In the hug felt ‘round the world in 1989, First Lady Barbara Bush began the slow process of de-stigmatizing the simple action of touching someone with HIV.(1) It was an unexpected act offered by an uninhibited grandmother who wanted to bring attention to a community in isolation. Such a move would hardly surprise anyone today, but thirty years ago, intentionally reaching out via physical touch to a member of an ostracized community was noteworthy.
“To hug or not to hug?” however, is a question not yet mainstream. To the contrary, ours is an increasingly remote, touchless society reaping its own gloomy consequences. A 2014 study at the University of Arizona examined those suffering from “affection deprivation” and found that people who did not have meaningful physical contact from others suffered from loneliness, depression, and anxiety disorders.(2) Clearly, a patient’s physical condition might very well be his most public problem, but it likely won’t be his deepest.
How could such a simple act of a hug merit so much attention? Why would the giver care enough? Why would the onlookers be required to reassess their opinion of such an event? The reason lies behind both the physical and the spiritual effects of such an act: that hug, though unable to bring physical healing, brought comfort while simultaneously erasing a border between the skeptical and the suffering.
Excluding whole communities due to illness and, therefore, a perceived loss of humanity, was nothing new in the 1980s. Societies have long drawn boundaries to separate the sick from the well. Sadly, sickness often masked the true reasons to exclude the patient from the larger community. For over a century, the United States excluded would-be immigrants deemed too unhealthy to enter. The medical reasons, however, were more often a cloak to hide something more pernicious as whole peoples were labeled in negative stereotypes: the feeble Asians, the “criminally-minded” Italians, and the like. It would take decades to reverse such a shameful course that is not yet complete.(3)
Examining how societies have dealt with poor health as a reason to exclude sheds light on the life of the leper in Mark 1.(4) We know little about the man with leprosy other than that he approached Jesus in Galilee and asked to be healed. A target of Jewish purity laws, the leper was the outcast poster-child.
The purity laws to which he was subject operated as a means to preserve the health of the larger community.(5) But their effect said more about hierarchy, status, and, therefore, control. They acted as a great gatekeeper and were largely founded on a person’s physical attributes: sickness, origin, or hygiene. Such recognition of the leper rendered him less than human.
And how did Jesus confront the laws that governed entire communities? With a single touch. And with that touch, he effectively eliminated that space where the only constituent is division itself. This intentionally physical contact with the leper shattered stratified expectations. “This elaborate system of exclusion says you’re not worthy. It might as well say the same about me. I stand with you.” These could have been Christ’s words. He said as much through his action.
The sociologist Roman Krznaric notes that the word for empathy comes from the Greek word empatheia, meaning “in” and “suffering.” He concludes that several things hinder our empathic abilities, among them prejudice and authority.(6) For the AIDS patient and the leper, each endured a form of institutionalized expulsion, and both clearly suffered at the mercy of societal bias.
This ability to get close to those in suffering is insignificant by itself. The intentionality, on the other hand, is transformative. For in that moment, when he closed the distance between his hand and the leper, Jesus didn’t simply see isolation, he shared in that isolation; he didn’t just observe another’s exclusion, but he became excludable; he didn’t simply witness another’s repudiation, but he, too, wrapped himself in a robe that no one dared wear. And yet through his action of touch he not only restored the man to his former self, he transformed the social status of a despised one.
The uniqueness of the Christian message is that suffering is not something to be dismissed or even exalted. The uniqueness of the Christian message is that it illustrates the very basis for empathy to exist: to eliminate distance and join in suffering. To recognize the value of the other and honor it by sharing space even at the most inconvenient, undesirable, or repulsive moment.
Henri Nouwen wrote that the “beginning of healing is in the solidarity with [the] pain.”(7) Jesus knew that solidarity is impossible to achieve at a distance. So, motivated by love for the leper and anger at the system in which the leper was trapped, he drew close. And as he pulled up his sleeve so the purest hand could touch the vilest skin, Jesus shared space and demonstrated that empathy transcends impurity.
I like to imagine that if we listen closely, as Jesus approaches the leper contrary to the purity laws, we can almost hear him quoting to himself from those very ancient texts: “For man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”(8)
Lowe Finney is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Tom Rosshirt, “The day Barbara Bush softened hearts by hugging a man with AIDS,” The Chicago Sun Times, April 2018. https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/the-day-barbara-bush-softened-hearts-by-hugging-a-man-with-aids/ (accessed May 20, 2018).
(2) Andrew Reiner, “The Power of Touch,” The New York Times, December 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/well/family/gender-men-touch.html (accessed May 18, 2018).
(3) See Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern, “The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society,” The Milbank Quarterly, 80, No. 4 (2002), 764-66.
(4) Mark 1:40-45.
(5) J.E. Hartley, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 428.
(6) Roman Krznaric, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (New York: Penguin, 2014), 9, 34.
(7) Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 61.
(8) 1 Samuel 16:7 (English Standard Version).