Centuries ago criminals and slaves were branded by a hot iron and the mark left was referred to as the stigma. It was a permanent, visible sign of disgrace, enslaving someone, or reducing someone to a failing from the past. It rendered them irredeemable. Today stigma takes on a different form, but its power to hurt and isolate is still there. It can be applied to anyone, for anything, whether they deserve it or not.
Today the hot iron is the tongue, and its scalding fire is speech. It gathers strength as people draw together in suspicion, voicing disapproval. Instead of honest inquiry, they use biased observations to confirm their views. It becomes a prejudice that never bends to acknowledge what is right in front of them. If the one who holds the prejudice also holds the power, it can be brutally destructive.
For the victim, it’s a place of isolation where their judgment is questioned and their opinions don’t count as much as others’ do. In my last post I spoke about the comfort that we get as Christians: the assurance that he who rules over all things sees us and hears us with compassion, and he can answer our prayers. But how does he know what stigma feels like?
The man from Nazareth
We have heard about the man who, two thousand years ago, walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know much about what he looked like, other than there was nothing special about his appearance. We have heard of the extraordinary miracles. When we read the gospels we see one who spoke with authority, who taught, who had great power but who also had compassion, who was accessible, who answered questions. He was kind to the afflicted, he challenged social norms by engaging with the outcast, and he spoke cutting words to the proud. He even healed diseases. Thousands of people gathered around him, actively seeking him out, to hear his words, to get close to him, to touch his garment to be healed. They gave him little time to rest. He was like streams in the desert; he was what they longed for. They loved him.
We also know how he died. How could it have come to that? The religious elite, experts in the Mosaic Law, were corrupting its practices with their pride, abuse and hypocrisy. Jesus called them out, and they didn’t like it. They refused to see the fulfilment of that Law, right in front of them. Opposition also came from those with political power, loyal to Rome: a ruling force with a criminal justice system that could bend to the whims of a mob. A force that would quickly quell a hint of rebellion. A force with instruments of torture like the cross of crucifixion at its disposal.
While these two groups had little in common, they gathered together, intent on destroying Jesus. Among those in power he was assigned the stigma of a troublemaker who needed to be stopped.
And as the opposition intensified, the ruling powers achieved their aim. He was betrayed and arrested at night, unlawfully tried, beaten and his hands and feet were nailed to a cross. He was lifted up on that cross to die while being derided by passers by and mocked by the religious authorities. His disciples fled. Women who followed him could only look on, weeping.
He bore the disgrace of a public Roman execution, the sentence given to someone who was rendered irredeemable, when he himself had committed no crime. But it also reaches a whole new level. He chose to bear a stigma no-one else has and no-one ever again will feel.
The great exchange
In a higher court than the court in Jerusalem, a great exchange was taking place.
As human beings we have lost our way. We naturally ignore God. Our failings of thought, word and deed are a mortal affront to our Creator. Some failings are worse than others, but when it comes to God’s perfect law, the simple fact is we haven’t kept it. This is what brought death and pain into the world. This is what ultimately isolates us from God and each other.
He would not leave us to it.
Jesus knew that he would die in the way that he did. It had been written centuries before he came. He had seen how wickedness and death affected us, and he was indignant against it. He knew that the only just way for us to be delivered from it, was for someone who had never fallen short to willingly bear the full force of justice and die in our place. He set his face like flint and deliberately walked straight towards it. He rebuked those who tried to stop it, he commended those who believed him when he warned them about it.
He was heaven on earth and he never, not once fell short, but chose to bear the wrath, isolation, shame, nakedness, and the curse of the thorny ground on his head. He committed himself to bear it in our place so that we could live forever. It’s a need we could never have met, but he met it at immense cost to himself. History hinges around it.
He did it for us
Jesus entered into the stigmatisation of this world and felt it all, right up to its end. So he can sympathise with whatever isolation that is inflicted on us by others. But this is the most liberating part: when it was our failings that at a fundamental level isolated us, Jesus broke those walls down. We were stuck in death, mourning, crying and pain, and he did not despise our affliction, but entered into the depths of human experience, to set us free.
When he showed himself to be alive again after death, those scars on his hands and feet – those marks of final disgrace – were still there on his resurrected body. They declare for all time that the he has defeated death.
And having removed our isolation, his joy is to gather us together to him. It is the ultimate “counter-stigma”.
The man who walked the shores of Galilee is alive today. With joy and singing, never ashamed of us, the loving defender of sinners, the man of sorrows, welcomes us with strong, protective outstretched arms. This is the love that captivates me and speaks to my soul. This is why I sing, “Hallelujah! Praise and honour unto thee.”