Some time ago I attended a social function at one of our local Anglican churches. In the course of the evening, listening in on a conversation between two other men, I heard one of them make a demeaning comment about Canadian aboriginals. There was no build-up to it, no follow-through or pause in the conversation; it was just a throw-away remark meant to buttress another point and move on. I’m sure neither man would now remember the line in the conversation, or have registered it as being racist.
When I arrived in Canada four years ago, coming fresh into a society I knew only a little about, but for which I had great appreciation, the racism towards First Nations peoples took me by surprise. On the surface great strides are being taken by governments and church denominations to address the many injustices of the past and to make reparations where possible. But in my day to day interactions with other people white-like-me I have been shocked at the level of prejudice, distrust, ignorance and alienation that there is with regard to Canada’s indigenous populations. There are hopeful exceptions, of course, but the general trend is disheartening.
By highlighting this particular situation in Canada I don’t mean to imply that it is worse than other corners of the globe. Recent events in the USA underscore the ubiquity of race-related prejudice and violence. Nor do I mean to say that racism is only a white man’s problem; some of the most overt racial prejudices I observed while living for many years in the Netherlands were between immigrant Muslim populations of different ethnicities.
Clearly, there are relationships between peoples which are still in need of healing, including here in Canada.
A local man, a leader in the synagogue, comes to Jesus to find healing for his daughter. At the same time a woman in the crowd has been discreetly following Jesus, looking for her own opportunity to be made well.
The threat of illness, aside from whatever personal distress it may bring through pain or discomfort, is that it removes a person from the natural flow of human relationships. A low-grade illness or condition, managed well, is one we hardly take notice of because we are still able to function normally in society. Genuine illness, on the other hand, is disruptive in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we are connected. It becomes a source of social upheaval, if not disintegration. The sickness reaches beyond the life of the afflicted individual: we, our families, our loved ones, start to bend our lives around the illness.
Think of Jairus’ daughter. By the time Jesus reaches her, she has died. In the reigning world-view of that society this young girl is now with Father Abraham, in a better place, made whole again in the afterlife. What difference will it make if Jesus brings her back, only to die again in another 50 years? What is truly broken here, what is truly in need of healing, is a family and a community. A father and mother are heart-broken at the untimely death of their beloved daughter. By restoring her, these relationships are restored as well.
Or consider the woman with the menstrual-like hemorrhage. For twelve long years her illness has made her ritually unclean, according to the Law of Moses. Yes, she can still eat, sleep, work, sing and pray; she can still “get by” as a functioning human being. But by the prescription of the Law she has become a social pariah, an outcast. Every bed she lies on, every seat she sits on becomes unclean, and anyone who touches these things, or her, is also unclean. This physical characteristic has a profound social implication; it has become a part of her identity, preventing her from taking her rightful place in society.
So when this woman finally reaches out to touch Jesus and find physical healing, Jesus knows it is not enough. He calls her out, publicly. Her genuine need, and the need of the community, is for her to be restored in society, to have everyone know that she is no longer an untouchable. Jesus calls her out of the crowd not to shame her but to release her from shame.
Let’s return to our day and the example of the First Nations: the slow, careful work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not an elaborate ceremony to “help the Indians get over” the abuses of the Residential Schools system. Likewise, the church’s efforts to root out sexism and homophobia is not merely about the victims, as important as their individual experience is. These things are about all of us, about our society together, that together we may be made well again.
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin once wrote, “The local congregation is called to be, and by the grace of God often is….the foretaste of a different social order. Its members will be advocates for human liberation by being themselves liberated. Its actions for justice and peace will be, and will be seen to be, the overflow of a life in Christ, where God’s justice and God’s peace are already an experienced treasure.”*
Genuine healing is not truly accomplished until the social network is functioning as it should, when those who have suffered are welcomed in with a strong embrace and have found again their place among us. For this we work and pray.
*The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 231/232