“The Truth about our Kin”
Sermon and Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
March 12, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Call to Worship [Eugene V. Debs]:
“Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.”
Sometimes when you hear people say the words immigrants or refugees, it can be hard to figure out, or picture, what they mean and who they are talking about. Sometimes it can be hard for us adults to figure that out, too. What I wanted to say this morning is that when you hear people say immigrants or refugees, they don’t mean people who are different than you and me. Immigrants and refugees are people who are the same as you and me. It really only means that they were born in another country other than the United States. And all people want the same things in life, a home, a sense of safety for themselves and the people they love, the food and clothing they need, and to be able to feel well and content and loved.
On your Order Of Service is a picture of the Statue of [Liberty]. It was a gift to the United States from the people of [France]. The metal it is made of is [copper]. France paid for the statue and we paid for the [pedestal]. I have climbed the Statue of Liberty, and I’ve been to Ellis Island. At the turn of the century, my great-grandparents on my mother’s side came to this country through Ellis Island from Lithuania. My great grandfather decided he and his family would come to America because he kept seeing young men going off to war and not coming back. The inscription on the statue says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, democracy, and international friendship.
The Morning Reading (from, The Colony, by John Tayman; see the preface):
“For 103 years, beginning in 1866, the Hawaiian and then American governments forcibly removed more than eight thousand people to a remote and inaccessible peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and into one of the largest leprosy colonies in the world. The governments did so in the earnest belief that leprosy was rampantly contagious, that isolation was the only effective means of controlling the disease, and that every person it banished actually suffered from leprosy and was thus a hopeless case. On all three counts, they were wrong. With the establishment of the colony on Molokai, officials initiated what would prove to be the longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in American history, and perhaps the most misguided. In 1865 . . . the Hawaiian king signed [a law which criminalized the disease. The law remained in effect until mid-1969, when it was finally repealed.] Under the law, persons suspected of having the disease were chased down, arrested, subjected to a cursory exam, and exiled . . . In the early days of the colony, the government provided virtually no medical care, a bare subsistence of food, and only crude shelter. The patients were judged to be civilly dead, their spouses granted summary divorces, and their wills executed as if they were already in the grave . . . Leprosy is not a fatal disease. Neither is it highly infectious. It is a chronic illness caused by a bacterium, and communicable only to persons with a genetic susceptibility, less than 5 percent of the population. Transmission takes place… through airborne particles expelled by someone with leprosy in an active state. Among untreated patients, only a minority have the disease in its active state; the majority are not contagious. For cases that are active, a multi-drug therapy has been developed that quickly renders their leprosy non-communicable, after which they pose no risk of infection and are, in essence, cured. Every city in America has such cases; in the New York metropolitan area, for instance, more than a thousand people have or have had the disease. There are currently eleven federally funded outpatient clinics in the United States treating approximately seven thousand patients, although health officials believe many sufferers go untreated because of the powerful stigma attached to the disease. Though modern medicine has stripped the illness of its horrors, on a social level leprosy remains among the most feared of all diseases, since untreated leprosy can result in deformity, its precise mode of transmission was until recently unknown, and a cure remained undiscovered for thousands of years. The greatest factor in the stigmatization, however, was the historical intertwining of leprosy with religious notions of divine punishment, which gave rise to the corrosive idea that victims of the disease were sinful, shameful, and unclean. The preferred method of dealing with such people was obvious: banishment.”
Responsive Reading #651 “The Body is Humankind”
The Morning Sermon:
With the recent changes of representatives in our nation’s government, I am troubled that immigrants and refugees have been deported and are likely to be deported. Many people in our congregation share my concerns. Many of us personally know people who have cause to fear that they or their family members will be rounded up, detained, and possibly deported. And for any of us who do not know someone personally who is living with this fear, the degree of separation is small. As I said to the children during our story for all ages, immigrants and refugees are not different than you and me, they are the same as you and me, and want the same basic things in life. They simply were born in a different country than the United States. I am concerned about possible deportations in general. And, specifically, I am concerned about the “DREAMers.” In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, on January 24, 2017, Douglas Massey outlines the reasons it would be unjust, cruel, and disastrous economically for the current administration to deport the DREAMers:
“DACA recipients are a small subset of the total undocumented population. Consider the requirements: They entered the United States before their 16th birthday, were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, physically present in the country on that date, and present also at the time of their application. Under the terms of the executive order, they are all high school graduates, GED holders, or persons honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces. They have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007, and none has ever been convicted of a felony or even a significant misdemeanor. At the time of their receipt of temporary legal status, all were judged to pose no threat to national security or public safety by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
“Like other children who grew up in the United States at the same time, DACA recipients made their way through U.S. schools, earned a high school degree or equivalent, and stayed out of trouble with the law. Their primary language is English; most are either in college or employed. The only thing that distinguishes these young people from U.S. citizens of the same age is that — for some part of their childhood — DACA recipients were undocumented, which of course constitutes a civil infraction and not a criminal offense. Moreover, by definition all DACA recipients entered into undocumented status as a result of actions taken by their parents or adult guardians. They did not make the decision to violate U.S. immigration law themselves, and by any reasonable standard of justice they are not to blame for ending up in undocumented status. It is a basic principle of law and ethics that children should not be punished for the transgressions of their elders.”
