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Modern Lepers? What Milk Tells Me

When Sean Penn stood to receive an Academy Award for his depiction of Harvey Milk, he asserted that now “is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support.” [Read Complete Speech]
If Adventists are wrong about the state of the dead, then I’m sure that Harvey Milk was smiling down from heaven.
Thirty years after Harvey Milk’s assassination, Penn took up the blood-drenched mantle on Oscars Night with a fresh call for equity and dignity for all human beings. He was speaking in Hollywood; he was talking to the Church.
The religious establishment has never gotten inclusiveness nailed down. While a broad-tent ethos saturates the world’s biggest, shiniest religions, acceptance of the “other” has not made the big time. Religion, whatever its intentions, is in the business of creating categories and distinctions that either pull people in or push people out. The results, at times, have been devastating.
Lepers in biblical times must have been devastated. Because of what they carried in their bodies, lepers were automatic outsiders. Lepers terrified people. Lepers were considered sinful, cursed by God. Lepers were cut off from their communities and had only each other for companions. They announced their presence with one word: “Unclean.” It was a term loaded with religious significance.
Of course, the story of leprosy has a few twists. Biblical scholars generally agree that when Scripture says “leprosy” it does not refer to what we talk about today when we say leprosy. It was not Hansen’s Disease. But it took a while to figure that out.
Some time around the eleventh century C.E., an Italian monk set about compiling a Latin medical text based on existing manuscripts. When he found a description of the chronic skin condition we now call Hansen’s, he consulted his Bible, pondered for a bit, and wrote down lepra. In that brief moment, a Christian monk poured all the stigma of two thousand years of history into the ailment forever.*
Father Damien, a feisty Belgian priest, went to live among and minister to the lepers of Molokai, who because of what they carried in their bodies, earned reproach, revulsion, and exclusion from their communities. The Hawaiian Evangelical Association called leprosy “Loathsome, incurable, deadly,” warning that it had “fastened on the vitals of the nation.” The religious establishment, taking its cues from select biblical texts, called for isolation of all lepers; people fasted and prayed and preached from Leviticus against any sins that contributed to the spread of Leprosy. They feared catching it from a leper.**
When I watched Sean Penn retell Harvey Milk’s story in Gus Van Sant’s biopic, and as archival footage rolled, revisiting Anita Bryant’s evangelistic fervor against gay teachers, I thought, “The religious establishment has done it again.”
We figured out some time ago that Hansen’s Disease is not nearly as threatening as people assumed or as contagious as people feared. Ninety-five percent of people are not susceptible. Among those who do contract Hansen’s, most are able to live life like any other person.
Harvey Milk and the Castro in the 1970’s and gay Adventists today are the new lepers, if we judge by the church’s response. Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in ’78 and the 2008 “Protect Marriage” crusade reveal how the religious establishment continues to use bodily distinctions to make classifications that pull some in and push others out.
Because of what gay individuals carry in their bodies, they are automatically made outsiders. Some people express fear of homosexuality. Gays are often cut off from their communities and have only each other for companionship. The Church has largely relegated gays to their own “colonies” on the outside. We don’t want to catch what they have! They are considered sinful, even cursed by God. While they don’t announce their presence by saying, “Unclean,” people still think it. What are we doing?
Taking its cues from select biblical texts, the Church is still fasting and praying and preaching from Leviticus against any sins that might cause it to spread. And if that fails, we’re not afraid to outlaw what we cannot squelch. What are we doing?
I want to be clear about one thing. Homosexuality is not a disease. That’s where any comparison breaks down. It is not something you “cure,” or that we have any business trying to fix any more than right-handers have any business fixing left-handedness. Homosexuality is non-threatening. You can’t catch homosexuality, as Milk famously quipped during a debate with John Briggs, “If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we’d have a lot more nuns running around.”
Ronald Regan noted the same in a 1978 editorial piece, saying, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”***
I wish that the scientific community would hurry up and help us understand, as it did with Hansen’s, that we have no need to get uptight and to send people off to live out their lives ostracized from their communities. I wish that we would hurry up and listen to our biblical exegetes who are showing us that Scripture does not breath condemnation like we do.
In the mean time, while we work to sort those things out, we have some very practical questions that we need to answer: Can we ever consider our preaching of the good news “in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” a job well done while our message wounds human beings? Can we ever consider our witness faithful and true when it ostracizes any member of our community? Can we ever call ourselves the body of Christ so long as the eyes say to the hands, “Go find yourself a colony.”? We need to decide whether we believe lesbians and gays would be better off with our love and support or without it.
Harvey Milk and Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black and the wonderful Christian and non-Christian gay people I know inspire me. They galvanize me with glimpses of communities that have permeable borders. I’m looking forward to a Church that lives and breaths acceptance, sanctuary, equity and peace for all members of the human family.
As Harvey Milk so often put it, I want to recruit you.
*Tayman, John. The Colony. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2006, 102.
***Reagan, Ronald. “Editorial: Two Ill-advised California Trends”. Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. 1978-11-01, A19.
Also see Lauryn Wild’s comparative Spectrum review of Milk and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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