We All Have Illnesses, Physical and Mental: Old First E-pistle 05.10.19

We All Have Illnesses, Physical and Mental: Old First E-pistle 05.10.19

I was away in Lancaster at the Clergy Convocation this week, the annual Gathering of colleagues from our own Pennsylvania Southeast Conference and the neighboring Pennsylvania Northeast Conference. Our topic was “Breaking the Silence: Mental Illness, Family and Church.” Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffin Lund who wrote a book of the same title and, as well as a local UCC pastor at First Congregational in Indianapolis, serves as a staff person for the denomination working on Mental Health issues.

Much of our discussion and work at the convocation was around the stigma of mental illness making living with it and its treatment much more difficult. There is a movement in the United Church of Christ that points out the church could do much to remove the stigma of mental illness. Much of that effort is about education and casting off fears so as instead to welcome and affirm (in good UCC fashion!). Along the lines of the UCC’s Open and Affirming movement that organizes congregations to affirm the equality and inclusion of queer folk in church life, there is a new campaign, WISE (Welcome, Inclusive, Supportive, Engaged), for congregations to go through a process to commit to and declare themselves to making room in the church for people who live with mental illness. 

As I listened to stories from people’s lives and from congregations’ ministries and witness — some heavy stories of pain and suffering  that often also included tinges of hope, faith and love — I was reminded that Old First is already more open and honest about mental health and mental illness than many congregations. I also thought about how important church had been for me as I was growing up in a family where both parents and therefore our whole family lived with mental illness. I also wondered how my life could be different… better if the church had been more open and more overtly helpful with the struggles that mental illness occasioned.

I was touched by the insight that the church’s denial, avoidance, looking away from mental illness often means the individuals affected miss getting the help they need, both from professional services and peer support. I felt a little convicted by the insight that the church’s willful blindness towards mental illness often robs the church of its chance to be the church. I am going to recommend that Old First engage in becoming a WISE congregation.

One of the challenges for changing our church culture vis a vis mental illness that Sarah Griffin Lund left us with was talking about it openly (and respectfully… with permission when needed!) such that it gets normalized, as just one more set of illnesses that people live with. And that we always remember that people’s mental illness does not define… is not the totality of who they are.

She also challenged us: “we need to develop a liberation theology of mental illness.”  Liberation theology is a movement in Christian theology, developed mainly by Latin American Roman Catholics, that emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of ultimate salvation. Liberation theology of mental health then would promise liberation from the social, political and economic oppression that people affected by mental illness face. Liberation theology often makes central “a preferential option for the poor” to its method and epistemology. In this case, that would be both about 1) prioritizing the interests and needs of people with mental illness and also 2) acknowledging that their standing outside the ways most of us experience and react to the world around us gives them freedom from the status quo and hence insight that is not available to most of us, those who fall within the wide spectrum of what is considered normal brain function.

I cannot offer such a liberation theology for mental illness, but I like the idea! But thinking about the theological implications of the church’s need to embrace and support those who are neurologically different did send me down a theological road…

The Judaism of Jesus’ day was often much about a purity system. It was believed that you had to be pure to stay in God’s good graces. The most pure were elevated, and the most impure were reviled. One’s purity depended on a number of different factors:

~ Purity was measured by one’s birth and lineage. Jews were considered more pure than Gentiles. Within the Jewish community, Priests and Levites came first and were followed by Israelites and then coverts to the Jewish faith. Further down the road were bastards.

~ Purity also depended on behavior. Those who carefully obeyed the law and its purity codes were regarded as more better than those who ignored them. People who ignored or downplayed the law were ultimately regarded as outcasts, which typically included tax collectors and shepherds.

~ Physical and mental “wholeness” were also purity issues. People who were not whole — who were maimed, chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, mentally or emotionally different were considered impure. People who were abjectly poor were also considered impure. Males, who did not menstruate or give birth like females, were considered more pure than women.

It’s easy to dismiss purity codes as an aspect of earlier, more superstitious faith understandings. But if you step back and look at contemporary religion and culture, you might be surprised how much purity codes still are a part of our taboos, stigmas, prejudices.

One way to understand Jesus’ ministry is that he tried to turn the purity system — and all its sharp social boundaries and divisions — on its head. In its place he substituted a radically alternative social vision. The new community — his Kingdom of Heaven — that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by egalitarian inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual.

In place of the famous “be holy, for I am holy,” pointed out bible scholar Marcus Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

“No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them,” writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant. The Christian way isn’t about ostracizing and cutting off. Instead, it is about extending ourselves and gathering in. Church is for us about becoming an inclusive, “room for all“ community. No one needed or needs to be excluded — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the ritually unclean or the crazed, or possessed. In fact, Jesus‘s Table and Kingdom cannot be considered holy until all have been included. .     

Think about what all that means for our openness to sisters and brothers who are mentally ill. Rather than putting up walls and pushing people away in fear, we want to tear down the walls of stigma and welcome people among us in faith. Rather than focusing on how folks are different, we embrace people as our neighbors — holy, gifted and able to bring as well as receive to and from our community of faith. We will be blessed by all folks’ presence in ways we would be forever without if they were not part of us.

See you in church,