China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Nov

The leprosy of Jesus and the leprosy of people

On 11 October 2009 Pope Benedict XVI canonised Father Damien of Molokai. Joseph de Veuster was born in Tremeloo, Belgium, on 3 January 1840. After college, he entered the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary and took the religious name of Damien. After his studies, he was sent to the Hawaiian Islands, arriving on 19 March 1864. He was ordained a priest that May.

After years of loving service in Hawaii, Father Damien received permission from his bishop to begin living in a leper settlement in Molokai, where the government kept all persons afflicted with the loathsome illness known as Hansen’s Disease – leprosy.

The 600 sufferers living there lacked the professional help of doctors and nurses. The government supplied food and clothing, but getting people to live with the residents was not easy. For a long time, Father Damien was the only one bringing them the succour they so greatly needed.

He not only administered the consolations of religion, but also rendered what little medical service and bodily comfort he could. He dressed their ulcers, helped them erect their cottages and went so far as to dig their graves and make coffins. After all this heroic service, he discovered in 1885, that he himself had the first symptoms of the disease. Nevertheless, he continued his ministry.

On 15 April 1889, after 15 years working with the people of Molokai, Father Damien died and was buried with the people he loved.

What is leprosy?

Many people think that leprosy is a skin disease, but it is really a disease which effects the peripheral nerves, although not the central nervous system. The result is often the loss of fingers, toes and noses.

There was no real medical knowledge of the disease until 1871, when Gerhard Henrik Amauer Hansen, a Norwegian physician, discovered the bacteria which causes what we now call Hansen’s Disease. Because of ancient references going back to at least 1350 BC in Egypt, leprosy is sometimes referred to as the oldest recorded disease, or the oldest known disease.

In one form or another, leprosy appears to have stalked humans for millennia, always causing its victims to be socially ostracised and encouraging the belief that sufferers are being punished by the gods.

Leprosy in the Old Testament

Leprosy is often associated with the bible, but only in older versions. Most later translations render the Hebrew and Greek words as terrible skin disease. What then was the leprosy of the bible? It was not what we call Hansen’s Disease today.

Some biblical references to leprosy obviously refer to other conditions. Naaman the Leper (2 Kings 5:27), for example, was said to be leprous – as white as snow. This, clearly, is not Hansen’s Disease, because it does not cause the skin to become white. A different condition can be confused with leprosy and cause a whitening of the skin. With true Hansen’s Disease, there can be, at most, some loss of pigment. Exodus 13:44 mentions a person with a hand “leprous and white as snow.”

Biblical leprosy also had a religious connotation. It was such a repulsive condition that it was imagined that God used it for divine punishment.

Leprosy in the New Testament

In the New Testament, leprosy is frequently the object of Jesus’ healing miracles. Many who are afflicted with leprosy are cured by Jesus, who at times may also forgive their sins. In the accounts of Matthew and Luke, Jesus also authorises his disciples to heal leprosy in his name.

The first religious exercise of the fundamentalist Pharisees in biblical times was to thank God that they were not born in any of four categories. They prayed: “I thank you God that I was not born a gentile (a foreigner), a slave, a leper or a woman!”

In that ignorance and in a society dominated by patriarchal prejudice, they believed that God had placed a “curse on these four groups! Therefore, from this point of view, it is spiritually tragic that there are a lot of lepers out there in society – people whom we reject for whatever cause.

Sadly, we tend to reject people who are different in some way or other – too fat, too short, of a different race, culture, creed and gender, or speak a different language. Jesus rejected no one.

To really experience the dynamism of the Christian faith, we have to go with Christ -outside the camp – “Let us go to him outside the camp and share his degradation” (Hebrews 13:13, the terminology referring to the place where lepers were isolated.)

Isaiah stated that the coming Suffering Servant would be “smitten of God and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew, the word Leprosum is used. Was Jesus Christ a leper? Incidentally, we should say a leprosy patient, or a leprosy sufferer, never a leper.

Clinically, Jesus was not a leper but, since biblical leprosy was more than just a disease – it was a condition, we can truly claim that he was one. Lepers were those who were rejected by society.

This is the most devastating thing about neglected, untreated Hansen’s Disease. It can result in rejection where there are neither treatment facilities nor health education by which people may be freed from superstition and ignorance.

Jesus was a leper in the sense that we rejected him. Every time we reject a person in real need, we are virtually rejecting Jesus, making him a leper because, in the Christian faith, we really come into contact with God through people, particularly people in real need (Matthew 25:34-40).

