Once I was a well being danger to society
When I was radioactive, I had a card in my wallet to explain why I triggered my body alarm at the airport. The card said, "Rachel Jones was being treated for nuclear medicine."
I have the card in my wallet, although I no longer have to show it at airports. I love the card and I hate it. I love it because it says I had nuclear treatment, which just sounds fantastic. I hate it because this fantastic sounding treatment didn't give me the ability to fly or glow in the dark. I love it because not everyone can go through an airport scanner and explain to TSA staff why their body lights up the screen and makes me feel special. But I hate it because it means I have cancer, which also makes me feel special, but not in a good way.
I have thyroid cancer. I had total thyroid removal followed by radioactive iodine treatment, which meant that the pill that a nurse had given in a lead container and only touched with gloved hands and pliers was put in my bare palm and then in my mouth and was swallowed. There was nothing epic or meaningful about the moment I swallowed the pill, except for the Imagine radio song Radioactive, which was repeated endlessly in my head.
I took the pill, left the hospital, drove home, retired to the basement, and isolated myself from all people and animals for three days, hoping the cancer would die.
I was now a danger to society. If my body leaks radioactivity, I can easily damage someone else's body by being close. No touch, no common space, no common utensils or toilets. Everything I touched had to be scrubbed, the room I breathed in had to be ventilated. Nobody could come from me within eight feet.
COVID-19's response has evolved from the interruption of holidays and air travel to the closure of schools and the introduction of “shelter at home” regulations. People isolate at home the way I isolated myself in my parents' basement. Being radioactive didn't give me a fever and wearing a mask wouldn't have made any difference to me, but I had to avoid human contact. It was my body, not just my breath, that was dangerous.
The fact that my body is a danger made me think not of the people wearing the masks, but of the people they protect themselves from. The sick. The contagious. Corona virus. Radioactivity. Me.
In the New Testament, Jesus touched lepers (Mt 8: 1–4). He embodied culturally subversive compassion and fearlessness of infectious diseases. People could judge and avoid him for touching the untouchables. You may not want to share a plate with him at mealtimes. You could decide that he was stupid or ruthless.
But Jesus didn't care what others thought. He asked them to choose love, even if they were at risk for themselves. I'm not saying that we have to forget about social distancing. Jesus had miraculous powers to heal and protect himself from infection that neither of us has. Nevertheless, this countercultural behavior is worth mentioning.
I used to think about the joy and awe that the leper must have felt when the healing power swelled through them. But I've rarely thought about how it must have felt for the sick to know that their bodies, their own selves, were dangerous. That the simple act of being in the presence of someone they loved put that person in danger.
My own sense of shame was real, although cancer and treatment were not my fault, just as the COVID-19 infection is not the patient's fault – regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, no matter what country they are from or from Country it comes from or has traveled through.
Mistake or no, the fear of harming someone I loved was real. The waves of guilt struck me: because of me, my family could not do laundry in the basement, they had to avoid part of the house, and medical bills for this treatment piled up while I watched Netflix alone.
I can also imagine on a small scale what the leper in the New Testament must have felt when they realized that they had been healed. Not only amazed by the miracle, not only filled with worship for the God who brought it, but also with the reality of a joyful liberation. Now they could hug their relatives without harming them. Now they could share a meal without infecting others. Now they could worship next to neighbors in the temple. You could live without fear of contaminating someone else's healthy body.
As healed and whole people, the leper experienced the newly discovered freedom to go anywhere and touch anything. The freedom not to worry if someone gets too close, the freedom to share a sip of water or a bed. The freedom to enter the wedding dance circle and turn is no longer limited to looking in from a distance. Freedom to participate and share, join and belong. Freedom to never distance yourself socially again.
Love is mutual. When we love people, we want to be with them and touch them, express with our bodies what our hearts feel. At the moment we choose distance for love's sake, but that is not our natural preference. When Jesus healed leper, he enabled them to express their love again.
I was shown so much love when I was sitting in the basement. My mother delivered food to the stairs. Friends gave biscuit bags and piles of books, chatted with me on the phone, and sent me fuzzy slippers and T-shirts that said, "Burn calories like I'm radioactive." What i was. People I didn't even know by name prayed for me.
Image: Courtesy of Rachel Jones
But for that limited time, I couldn't actively love her back. I couldn't send them mail. My hands would have licked radioactivity on the cards. I couldn't bake for her. I couldn't do laundry or run errands. I could only receive love – which was incredible. But I noticed that part of love is the ability to express it in return. And it struck me that those who are sick miss the opportunity to return affection, to love back.
When Jesus healed people, he healed their bodies. But he also healed her place in society, her ability to love back and serve others. He restored her ability to bake bread for a neighbor, to hold a crying baby so the new mother could rest to invite a traveler to her house.
In our western individualism, it can be tempting to consider our beliefs so personal that we don't appreciate that reciprocity. Jesus came and restored more than individual bodies. He died to buy more than forgiveness for the sins of the individual. It secured more than my unique hope for a future paradise.
Jesus restored communities. Forgiveness is for the fragility of companies and generations. Heaven is the restoration of all things, the earth is made anew. The incarnation is a word made flesh that lives under the body. This means that the full gospel, the good news of the Kingdom, is not just for me and not just for you. For us, the body of Christ, it is filled with the Spirit that together worships God.
I think we are beginning to feel this reality as our spirits fill with eager anticipation and longing for the day when the curfews are lifted and the quarantine is released. Imagine the joy! The intimacy of a hand on your shoulder. Embrace your grandmother, hug your plump little nephew, share a meal with your neighbors, and attend a dance party in the office.
My hope for those affected by coronavirus, what we are all, is what Jesus offered to the leper. Full individual healing and complete community restoration by businesses. That we will soon – Lord, may it be soon! – the good news of the gospel is experienced through the power of touch and touch, love and love – relationships are restored and love is returned.
Rachel Pieh Jones works and writes in East Africa. She is the author of Stronger than death: How Annalena Tonelli defied terror and tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa and writes the newsletter "stories from the horn".