World Leprosy Day: Who sinned?

World Leprosy Day will be commemorated on 26 January 2020. Why focus on it in the first place? Because leprosy is an underestimated disease that even today remains a menace to humanity in many countries of the world. An appeal to reflect…

World Leprosy Day takes place each year on the last Sunday of January in commemoration of the day Mahatma Ghandi was assassinated. The event was established in 1954 by Raoul Follereau (1903-1977), the “apostle of the lepers”, in consideration of the fact that Gandhi had always taken a special interest in people who were marginalised. World Leprosy Day is intended to raise awareness of a secret—and often concealed—disease. It is an insidious illness that thrives behind the veil of secrecy. Its incubation period can last for decades, and its earliest indications are often neglected or even covered up. It not only changes a person’s outward appearance, but also affects the psyche. The whole of the personality is altered by those afflicted with it. It is best not to speak of leprosy aloud. Many people consider it to be a punishment from God.

The most frequently applied antidote has always been isolation! The most important priority was always to protect the healthy, not cure the sick! Facilities known as leprosaria (singular: ‘leprosarium’)—closed off houses outside of the city that harboured those afflicted by leprosy—came into being in the Middle Ages. Lepers who went around begging outside of such institutions had to draw attention to themselves and their condition by making noise with wooden clappers.

The battle against leprosy thus remains a battle against marginalisation, prejudice, and discrimination to this very day.

Not an act of revenge from God

And yet, Jesus Christ already referred to the fact that illness is not a consequence of one’s own sin or the sins inherited from one’s parents: “And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him’” (John 9: 2-3). Leprosy is not an illness of revenge sent by God, but rather an illness caused by bacteria, the causative agents of which infect the skin and nervous system. It manifests itself by way of numbness in individual areas of skin. If it is not treated early enough, this is almost always followed by inflammation, paralysis, and the kind of mutilation typical of the disease.

Leprosy is transmitted by droplet infection. Even today, very little research has been done on the details of how this occurs. The fact is that family members and neighbours have a greater risk of infection. This is why awareness and prevention are so important. But here is also where the vicious circle begins: those who suffer from leprosy are avoided. They are excluded from society. No one wants to have anything to do with them. They are separated and removed from the community. Often, the whole family is considered “guilty by association”. Parents are even held accountable for their children's illness according to the well-known pattern: “Who sinned—the leper or the parents?”

Solidarity instead of isolation

Jesus showed solidarity with the lepers. And what’s more, He even put Himself on their level, went to them, had fellowship with them, took time with them, and even healed them! And that is the good news even today: if diagnosed in time, the disease can be cured without any enduring damage. There are preparations that can heal the disease. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of money: if the countries where leprosy is still prevalent had access to sufficient resources in order to fight the disease, it would soon be eradicated. Although this is the stated goal of the World Health Organisation (WHO), it seems that it will remain out of reach for the time being. As long as even one person still suffers from leprosy, the dilemma between rich and poor becomes clear.

This too is familiar enough from the biblical account of the rich man and Lazarus: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16: 19-20).

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Peter Johanning