Monday, December 17, 2012
Mental illness in the belly of morality
I went to church twice yesterday. It was one of those days I needed to hear something to help soothe the pain caused by the death of little children.
At the end of it all I had to accept the truth regarding the limits of my faith. There are no words to address the aftermath of what happened on Friday. I heard a great sermon on what the Bible says about evil and a challenge for people to come together to pray.
Both offered what the congregations needed. Both tackled the question of the providence of God. It’s an old battle that the Church continues to grapple to explain - if God is all knowing and loving, how could this happen? Why didn’t God stop it all?
I left burdened by the realization that most theological claims assume normality. This is most prevalent when the Church addresses the matter of anthropology – what it means to be human. The teachings of the Church fail to encompass the matter of mental illness. The death of children is viewed as a construct of an advancing immoral society. On yesterday, I heard a minister address the lack of prayer in our schools. I listened to another minister talk about the importance of applying the teachings of the Bible to overcome temptation.
Again, both responses assume normality. I left worship with more questions than answers. What is the Christian response to mental illness?
A few theological constructs came to mind. After contemplating each of them, it became clear that the assumptions of Christian faith make it difficult to address mental illness. I scribbled a few notes while taking nibbles of my roasted chicken. This is what I came up with.
Free will versus Predestination
This debate is as old of the Church itself. It has bearing on the way we view baptism, ordained ministry, the role of the Church and who receives the Lord’s Supper. Do we come to Christ as an act of free will, or are the elect chosen by God? The issue of free will versus predestination forces a discussion on what God controls versus our participation beyond God’s control.
Did God predestine that children die? If so, why? Some will contend that it’s not up to us to question God.
Beyond the act itself, what is God's role in the prevalence of mental illness? Are the mentally ill created that way, or is it the result of sin. If so, is it the sin of the person or their parents? What role doe society play in the rise in mental illness? Is it the result of corporate sin?
Hope versus madness
Central in the teachings of the Church is hope in the “kingdom of God”. The kingdom is understood as both imminent and eschatological, which is to say it has not yet been fulfilled. We experience the kingdom of God through the activity of the Holy Spirit found within the work of the Church universal. We experience that work as an ongoing experience of transformation.
What is the Christian response when faced with those who continue to function in madness despite the presence of the Church? What do we say when prayer fails to change things? Where is the hope when death prevails?
Incarnation versus instability
Incarnation is the message of the Christmas season. It is the Christian message of hope – God, as God has always been, enters human history to bring peace to the earth. Christmas is the celebration of peace and joy in the midst of dismay and confusion.
Jurgen Moltman calls it the “vicious cycles of death” - the ongoing experience of madness and confrontation. Christmas, followed by the cross, is the Christian message of transformation. How can things be changed when nothing stays the same? Where do we begin in our quest for renewal? How do you face what you don’t understand?
More pointedly, how do you work with a person when things in their mind are beyond their control?
Peace versus weapons of destruction
The Christian message is about letting go of power. It’s about turning cheeks and forgiving over and over again. Christians claim the Prince of Peace as the model for communal transformation. We cry, “not gonna study war no more.”
What happens when the message of peace is confronted by mental illness? What do we say when the enemy takes residence in the mind, and innocent people become the enemy?
Accountability versus dehumanization
Christianity teaches a morality designed to maintain social order. Christians are challenged to assert personal accountability. Those who fail are summoned to receive God’s grace upon repenting for their sins. This is a position rooted in normality. What is the message for those incapable, due to mental illness, of seeing themselves and those around them in ways most of us take for granted? What happens when they are unable to see the worth of life? What happens when they are incapable of recognizing the consequences of their actions?
Finally, what do we call them once they walk in those spaces that we can’t understand due to our sanity? How do we reach them? What prayers do we offer? How do we use our teachings when their minds fail to work like our own?
I have no answers today. I only have questions. With each question I bring my tears. I weep for the 27 taken. I pray for the 26 who were killed. I also pray for the one who took their lives before taking his own. I know not what was going on in his mind when he took lives. I do know it’s deeper than I can understand. I pray for answers. I pray for healing.
All I have left is my faith. Yes, it’s in transition. That’s when growth begins.