By Neil Dhingra
We can sometimes learn the meaning of a word from its misuse. Likewise, we might appreciate the force and challenge of Peter’s declaration that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) by looking at a dark episode when Christians were disastrously partial. The word here is stigmata. It means the marks on Christ’s body from the crucifixion, but, in the 19th and 20th centuries, “stigmata” was part of a phrase, “stigmata of degeneracy,” that referred to the supposedly tell-tale signs of “degeneration” on the bodies of epileptics, alcoholics, criminals, and the “feeble-minded.” This degeneration was thought to threaten hereditary risk and even “race-suicide.” The dark episode is the support of many Christians for eugenics in place of the divine impartiality testified to in Acts, a book that commends to us not a bodybuilder and an Olympic athlete, but a eunuch and a man “lame from birth” (Acts 3:8).
As Dennis L. Durst has recently written, the fear of degeneration did not merely inspire such literary creations as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It also haunted the theological imagination. In 1907, the Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong, then one of the most prominent theologians in America, delivered a lecture in which he discerned both a progressive evolutionary force — an “immanent divine will” — and a retrogressive force of degeneration — the product of “perverse human will.” Degeneration confirmed the scriptural claim of “an original state of integrity and a subsequent fall” as well as the sobering evidence that Strong saw in history and the world around him.
Even scientists would describe degeneration in moralistic and quasi-biblical tones, and scientists and social reformers would diligently (if dubiously) scan for the “stigmata of degeneracy.” In 1908 congressional testimony, the criminologist Arthur MacDonald detected permanent hereditary threats in everything from anomalies of speech and movement to cowardice and vulgarity and frivolity. One result of this expansion of stigmata is, as Durst concludes, that “[v]irtually every human being is by these terms a ‘degenerate’ and bears the ‘stigmata of degeneration.’” He notes, “Such usage subverted a religious term and changed its meaning to the complete opposite of its original meaning.”
Christ’s stigmata, the symbols of undeserved mercy and forgiveness, had now become the “stigmata of degeneracy,” threatening an irreversible biological condemnation that had to be headed off by eugenics, which a surprising number of Christians, including Episcopalians, would come to support (see Chris Gehrz’s interesting post here). In 1940 in The Living Church, an item submitted to the Question Box asked if there was a “religious objection to sterilization of persons who are mentally deficient.” Bishop Frank E. Wilson suggested “safeguards,” but he did “not believe it would need to violate any religious principles.” After all, “It is a matter of social regulation.” It was another measure for the “protection of society.”
By the 1970s, about 60,000 Americans would be sterilized involuntarily (see here).
What might we learn from the fears of degeneration? I think that the lessons from this dark historical episode can help us read Acts. Of course, Acts was written far before the advent of degeneration, but the classical world was still deeply immersed in physiognomy, so that outer characteristics were used to “read” inner qualities. Physiognomy is not even completely absent from Scripture: “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near [the altar],” including “humpbacks,” “dwarves” and those with “crushed testicles” (Lev. 21).
But, as the exegete Mikael Parsons has written, Luke’s writings, including Acts, challenge physiognomy. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus calls a woman long “bent over … quite unable to stand up” a “daughter of Abraham” (13:11, 16). Jesus later declares that Zacchaeus, a man “short of stature” is a “son of Abraham” (19:3, 9). As Parsons notes, we cannot rule out that Zacchaeus was not merely short but a dwarf, so that the crowd’s grumbling at him was not solely due to his tax-collecting profession. After all, this was a time when dwarves were regularly dehumanized — Augustus even purchased a dwarf as a pet for his niece. For Jesus, dwarves and women who cannot “stand up” are not forever tainted; they can be members of the eschatological community. Later, in Acts, we will see that this is also true of eunuchs.
The challenge to physiognomy is perhaps most evident in Acts 3: Peter, “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (3:6), heals a man who cannot walk. Ancient physiognomic texts associated weak feet and ankles with weakness of character and effeminacy. Even some early Christians borrowed from this discourse. According to Clement of Alexandria, writing of the “noble man,” “The disgrace of unmanliness should never be found in his movements or his posture.” The healing of the “lame man” is not a story of a defective person finally made spiritually and physically whole, however, which would still justify a form of physiognomy. It is a challenge to any basing of spiritual dignity on a physical condition. For, after he is healed, Parsons notes, the man is “walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8), not adopting the prescribed “slow, dignified gait, the sort of deportment that would show him to be a man of courage and vigorous character.” Parsons concludes, there is simply no connection between “outer appearance and inner character.”
In other words, as we will eventually learn, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). We completely grasp God’s impartiality when we turn from the defensiveness of a eugenically defined community to the expansiveness of the eschatological community, when we stop anxiously looking for the “stigmata of degeneracy” and contemplate Christ’s stigmata as the sign of a suffering love that is always received — no matter our height, stature, or deportment — as undeserved gift.