The 21st Century Retooling of the Church – Part XI
When the shooting of President Reagan, the student killings at Virginia Tech, and the recent shooting of the Arizona Congresswoman was first announced, my heart sank. Even before the news outlets began to try to dig into the background of the shooters, I sensed what was happening: a victim of mental illness must have gone over the edge, and I was right. The news media had their headline story, a shooting, and a chance to bring to light a dilemma America faces in the way we view mental illness, but they shied away again from the latter. Why?
In light of my series on Retooling the Church and looking at the role of a “shepherd/pastor”, I am asking the Church of America, “Who’s My Mentally Ill Brother’s Keeper”? Because of its stigma, the misunderstandings of the disease, and its effect on victims and family members, as well as the unscientific diagnosis of the disease in a very modern medically conscience society, America and the Church have failed to come to grips with this issue of mental illness although the outcomes of its tragedies have effected our nation.
Politically: America is in a heated debate over this pastoral question of “Who Is My Ill Brother’s Keeper”. Democrats say “We the People”, the American government is by advocating health care reform for all Americans, including the unstable mental health population. The Republicans say “We the People”, the government should stay out of it, let the public sector prioritize it, finance it, let “them”, whoever that is, take care of it because we aren’t going to touch it. Amazingly a Republican President and a Republican Congresswoman have been struck down by it, yet Republicans, like most of us in America, just wish that it would go away rather than face it because we don’t know what to do about it.
Church: How do you take care of something you do not understand? Although the Church knows about “grace”, “mercy”, “forgiveness”, having heroes like Mary Magdalene, the ultimate adulteress before meeting Jesus; the demoniac that had schizophrenic tendencies cast into a herd of pigs, who sits quietly by Jesus’ side begging to be a disciple of his after his deliverance, and the healings of “multitudes” of people mentally and physically in the New Testament, they often are still the ones who throw stones of “condemnation”, “judgment”, and “non-forgiveness” at the mentally ill because of lack of understanding.
When my wife went through a severe episode of mania followed by major depression, I asked during that time, “Where is the Church?” Not only did my wife need a shepherd, but so did I, the hurting family member, but none came. I cried out for help, but no one responded. At first I became critical of the church for their lack of response, but now I understand that it was because of the stigma of mental illness and lack of understanding about the disease or how to face it. One feels awkward when they do not have answers to your many questions about what they do not understand themselves.
I have written a manuscript called Stripped, about my walk as a care taker through mental illness, discovering that not only the victim of mental illness but also every member of their family gets stripped of their dignity, their worth, their hopes, their visions, their dreams, their sense of belonging to a “normal” society, or group, or Church. Because of its “limited audience” on the topic of mental illness, no publisher will touch my manuscript. Again the stigma of mental illness surfaces, even in the publishing world.
The person with a caring heart, a nurturing heart, a parental heart, a compassionate heart has the passion and point of view of shepherding, a pastoral calling. The Church needs to allow this person to arise in its midst to reach out to all who are hurting , for that is the gospel. One of the biggest “red flags” that someone is getting close to the dangerous edge in mental illness is their withdrawing. If the Church had a “pastoral” arm of the five fold ministry active in their midst, it would identify the problem in its early stages, seeing this withdrawal, and move forward with help, thus preventing many of the “extreme” tragedies we have read about with mental illness.
“Who’s My Mentally Ill Bother’s Keeper”? It is easy to push it off secularly and say the government’s, or push it off religiously and say the Church’s. The American government and the Church are “we, the people”, so let’s not forget that maybe it is “our” personal responsibility to get involved, get educated, break through the stigma, and reach out to those who struggle physically and mentally. We should be our brother’s keeper!