Infected By Judgment

Getting Sick Has Never Felt So Shameful

Sam Bush / 3.15.21

A common theme of this past year is that Covid hasn’t changed everything so much as exposed what was already there. This is true politically, in terms of our country’s history and infrastructure, but also more intimately, in terms of the underlying tensions in our families and marriages as well as the pervasive sense of loneliness in our culture. So much of what has been hidden has risen to the surface. In the realm of health and wellness, Covid has ripped the cover off how we interpret sickness: as a sign of disgrace. In recent decades, there has been low-level guilt attached to getting sick, in the sense that someone is going to have to pick up the slack — your spouse will have to take care of the kids; your coworker will have to cover for you. To be an American is to be a hard worker, which explains why we are infamous for not taking sick days. But if getting sick has always come with a little bit of judgment, Covid has upped the ante tenfold.

A couple of months ago, the Atlantic published an article by Saahil Desai entitled “’What If You Just Don’t Tell Anyone?’ Why Some People Pretend They Never Had Covid.” He reasons that most of the people who won’t say they tested positive are well-intentioned — if their parents are already high-strung, they don’t want to make matters worse. But he then gives a much more profound reason:

[S]ecrecy can also be motivated by one of the deepest-rooted myths around: that health is a sign of virtue, and infection a sign of sin. A particularly cruel dynamic of the coronavirus is that although everyone runs the risk of contracting it, those unlucky enough to fall ill can still feel the wrath of shame from those lucky enough not to. “It’s not surprising that people are scared of judgment when we’ve been telling them for months on end that if they take any risks, they are selfish, reckless, and irresponsible,” Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist, told me. “So of course when people test positive, their first reaction is: What did I do wrong?”

The fact of the matter is that people are going to get sick during a pandemic, but the shame of getting the disease is sometimes far worse than its symptoms.

Instead of simply having to deal with our sickness as something that happens, we attribute sickness to someone else or to ourselves. We link it back to that time we took our mask off when we shouldn’t have. Or that time we forgot to wash our hands. Or that time we had dinner with friends — inside. Thanks to the CDC we now have a brand new set of guidelines prescribing how to live, but if we violate those guidelines it feels like we’re violating not just a health code but a moral code. You may as well get a free scarlet letter for testing positive. I’m not knocking the CDC here — they’re doing their job — but we have turned commands which were supposed to bring life into instruments of death (Rom 7:10).

As infection rates rise, the disease of judgment spreads exponentially. This contagion is not novel, and tragically no one is immune. Theologians believe the affliction resides within our very DNA. It is inflamed by moral superiority afforded by the law and passed on through airborne accusatory speech.

We are hardwired for condemnation, and our natural tendency to blame can easily be expanded beyond Covid. When marriages fail, we immediately assume that it’s someone’s fault. When a younger brother doesn’t live up to his potential, we consider him responsible for where he got himself in life. Condemnation is how we play the game. And it doesn’t make anything better — except for the fact that it makes us feel better. So when we look out at the world and see the mess that people have caused, our response is to judge. The problem with our tendency to judge is that we often judge in the blind.

The story of the bronze serpent in the Book of Numbers gives us a little look into our tendency to accuse. The passage opens with the Israelites griping. It says they “spoke against God and against Moses.” They’re in the middle of the desert with no food or water, feeling completely hopeless and abandoned by God. Index fingers pointed skyward, they wail, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

And what does God do? The passage says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit people, so that many Israelites died.” Admittedly, it’s not the most compassionate response. This might make us question the nature of God, but it certainly strengthens the idea that God is God. It is a reminder that the seat of judgment has an occupancy limit of one, which is reserved for God alone. From that seat, of course, everyone is guilty. Judgment kills, this time quite literally.

People accuse God, and God puts them in their place. That’s the kind of story of judgment that we have grown accustomed to. But then God has Moses make a bronze serpent for everyone to look at. At first glance, it feels like God is making a mockery of Israel’s suffering, the ultimate case of adding insult to injury. But, after that, the strangest thing happens. Instead of being a symbol of mockery, the snake is the symbol of life. Everyone who is bitten and looks at it lives.

The very symbol of death brings them back to life. Sound familiar? Jesus Christ came not to condemn us, but to save us (Jn 3:17). And he saved us in a way we least expected — by contracting our disease of judgment. He became the serpent. He became the thing we hate. He’s the one who looks like he didn’t follow any of the guidelines. The Cross was the ultimate superspreader event, except that when Jesus got infected, the rest of the world became healthy. The crazy thing about Jesus covering the entire world in his blood is that, now, no one can differentiate scarlet letters from any other letters.

As sick as we may become (literally or figuratively), we are not cursed. As much as we may be suffering, God is not aloof. Where others might accuse, God offers the balm of grace. Jesus did not come for the healthy, but the sick — whether they’re infected by Covid or by judgment.