Mr. Massey goes on to say that, if the 1.3 million DREAMers were deported, families and communities would be torn apart, with the majority of Americans, and even a majority of Republicans, sympathizing with the DREAMers, and our economy would be harmed. We have invested in the DREAMers’ health and education. Yet they would be removed from their jobs, colleges, and universities. Deporting them could cost over $60 billion, while our economic growth could be reduced by $280 billion over the next decade. Mr. Massey concludes his article with the question:
“If we can summarily castigate more than one million young people who have never committed a criminal act and who have been judged by the Department of Homeland Security to constitute no threat to public safety or national security, what else are we capable of doing to those around us?
His well-researched and very persuasive article raises, for me, the question: Why would we even think that it’s okay to tear a category of people away from their families and communities, and exile them, as if we are not all one human family– as though we are not all kin?
One basis for that way some people have been treated, historically, is Biblical and, as it turns out, its justification was erroneous from the start. The word, “leper” is in the Bible 23 times– If you add in the words, “leprosy,” and “leprous,” you get 67 times. Most of those sentences also include the word, “unclean.” But the word, “bless” is in the Bible at least twice that many times– If you add in “blessed,” “blessedness,” “blesseth,” and “blessing(s),” there are many more times in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As Unitarian Universalists, as the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker wrote, we believe that, as religious people, we are here to not curse, but bless our fellow human beings, and the world. –that, rather than designating other people as inherently sinful, in need of banishment, that reconciliation and healing are what the world needs now– beginning with the words and deeds we choose to use in any random, unremarkable interaction.
The topic of leprosy is an uncomfortable one. But topics we, morally, ought most to be looking at are the topics we are apt to avoid looking at. As this morning’s reading tells us, it was the practice for over 100 years for people suspected of having leprosy to be banished to Molokai to a life of exile and to be left for dead. For all such people, the chance to achieve their full human potential and participate fully in society was taken away from them. Moreover, that practice of exiling people simply because they were blemished was based on religious reasons. I don’t enjoy highlighting ways Biblical scripture is wrong– There is so much in Biblical scripture that is affirming, comforting, community-enhancing, and empowering– But when a minister learns of a way that our religious history was, historically, so terribly wrong and hurtful, that minister is compelled to speak the truth and let history stand corrected. We could assume that no one in this room has leprosy– But we don’t know that for certain, do we? Nor do we know that no one in this room has a loved-one who has leprosy. And the moral imperative that the truth about leprosy shows us is that we must not stigmatize a category of people as less than fully human– even when no one in that category is in the room– in fact, especially when no one in that category is in the room.
–because what if that person being spoken of degradingly was you or me? As we said together in this morning’s responsive reading, we are “each a single cell in a body of four million cells. The body is humankind.” Though the exiles on Molokai were left to die, they survived to form a loving spiritual community that comforted one another’s sorrows and celebrated each other’s joys. After visiting Molokai in 1907, Jack London described it as, “a happy colony, divided into two villages and numerous country and seaside homes, of nearly a thousand souls. They have six churches, a YMCA building, several assembly halls, a band stand, a race track, baseball grounds and shooting ranges, an athletic club, numerous glee clubs, and two brass bands.” [p. 203] In the preface to his book, The Colony, John Tayman writes, “Their struggle to maintain faith, form a loving community, and help one another stay alive is one of the most extraordinary acts of enduring heroism in American history.”
The practice of banishing people suspected of having leprosy is based on the book of Leviticus, which sets forth religious laws, crimes, and punishments. Chapter 13 of Leviticus says, in part: “When a man is afflicted with leprosy, he shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall make an examination… The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” Moses conveyed this practice to the Israelites saying it was divinely ordained. John Tayman writes [p. 95-98]: “With that message of unsympathetic ostracism, Moses is considered by medical historians to have laid the foundation of lepraphobia. More than 3,000 years later… the Bible remained the most useful authority on how to combat leprosy. This approach contained a significant flaw, however: the lepers in the Bible did not have leprosy… their symptoms were more likely an indication of boils, scabies, psoriasis, or some other defacing disease… In fact, a biblical leper might not actually be sick, but merely a sinner in the opinion of the priest… scholars have determined that priests likely viewed any skin disorder as a sign that someone had offended God, and had been punished with a sinful mark. In the context of the Bible, this blurring of boundaries between medical and ethical diagnoses had one critical consequence: almost all skin conditions became stigmatized… Then, in the eleventh century, an Italian monk began to translate existing medical texts into a consolidated Latin text, which eventually became the standard literature for physicians in the West. When the Christian monk encountered the clinically correct description for the disease judham, he consulted his Bible, pondered a moment, and affixed the word lepra to the description [the word lepra had come to mean ritually impure] . With a few strokes of ink 2,000 years of biblical stigma was permanently transferred onto the disease.” In short, to treat someone as though they are a “leper” is to treat them as though they are inherently sinful, and as though that inherent sinfulness is contagious. I share this story of the hurtful misuse of religion with you this morning because it’s true. When our words and deeds are based on errors, we can cause our kin to feel less than fully human. When we know the truth, we can act respectfully and mercifully toward our kin.
