turned to flee, but something made him decide to push back against this instinct.
Francis, turned toward the leper, and hugged and kissed(!) him. Beck points out that because of this story, the early Franciscan orders became known for their ministry to lepers.
Francis had pushed past his triggers of revulsion and expanded his moral circle. He had embraced what was unclean and in doing so found God.
Because there’s one more detail about this famous story. After he said goodbye to the leper and was walking away, Francis turned around to say one more thing, and legend goes, the leper was gone. He had disappeared.
Jesus, once again was hidden in the stranger, disguised in our disgust.