Many Western political leaders, both those in power and those in opposition, claim to have moral standards superior to those of Mr Putin, the Russian President. Russian involvement in the covert annexation of Crimea last year and in the ongoing war against a neighbouring independent country – at a steeply rising cost to human life – has been deliberately shrouded in misinformation and permanent public denial. At the same time, Putin has been heavily involved in so-called ‘peace talks’, although he apparently seeks anything but peace. Many of our current politicians operate in pretty similar ways, carefully picking their battlefields and choice of weapon; thankfully they don’t resort to guns and bombs. Do you need an example? In recent weeks politicians have declared that the National Health Service should not be used as a weapon – but they have gone on to do exactly that. The NHS has been, remains, and probably always will be, one of the main battlefields for politicians of all colours, because its fate has a direct influence on the lives of all voters and their families. Our health is one of our main concerns, and politicians play on that.
The massively impressive developments in biology and medicine over the last few decades have eradicated many diseases, and have made many others curable or more bearable. Many complicated operations have become much less invasive than they were previously. The welfare systems have democratised access to medicine that was once reserved to the wealthy and influential. This is clearly demonstrated in the cases of two British nurses who survived the deadly Ebola infection thanks to the high-level treatments available in our country. But these two cases have also illustrated how lucky we are: in Africa, Ebola has killed thousands of people, deprived even of medical support that we would consider substandard. In countries less fortunate than ours, people still look for help from ‘alternative medicine’, from shamans, healers or charlatans, as they have been doing for millennia. The desire to be cured makes people go to any lengths in order to achieve it.
Pain experienced as a direct result of a disease itself is not necessarily the only pain that is suffered. Similarly painful can be the social exclusion caused as a result of having an illness. One of the most harrowing aspects of the Ebola virus is that the dying tend to be deprived of having the consoling presence of their family members around them because of the very real fear of other people contracting the virus from them. The Ebola patients are dying alone, surrounded at best by alien-looking medical staff fully enclosed in protective clothing, surely sympathetic to their plight but inevitably detached from it. Something similar happened initially in the 1980s with AIDS, but it was hardly a precedent. For centuries there have been people avoided by or excluded from society because of their various illnesses; among these were lepers.
In biblical times the term ‘leprosy’ applied to all kinds of skin disease. Priests were those who diagnosed a particular case and decided if it was or wasn’t dangerous to the community, as we heard in the first reading. Although leprosy was an incurable illness, it didn’t kill the sufferer quickly; those affected might have continued to live for many years. The main fear factor was the repellent disfiguration of the sick, often worsening as the illness developed. So those diagnosed as a danger to the community were excluded from it, and they had to adhere to strict rules as prescribed in today’s first reading. The leper approaching Jesus in today’s gospel seemingly breaches these rules in pursuit of his healing. His attitude is driven as much by his desperation as by his belief in Jesus’ ability to heal him. By touching the leper Jesus reaches out to him not only in a physical way but, more importantly, he also restores the human bond of which the leper has been deprived for a long time.
Exclusion and division in our communities are rarely caused by illness. More often the splits emanate from cultural, racial, religious, political or social differences. These are relatively easy to overcome. The most difficult barriers to deal with effectively are those built on either genuine or imaginary grudges, resentments, ill-feeling or emotional injury. We crave and call for peace in the world, for an end to hunger, persecution, inequality and so on. At the same time we tend to overlook the need for reconciliation, forgiveness and efforts to rebuild relationships with those we have personally excluded from our own families or our close social circles. Leprosy as a medical condition is now curable. It’s time to make spiritual and social leprosy curable as well. Lent is absolutely the best time to give it a go!