It started as one of those family jokes, the sort that no-one else finds funny.
For the last few years, my family have bought me Camembert memorabilia for my birthday. No, I don’t know why either. It started off with a dish to bake them in, then progressed to a set of four Camembert plates. This year, presumably running out of ideas for other related items, my mum chose to give me an actual Camembert as one of my birthday presents.
I love Camembert (I guess the joke had to come from somewhere). I once carried a baked Camembert along the street in oven gloves to eat at a picnic. During finals, it was my go-to comfort food. I’ve seen a lot of it in my time, so take my word on this: this Camembert was not normal. I don’t know where my mother got it from, but there was something truly unusual about this cheese.
I have never experienced a food that was quite so smelly.
It was strong enough that when Mum got into the car with it to drive to London, her partner thought she had dog poo on her shoes and made her wipe them.
It was smelly enough that when I stepped on to the train with it (tightly wrapped in tin foil and a carrier bag) on the way home, a group of young women began to talk loudly about who could have farted that badly in a public place.
It was so smelly that on the next train I got on, a couple of men started talking about how some people need to learn to wash their feet, or get that spray you can use in your shoes.
It smelled so awful that as I got on the bus to finally get me home, a teenage girl who got on after me exclaimed to her friend, “eurgh, that’s baby sick, I KNOW that smell and a baby has been sick right here.”
I’ve never felt so self-conscious. I wanted to climb right inside my jacket and hide. I wanted to throw the cheese across the train so that no-one would associate me with it. I wanted to justify myself, to chip into these not-so-subtle conversations that “It’s not any kind of bodily fluid, of infant or otherwise! It’s cheese! It’s sophisticated, dammit!” All I could do though was tie up the bag it was in as tightly as possible, hope that no-one would realise I was responsible for the stench, and remind myself just how worth it this would be when I got to eat it.
And for the record, it tasted amazing.
It was a totally insignificant incident, which made a good story to tell my Mum the next day, but it did get me thinking about stigma. Stigma is what causes that deep sense of shame when society tells you there’s something wrong with you. Stigma happens when we collectively take our insecurities and our fears and channel then into shaming someone who is not me. We find a trait that’s not good enough for the in-crowd (the social in-crowd, the religious in-crowd, the academic in-crowd) and we shame people who have that trait. We shame them with the kind of shame that makes you desperately want to be invisible.
Stigma is a powerful, and dangerous force. My cheese-shame had no lasting effects. But it’s stigma that prevents many people living with HIV from accessing vital information and treatment. It’s stigma that forces people battling addiction to hide their private struggle from friends, family and colleagues. It’s stigma that keeps so many Christians, in my experience, from being free to share our lives and friendships with each other, because that life might include alcohol or sex, possibly combined.
No good can come of stigma. Sometimes it comes from ignorance, as a projection of our own fears on to those who live with what we’re afraid of. Sometimes it comes from holding different beliefs and making different choices. Stigma can be what happens when a group of people fail to see the difference between disagreeing with a lifestyle and judging people for it.
Jesus fought stigma everywhere he went. The woman who was bleeding for 12 years, who dared to reach out to touch his clothes. The lepers he touched when no-one else would come close. The woman who kept remarrying, and the others who were labelled sinful and dirty. The tax collector who was excluded as a traitor. They had totally different lives, but they each knew the freedom that came when Jesus trampled on the shame that had destroyed their relationships and eaten away at their self-worth.
As ever, if Jesus spent his years fighting it on every front, I can’t help but think we should be doing the same. As the church is particularly good at shaming and stigmatising, it’s probably best that we start with ourselves.
I vote anyone caught shaming another person has to carry a super-smelly Camembert around on public transport for the day. All in favour?