Who are the “unclean” of today?

Rhett Engelking
FAN Director of Earth Corps

The God-given ability to diagnose another person as “unclean” was likely well intentioned during the time of exile in the desert, but in our age of modern scientific medicine such pronouncements now do more harm than good. The condition described in the first passage of Sunday’s readings is known today as Hansen’s disease and is in some ways curable by treatment. While we can now trace the cause of leprosy to a bacterium, it does not reverse the stigmatization that has taken place for thousands of years. Lepers were “others” and the declaration of “uncleanness” led not only to physical exile, but emotional exile as well. This emotional exile results from what might be called “otherness,” and embracing “otherness” in 13th century lepers was the transition point for St. Francis to begin living an authentically Christian life. The ongoing conversion of Francis’ life, what Paul calls metanoia, was nothing if not a daily exercise in overcoming our disposition toward otherness, a disposition that keeps us all small lonely egos, islands unto ourselves. Of course, we don’t always recognize when we embrace otherness. In fact we often feel justified.


Many of us are aware of the Influenza, Human papilloma Virus (HPV), Ebola, and measles outbreaks that have been in the news and the types of precautions that we have been encouraged to take. One such precaution is vaccination. Interestingly, vaccination itself has become a hot topic of debate. Is HPV vaccinations safe or even necessary if my child does not engage in sexual intercourse? Should we close our borders to Ebola patients? Will the vaccine give my child autism? Did the flu vaccine make me sick? Will your unvaccinated child give my child with leukemia a life threatening disease? While the media raises these questions to a high level of importance, it does not often take a basic look at what we do to each other once we have chosen which camp we are in. In fact, the camp that some of us put ourselves in says that the science behind vaccines cannot be trusted whatsoever. One way or another, someone is wrong and to associate with them is to associate with one who is “unclean.” A conversion is needed.

The Gospel story spells out all of the steps in the ongoing conversion process that should rid us of the “otherness” that so often divides us. First was the encounter, where the man with leprosy is acknowledged by Jesus. We have to see that something is awry in another before we do anything for them. Second, it tells us he was moved by pity. Pity is the least and very often the first thing that leads to embracing of the other and seems as if it was all that was necessary for Jesus to provide assistance. Thirdly, there is an acknowledgement of sympathy in the “I will do it” followed by an indication of empathy, “Be made clean.” Even after the healing, Jesus still recognized that the priests alone had authority to deem people clean in Jewish society. Further he did not require public acknowledgement of the good deed he performed, sternly preferring anonymity to fame. It is a glimpse of what it means to live in Solidarity with the poor and oppressed which is the fourth step. We must stand with and stand behind others. Jesus knew that the priests of his day used the quarantining of the unclean as a means of unjust social stratification and he consented to making a cured leper the ambassador of his good news. Finally, in our ongoing conversion we must desire universal kinship. While the leper relished the spotlight, Jesus remained at the margins of the city in the deserted places where only the prophets live, and where Francis himself spent some of his time. Jesus imagined a kingdom where all are kin, a “kindom” if you will. So too, we should seek not our “own benefit, but the benefit of the many, that they may be saved.”
Rhett Engelking
FAN Director of Earth Corps

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