Leprosy in China

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), leprosy was first recognised in ancient China, Egypt and India. There were 500,000 cases in China between 1950 and 2002. Most of these sufferers have been cured, but approximately half of them are disabled due to the disease, with conditions ranging from blindness to disfigurement.

Although these former Hansen’s Disease sufferers were cured in the last 50 years, many still suffer serious pain and difficulties due to disabilities, deformities and stigma. This social stigma is now the main problem in diagnosis and treatment. Though Hansen’s Disease has been brought under control in general, the situation in some areas is worsening, according to China’s Ministry of Health. Communities used to ostracise sufferers, as the disease was incurable, disfiguring and wrongly thought to be highly infectious. In August 2010, the WHO stated there were 3,332 registered cases of Hansen’s Disease in China with 364 new cases reported in 2009.

Contrary to popular belief, infectiousness of the disease is low, it is not congenital and 95 per cent of people are naturally immune to it. Hansen’s Disease affects the skin, mucous membranes, peripheral nerves and eyes. Therefore there is permanent nerve damage. Even those who have recovered cannot feel pain. Minor cuts and abrasions on fingers and toes often turn into gaping, inflamed ulcers, because of unsanitary living conditions. These open sores overrun the digits, which slowly shrink. Many sufferers end up with stumps. Some have legs amputated.

China officially stopped sending Hansen’s Disease sufferers to colonies from the mid-1980s and the majority are now treated at home. But hundreds of Hansen’s Disease villages still exist. Medical experts and aid workers blame deep-rooted ignorance and social prejudice regarding the sickness, despite proven advances in treatment.

Many of those people affected have been isolated in remote villages since the 1950s. They and their offspring, most of whom have never been infected, have little chance of rejoining society, because of the strong prejudice and their own fears.

Due to the strong stigma of Hansen’s Disease, many children have been abandoned, while others are deprived of proper care, because their relatives fear their the extended family may be ostracised. In some cases, people who were sent away for treatment and have recovered, are permanently spurned by their families, who tell them to remain in the Hansen’s Disease village. Some sufferers have lived in these villages for over 40 years.

Christian faith

Our Christian faith becomes meaningful only when we identify with Christ in caring for those whom our society rejects for whatever reason.

In our era, biblical leprosy could even include AIDS. This is the reason why so many caring organisations, with a concern for Hansen’s Disease sufferers, are Christian.

They feel the call, not only to medically treat people, but also to help the rejected develop a sense of self-esteem and once more feel accepted by the human race. From this point of view, AIDS has a close relationship with Hansen’s Disease. Victims of both conditions need extra human compassion.

A sister for the lepers

Sister Xie (謝) went for training at a university hospital in Guangdong (廣東) in 1999 to learn about treatment and nursing care for lepers. Her congregation then sent her and other sisters to work in a Hansen’s Disease village in another province.

Sister Xie used to say, “Our regular duties include medical and health care, sewing and hygiene care; our irregular duties include laundry, changing blankets, fastening buttons for those without hands and whatever else needs to be done. I have vowed to myself that I will do my best to enable the people, who are abandoned by society, their family and relatives, to have a happy old age and to let them know that they are beloved children of God.”

At first, those with Hansen’s Disease thought the sisters must be crazy to want to live with them and to attend to their many needs, but they soon loved having them living and caring for them.

Sister Xie devoted her final four years at the leprosarium. She even desired to be buried with the lepers. That day came all too soon.

On 13 June 2008, she took one of the elderly patients to a hospital for treatment. A heavy rain caused floods everywhere. Water from the hillside swept their taxi into a ditch.

The driver and the elderly patient were able to exit through a broken window, but Sister Xie was trapped, unable to open the door, moreover the protection screen between her and the driver’s seat trapped her. The few people around her watched helplessly as the water quickly covered her. By the time more help arrived, she had already drowned.

Father Damien and Sister Xie

Both Father Damien and Sister Xie lived, died and were buried with the people they loved and served. He was 49-years-old and she was 43. Many parts of the world need more people to serve people with Hansen’s Disease. Many local sisters in China, like Sister Xie, are still working in Hansen’s Disease villages. Other Christians like them would love to serve these people.

Our prayer is that the government leaders will allow non-Chinese Christians to minister to those who have many needs. We do not wish to proselytise. Our Christian faith leads us to believe that we contact God through people – particularly people in real need.

We have the words of Jesus Christ in our scriptures. At the end of our lives we hope to hear him say:

Come you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me” (Matthew 25: 34-40)