Who else, in our society today, is treated as though they are less than fully human? We each can imagine a list in our heads– I would imagine many foster children feel they are on that list. And I think of people I’ve known whose speech is imprecise and so strangers frequently think they are inebriated– But they aren’t; they have multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, or they have had a stroke. My main connection to this subject matter is the work I did, for many years, with people who were locked in institutions –originally called institutions for the “feeble-minded”—because of a diagnosis of intellectual impairment. Those diagnoses were often wrong– perhaps the child communicated differently– was deaf, even– but was not of below average intelligence—and was blessed with such wonderful gifts and graces and talents– “So they shouldn’t ever have been there,” people would say to me when I told them what I had seen. “No, they shouldn’t have– But no one deserved to be there,” I would respond. And I think of the fact that, during my years living in Maine, people of French Canadian descent hid their ethnic background, and hid the fact that they could speak French fluently– because historically in Maine, people of French Canadian descent were made fun of as though they were unintelligent, irresponsible, and even as though they were less clean. Prejudicial stereotypes like that have no basis in truth. And they are prejudicial stereotypes that hurt people to the core of their being. Every person wants to be able to feel like a whole, full person deserving of dignity and respect.
Leprosy is now called Hansen’s disease, named after the Norwegian bacteriologist who first identified the germ that causes leprosy. A cure was finally found in the 1940s by a doctor named Guy Faget, working in a colony of people with leprosy in Louisiana called Carville. In the following years, most of the people exiled in Hawaii became healed and were allowed to leave– some of them for the first time in decades. [see pp. 260-61] A new superintendent was appointed, former governor Lawrence Judd, an unusually kind man. Of the people who chose to stay, Judd wrote, “They preferred to live out their remaining years in the pleasant peninsula where life was semi-secure, and where nobody stared.” Judd made radical changes to the colony so patients could live in dignity. It had been the practice that residents were prohibited from mailing money to relatives, for fear of tainted bills; outgoing mail was disinfected; outgoing luggage was fumigated with formaldehyde; and physical contact between patients and staff was forbidden. Lawrence Judd literally tore down the barriers and fences between staff and patient areas, including in the chapel. “This place isn’t like a jail anymore!” one patient exclaimed to a reporter. And another said, “You cannot imagine how much a simple thing like a fence and railing coming down meant to me. That gave us a feeling that we . . . almost belonged to the human race again.” One of the exiles whose leprosy was cured [though he remained blind] and left the Hawaiian colony was a man named Makia Malo. He met a woman named Ann Grant, who had visited the colony some years earlier as a tourist. She helped him schedule public speaking and storytelling engagements in which he educated people about his disease, including for schoolchildren. They began dating, fell in love, and married. [See pp. 302-4] “One day at one of Makia’s performances a woman approached Ann. ‘I didn’t know your husband was a leper,’ she said. Ann stared at the woman and replied, ‘He’s not. He’s a person, a man. And my husband.’ Later Ann would write, ‘Please know that using the word leper in any way, for any reason, is inflicting pain and humiliation of a most singular kind on those who have had the disease and on their loved ones.’ She often quoted a speech by a person who had had leprosy [as saying]: ‘The hell of this disease is that for the rest of your life and regardless of lab reports showing your body is cured, it is the public who will never let you heal . . . Over and over that word reduces us to a disease we had as children and [reduces us] into a generic term for everything repugnant, disgusting, and unworthy of membership in the human race. And all we did, our big crime, is that years ago we caught a germ.”
When we look at a modern translation of the Bible today, and see the word, “kin,” the ancient translation of that word was, “flesh.” The earliest Jewish and Christian peoples were learning by heart the religious laws dictating that “lepers” be banished. Even as they were learning that, their prophets and seers were proclaiming that we are all of one flesh– The Old Testament prophet Isaiah literally sang, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …to share your bread with the hungry… and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” We would now say, “not to turn away from our own kin.” “Then [Isaiah sang] shall your healing spring up speedily… that which is divine shall guide you continually… and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” I think of a modern-day seer who sings for us the same hope for a healed humanity: “And when the brokenhearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer– Let it be– For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see– There will be an answer– Let it be– Speaking words of wisdom– Let it be– And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me– Shines until tomorrow– Let it be– There will be an answer– Let it be—
*Closing hymn #407 We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table
*Benediction / Extinguishing the Chalice [Pope John Paul, II]
“Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all responsible for each other.”