Jennifer McClure: Jesus' social network connects the stigmatized to society

"Christ Healing Lepers" by Andrea Schiavone (c. 1540). Wikimedia Commons

An analysis of Jesus’ social network helps us better understand and imitate his relationships with the marginalized, says a professor of religion and sociology.

A fundamental relational tension animates church life. God calls God’s followers to love and serve all people, regardless of any differences, and to see all as bearers of God’s image. And yet people tend to build friendships with those who are similar -- in socioeconomic status, in race and ethnicity, in theological and political views.

Though difficult, breaking homogeneity in the church is necessary, because of Jesus’ own ministry. Many Christians know and understand that Jesus often interacted with marginalized people. Stories in the Gospels show him healing the sick, reaching out to the poor, and crossing boundaries of gender and ethnicity.

As a researcher of religion and sociology, I wanted to explore more deeply how Jesus interacted with people in the Gospels and to reflect on what that tells us about how to construct our own communities. Using social network analysis, I discovered that Jesus’ connection with the stigmatized was unique, both in the number of relationships he had with them and in how few they had with other groups in his social network.

I was surprised to find just how many stigmatized people were in Jesus’ social network. By visualizing Jesus’ network of interactions, I saw clearly that he had mostly positive relationships with the stigmatized and that he connected with them in a way that other groups in his network did not.

Social networks consist of actors and ties. When you chart the ties between actors, you can see how community forms. When you see the relationships around the actors, you can understand how those relationships shape the actors’ identities, attitudes and behaviors.

For this study, I defined the actors as individuals who interacted with Jesus and the ties as the relationships between people. Relationships included anything from direct contact (Jesus’ calling Matthew) to a brief mention (Jesus’ calling Herod a fox).

I classified Jesus’ social network into the following groups: stigmatized people, civil and religious authorities, Jesus’ family and followers, and others who didn’t fit into those categories.

I was surprised to find that stigmatized people made up more than 40% of Jesus’ social network, more than any other group. Jesus had relationships with 52 stigmatized people, 24 civil and religious authorities, 34 family and followers, and 10 in the “other” category.

I next analyzed each of Jesus’ interactions with members of these groups and diagnosed whether the interactions were negative or positive. I found that Jesus’ interactions with the stigmatized, family and followers, and others were by and large positive, while the majority of his interactions with civil and religious authorities were negative.

The sources of stigmatization in the Gospels came from many directions. Some people were stigmatized because of sickness, disability or demon possession, others because of criminal activity, personal wrongdoing or socially frowned upon occupations (such as collecting taxes and prostitution). Still others were stigmatized because of non-Jewish ethnicity. Whatever the factor, stigmatized people were often seen as objectionable and less than fully human, and they were frequently avoided and excluded. But Jesus did not see or interact with them in these marginalizing ways.

The stigmatized had little interaction with any of the other groups in Jesus’ network. Less than 20% of the stigmatized in Jesus’ social network had evident relationships with the political and religious authorities in the Gospels. Of those who did, the relationships were typically negative. Jesus’ care for the stigmatized directly contradicted the treatment they received from those in power. He cared when the powerful did not, healing the sick and attending to the poor. With respect to Jesus’ family and followers, relationships with the stigmatized were more positive but still rare. Less than 25% of the stigmatized in Jesus’ social network had interactions with his family and friends.

For church leaders and religious authorities, this social network analysis poses hard questions. Are we more like Jesus or more like the civil and religious authorities of Jesus’ day, or even Jesus’ family and friends, who had very few evident relationships with the stigmatized?

For Jesus, the stigmatized made up a large portion of his social network, and for the stigmatized, Jesus was often the sole connection to his social network. Who is similarly isolated in your community? What efforts do you make or does your church make to connect those people to your network? What power do you and your congregation have to create the conditions for the stigmatized to be seen and heard -- to have positive interactions with those in authority?

Your relationships show your priorities, and the network of Jesus’ relationships makes clear the example his disciples are to follow. What would an illustration of your own social network look like? Would it look like Jesus’?