In the Old Testament of the Bible to be born with a disability was viewed as a sign of disfavor with God . . . to be sinful or the result of sinfulness within the family . . . to be considered one on the outside of the “chosen”. In the Old Testament to have a disability was not good, and as such, the individual was treated different . . . ignored, ostracized, pitied, exiled, and even killed . . . after all, the disabled apparently did something to upset God and get the consequences of their sin. In the Old Testament those with disabilities . . . physical or mental . . . were sent out of the circle to take their places in the shadowlands.
It doesn’t get much better in the New Testament. The treatment of those who have disabilities is still seen as some sort of grave offense against God and others causing the disability . . . they still remain outside of the circle . . . still exist in the shadows of society and the world in which they live. The only saving grace of the New Testament is Jesus. Jesus demonstrates through his actions towards those with disabilities that those with disabilities are as much a part of the family of God as anyone else. Jesus . . . in the New Testament is constantly tearing down the walls that separate to bring those who are in the shadows . . . to destroy the misconception of sinfulness that separates anyone from God.
Despite the shift towards inclusion between the Old Testament and the New Testament, things really haven’t changed a whole bunch through the generations since Jesus’ fleshly presence in the world. There is still a lot of stigmatizing . . . a lot of separation . . . a lot of exclusion . . . a lot of discrimination . . . a lot of injustice . . . that occurs to those who have some form or sort of disability. In spite of huge scientific advancements and research . . . great enlightenment . . . the plight of those who struggle with disabilities—physical or mental—has not gotten much better than it was in the times of the Old Testament.
The word “stigma” has been attributed to the word “stigmata”. Stigmata connotes the “marks of Christ from the crucifixion”. Within the realm of those who follow Jesus . . . or those who calls themselves Christian . . . Christianity . . . the stigmata was a positive sign. It was a mark of being touched by God. It was viewed with reverence and awe . . . a sign of holiness. Shoot, having the stigmata was a good thing as it shot people up the ladder towards sainthood.
But, that was then and this is now. Today the word “stigma” is seen as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Today “stigma” is a negative. On the one hand, I guess, it is fortunate that the implications of the word “stigma” is not reserved for any one group . . . “stigma” seems to be an equal opportunity negative that is used freely to separate people and groups from the perceived and acceptable society. For example, ask any elderly person whether or not growing old is seen as a negative and they will tell you that it is. Growing old and being old is not an acceptable state of being in our society. Watch television and tell me how elderly people are viewed . . . check out the advertisements in magazines and newspapers (one can only put up with so many commercials for Depends and Viagra) . . . the elderly are not portrayed in the most positive light. That is a stigma.
As I stated, stigma is an equal opportunity negative. Off the top of my mind I can state at there are stigmas associated with those who are: disabled (mentally or physically), elderly, poor, uneducated, gendered afflicted, race afflicted, religiously afflicted, culturally afflicted . . . those are the broad stigmas; but, there are the smaller stigmas. I can attest, as a University of Nebraska football fan, that there is a stigma I have been labeled with . . . the mere mention from me of my favorite college football team brings an array of assumptions and opinions as to who I am. Trust me, in this off-year of Cornhusker football I have been taking a beating. Anything and everything that is unknown or unacceptable or not like us has the ability to become a stigma that we place on others. Anything and everything is fair game to be marked with disgrace and unacceptance . . . it all has the ability to be stigmatized.
Basically “stigma” is a “mark”. In the field of medicine a “stigma” is a visible sign or characteristic of a disease. In its original meaning a “stigma” was a mark made by a pointed instrument. Sometimes it was referred to as a tattoo . . . it was a mark or a spot on the skin. At one time, within religious circles it was considered as a positive; somewhere along the line it became a negative. As a negative it finds its life in ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding.
