Social services is my day job. In social services and health care circles, I hear a lot of talk about reducing stigma. There are a multitude of issues that bring up the topic of stigma. The common theme is that society has been judgmental toward a certain condition or behavior; people living with those conditions or behaving in those ways live with shame stemming from society’s condemnation. The thought, then, is that we need to remove any negative association—stigma—from the condition or behavior.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about stigma (in its current cultural use) and the gospel. How do modern ideas about stigma complement the gospel? How do they deviate?
In one way, discussions about stigma can be positive. Condemnation can actually trap people in the behaviors we want them to change. A pointing finger can’t help anyone up. Condemnation is especially unhelpful where health or mental health conditions are involved. Being judgmental rarely brings healing; when full healing isn’t an option, being judgmental helps even less with the management of any condition.
Another way we try to deal with stigma is by saying something isn’t wrong that has been traditionally considered wrong. Or we change verbiage. It’s not unusual in health care circles for people to avoid using words like “disorder” or “illness.” Well intentioned as these might be, such thinking does us a disservice. We are not free to say what is or isn’t moral. Only God can set those standards. We are not free to say a physical or mental process isn’t disordered when it deviates from its intended function.
By contrast, Christianity says certain behaviors are wrong. However, genuine Christianity doesn’t follow with condemnation; it follows with forgiveness. Stigma is removed through the act of forgiveness, not by telling people their wrong behavior is OK.
A story I’ve thought a lot about over the years and blogged about is in John chapter eight when a woman is caught in the act of adultery. The religious leaders dragged her from where they found her and threw her at Jesus’s feet. They reminded Him that adulterers must be stoned according to the law and asked what Jesus said. Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.” Gradually, stones were dropped, and the crowd dispersed. To the woman, Jesus said, “Does no one condemn you? I don’t condemn you either. Go, and leave your life of sin.”
To me, this story perfectly illustrates the Christian view of issues surrounding stigma. Jesus doesn’t condemn or excuse. He offers a path out of shame and out of shameful behaviors.
Jesus is also seen healing people throughout the gospels. He doesn’t stigmatize lepers, disabled people, or those battling inner demons. In John 9, the disciples asked if a man was born blind because he sinned or his parents sinned. Jesus said, “Neither, but this happened that God might be glorified.”
In the same spirit, Jesus welcomes each of us. Knowing Him means knowing what is wrong with us, that He doesn’t condemn us, that He loves us, and that He is the way to changed behavior and healing.
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).