By Sarah D. Park
I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s book The Faraway Near, and she wrote about leprosy as a physical condition and as a social metaphor. Interestingly enough, leprosy “strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage.” Without the ability to feel, the many small defenses of the body — as innocuous as feeling a slight irritation in your eye — lose effectiveness to make way for horrific consequences. Many with leprosy go blind because they cannot feel corrosive specks in their eye and do not know to rub them out. Toes and fingers get filed down because their owners cannot feel that they are wielding them too roughly.
In biblical times and even today, there are leper colonies that form when those afflicted are cast out of society for fear of infection, thus forced to turn to each other for solace and community.
And it was here, toward the end of the chapter, that I recognized myself and my people: a people ever identified as constant foreigners despite assimilation, turning to their own out of survival; with a culture of numbing ourselves to our own stories of suffering for the sake of moving on; to the detriment of feeling irrelevant and indifferent to the stories of others. By the end of the chapter, I was left with a disturbing realization: her descriptions of the progression of leprosy reminded me of Korean American Christians.
I wondered if we had gotten so used to being excluded, we forgot that our community isn’t the whole body of Christ. We who are so quick to recognize the lepers of society on skid row or abroad have actually chosen it for ourselves — embracing our quarantine rather than wishing to re-engage and re-identify with the fullness that is the people of God.
How do you care about communities you don’t feel a part of? According to Solnit, pain is what unites the body and keeps it whole. In the absence of pain, doctors sometimes prescribe empathy to patients for their limbs so as to help them be more careful and compassionate toward parts of their body that literally do not feel like a part of them anymore.
It is empathy — the ability to listen, to feel the pain of others, transcribe it on my own body and mind, and respond as if the suffering were my own — that might help us function as a more whole body of Christ.
As lepers, we do not feel our own pain, and so we destroy our body — individually and as a community — when in reality, we have already been freed to live for reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. For all my deepest hopes that Asian American Christians can step out in courage and in faith to bridge divides as Jesus did, that path begins with feeling our own pain first. For if we do not learn how to value our own stories — to feel for ourselves — then we cannot hope to feel for the rest of Christ’s body, let alone the world.
Sarah D. Park is a managing editor at INHERITANCE magazine and a freelance writer. To her delight, most of the time, these positions are conduits for her to press an exposed nerve in the status quo.