By now you have probably figured out that I have a hard time with the word “stigma” . . . I don’t like it. It has lost it purpose and its meaning—at least from its original meaning and intent. It does more harm than it does good. It has become a hammer to pound others into a pulp . . . a means of exiling those who are different to the outer spheres of the shadows. I do not care for anything that separates people from one another.
Stigmas make it difficult to accept who God has created an individual to be . . . makes it hard to be one’s self. Stigmas make people uncomfortable with who they are. Stigmas separate . . . discriminate . . . alienate . . . and, even kill those who are not acceptable in the values of society. The problem is that often the values of society are not dictated by the people who make up the society but by those who are selling something. If a person wants to know what is valuable in society one only has to look at its advertising and media to understand. Being old is not valuable. Be unhealthy is not valuable. Being disabled is not valuable. Being uneducated is not valuable. Being poor is not valuable. Being different is not valuable. We live in a cookie-cutter society and if we do not fit the mold . . . well, we are unacceptable. When the world we live in rejects us it is difficult to live up to whom God created us to be. Stigmas are only a sign of the illness inflicted upon us through the world in which we live in.
It sucks. It sucks to live in a world of stigma.
Shoot . . . I am a walking billboard for stigma. First of all, I do not fit the image of youth so expounded upon all of us each and every day . . . I am 57 years old, have gray hair, and a Dunlop edging its way toward a tractor tire around my middle . . . I am an AARP card carrying member. In the eyes of society, I am old. Being old is a liability. Second of all, I’m not rich . . . shoot, I don’t even have half the toys society tells me I should have at this stage of my life . . . the big house, fifteen cars, umpteen technological gadgets . . . the big vacation on some exotic beach . . . and, lots of stock in those drugs meant to help my first stigma out—Viagra and anything associated with the sex drive of a twenty-year. I am an ordained minister . . . trust me, it is a stigma. I am considered to be ultra-conservative . . . a fundamentalist . . . a Bible-thumper . . . non-beer drinking . . . Gaither-loving individual. Being a Christian minister is a stigma. Those only scratch the surface of the stigmas associated with who people perceive me to be . . . wrong or right, I am categorized.
And, we all are.
Because we are categorized, we are separated . . . we are divided . . . we are pitted against one another. Before we even know one another we are already separated and pitted against one another. So often those divisions . . . those stigmas . . . are based on ignorance (not stupidity—though that is often a big cause of stigmas—but ignorance) . . . based on fear . . . based on differences. Rarely are the roots of ignorance able to stand up to experience.
And, that is a shame.
There is no place in the world . . . no place in our lives . . . for stigma. There is especially no place for stigma for those who claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Where the world erects walls, Jesus tears them down. Sadly, though, even those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, use stigma to order our world . . . to separate ourselves from that which we do not know or understand. The result is that we lose out in discovering a whole array of wonderful and beautiful people who could easily be blessings in our lives. There is something fundamentally unfaithful about that . . . something that goes against the call of God in our lives to “love one another”.
I do not believe that call has called any of us to make the lives of those in the world to be uncomfortable in who God created them to be . . . broken or unbroken . . . whole or partial . . . rich or poor . . . educated or uneducated . . . black or white or Native American . . . gay or straight or bi . . . healthy or unhealthy . . . able or disabled. I do not believe that God ever intended the idea of stigma was meant to be a negative, but rather a simple mark of who any of us was created to be. There is no room for stigma in the journey of those who follow Jesus . . . for those who claim an intimate and personal relationship with God. There is no place for stigma of any kind. Plain and simple . . . in my estimation, stigma is a sin.
I believe in a God who desires a relationship with all of God’s creation . . . each and every one of us. I believe that through Jesus this invitation towards relationship with God . . . and, with one another . . . is demonstrated and lived. Through Jesus it proven that it can be done despite the fight that society puts up against it. There is no room in the world for stigma that separates . . . differentiates . . . and, even kills that which we do not understand. No, Jesus said, to love one another.
The Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God . . . all of us. If this is true . . . where is there room in our lives or world for stigma? Did you ever think about that?