Cooties

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“If you choose, you can make me clean.”– Mark 1:40-45

Last month, amid great celebration, the Church of England ordained its first woman bishop, an Anglican priest by the name of Libby Lane, who is now Bishop of Stockport. She was ordained to her new calling through the laying on of hands by her fellow bishops, all of them men, all of them bearing witness to, and blessing, her call.

But not everyone was celebrating on that day. Just two weeks later, a conservative Anglican priest by the name of Philip North was ordained as Bishop of Burnley. North is an outspoken opponent of the ordination of women. At his request, none of the clergy who had laid hands on Libby Lane were invited to participate in laying hands on North.

Which prompted one of my old seminary classmates to comment that, apparently, girl cooties are still a thing in the Church of England.

If you look up the etymology of the term “cootie” you will find that it first appeared during World War I, as British Army slang for fleas or body lice. The term was later appropriated by American school children to refer to (and I am quoting from no less a source than the Oxford English Dictionary here) – to refer to an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected. You remember how this works: someone is declared to have cooties, and from that point on, anyone who touches that person becomes themselves infected. A diagnosis of cooties imposes a social quarantine.

The truth is, cooties are still a thing, and they are by no means limited to British soil. Modern science has failed to eradicate them, even in the most advanced and developed of countries. Although the term ‘cooties’ is most widely used by children, it is not a disease of childhood only; cooties may infect anyone, of any age. And although they are imaginary, they are far from harmless. It is true that cooties, being fictional, cannot directly inflict harm on the body. But the secondary effects of cooties, the disgust and ostracism they engender, can be deadly. To deprive a human being of human touch and human conversation is akin to torture. Prisoners deprived of human conversation develop mental illnesses. Infants deprived of human touch, die.

Cooties are not the same thing as germs, although the two may be correlated. When they do occur together, their impact can be greatly magnified. Think of the early years of the AIDS epidemic; the first victims of that disease were subjected to a level of social ostracism far beyond anything justified by the contagiousness of the virus. The Reverend Jon Walton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in my childhood neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City, tells the story of an acquaintance who was diagnosed with HIV. After leaving the doctor’s office, the man walked down Madison Avenue in a daze; the only word he could think of was “unclean.”

Cooties is not just a game invented by twentieth-century American school children. It is a social illness that has been around for millennia, and “unclean” is one of its most ancient names.

We find evidence of this in today’s gospel reading, in which a leper asks Jesus, not just to make him well, but to make him clean. In Jesus’ day, the term leprosy could refer to any one of a number of diseases that altered the appearance of the skin. Whatever their underlying medical condition, “lepers” were treated as so dangerously contagious that they had to leave their homes and communities, had to live in isolated leper colonies, had to shout out the word “unclean” as they walked along, lest they somehow infect anyone through some casual touch. To be unclean meant more than being sick. It meant being outcast. It meant having not only germs, but also cooties.

Now, some of you may be thinking that the leper’s isolation was not an example of cooties, but rather a reasonable precaution to prevent the spread of germs. But the stigma of disease often lasts much longer than the disease itself. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a leper colony, the Home for Cured Lepers near the city of Ho in Ghana. As its name suggests, the people living in this colony have been cured of their disease. But they still bear the stigma of leprosy, along with its visible scars. Many of them have been living at the leper’s home for decades, unvisited by family or friends, unable to return to their villages. Because although modern-day antibiotics can eradicate the bacteria that causes the disease, they have yet to eradicate the fear that leprosy engenders.

Sometimes the germs are long gone, but the cooties linger.

Sometimes, though, it happens the other way around.

Some of you may have heard the news story, some months ago, of an Ebola clinic in Sierra Leone. A sick woman came to the clinic with her young baby, and when the mother died, the staff initially left the baby in a box, to prevent him from infecting others. But one by one, the nurses disregarded the protocol, and picked the baby up. They picked him up, and they held him. The baby eventually died of Ebola, as did eleven of his nurses. They knew the risks; but they could not bear to see the baby alone in that box. They could not bear to see him live his short life without human touch or affection, and so they were willing to risk their own lives, to prevent that from happening.

Germs, they knew, can kill the body; but cooties can kill the soul.

If you can imagine how the nurses must have felt, looking at that baby in the box, well then, maybe you can imagine how Jesus felt, looking at that leper by the roadside. Most English translations of Mark say that Jesus “felt pity for the man,” or even “felt sorry for the man,” but this does not even come close to capturing the meaning of Mark’s gospel. The word Mark uses here conveys a much deeper emotion, a feeling of compassion that compels action. Some of the earliest manuscripts of Mark actually say that Jesus felt, not pity, but anger.

What would you feel, watching a baby abandoned to die in a box?

Sometimes, there is nothing we can do, to cure the disease. Nothing we can do, to overcome the germs. The cooties, however, are another matter.

The leper says, ‘If you want to, you can make me clean.’

And Jesus says, I want to.

And he stretches out his hand.

That’s all it takes.

(Belchertown United Church of Christ, Feburary 8, 2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)

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