Mental illness crosses all human barriers. No one is exempt. Wealth can’t buy its way out. Power cannot force it away. Religion cannot keep it at bay. It isn’t contagious but everyone is potentially at risk. Usually, its causes are biological, genetic and often emerges as an individual comes to adulthood. It can also be triggered by trauma or acute stress. There’s no guarantee that any of us will escape a challenge to our mental health. The statistics are clear: one in five adults lives with a mental illness. Whether we admit it or not, mental illness touches all of us – directly or in a loved one.
Let’s not be deceived when the media or the President blames mental illness for mass murder. (The other piece of this that I will not address directly in this essay is that only white shooters are described as being mentally ill; everyone else is labeled as a “terrorist.”) Other countries have people who live with mental illness, but the U.S. has the highest rates of mass shootings. We have a problem, and mental illness is only a small part of it. Easy access to guns is another part of it, perhaps a bigger part. But the underlying issue is our culture of violence.
This culture that endorses violence as entertainment, as a way to resolve conflict, as a way to express anger, as a means of controlling others, and so many other, more subtle aspects of society, now wants to place the blame on those who have historically been victimized. Racism is a form of this violence. Misogyny is a form of this violence. Rape culture certainly is. White supremacy had a hand in creating this culture. And, I hate to say it, but Christianity has helped to shape it as well. Was it not human fear and intolerance that nailed Jesus to the cross? And the name of Christ has been used to justify centuries of violence and injustice. Why have we not learned a better way?
Yes, the Bible is full of stories of violence. Tribal warfare justified by vengeful gods. Society has changed since then. None of us needs to conquer the peoples living the next town over in order to survive the winter. We understand that human beings are all created in the image of God. We have heard Jesus repeat the Jewish mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. Nowhere does Jesus say that we are to blame the vulnerable for the ills of society. Nowhere does Jesus say that we have the right to kill those we perceive to be different. Nowhere does Jesus say that it is good to kill those who offend or frighten us. In fact, wasn’t it Jesus who said something about turning the other cheek and forgiving more times than we can count?
If we want to feel safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools, in our shopping centers, in our movie theaters, at our sporting events, and in our houses of worship, then we need to make changes. First, we need to change the way we think about violence. It should not be entertainment, especially for young or vulnerable minds. It should not be in our every-day vocabulary. “Killing” something should not be a positive term, ever. Chocolate cake shouldn’t be something we’d “kill” for. We should never “threaten” to kill someone if they do something we don’t like. How much has violence become normative in our lives? When violence is not normative, then people who experience mental health crisises, are less likely to be violent.
While we are seriously contemplating the ways in which violent words, action, and entertainment have infiltrated our lives, then we can think about who we “blame” for the violence on our streets. No matter who we name, we have such a small piece of the systemic puzzle. Remember that racism and white supremacy bred this culture of violence. White, powerful men endorse rape culture. Bullies always blame those they perceive to weaker. So before we blame those who have long been victimized, we must take a good long look in the mirror. Our silent or ambivalent or passive acceptance of “the way things are” has significantly contributed to the violence in society.
Now we must seek to see the human being in all others we meet. If we see them as human beings, then it is more likely we will see Christ in them as well. When we see all human beings as equally valuable in God’s sight, then we can find the motivation necessary to address the brokenness in our society. We can stop living in fear. Love makes violence far less accessible. If we stop living in fear, it won’t be so easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we need guns to protect ourselves. If we stop living in fear, we can remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it much more acceptable and accessible for those who experience symptoms to get necessary treatment. If we stop living in fear, we will stop excusing police officers who kill people of color. If we stop living in fear, we will stop denying the story of women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. If we stop living in fear, we can unclench our fists, roll up our sleeves and get to the work of justice that Jesus calls us to do.
If we keep living in fear, we will be haunted by the words of the prophets. We will keep running from the lion and the bear, only to be bitten again and again by the snake. Our festivals, our worship, our sacrifices will continue to mean nothing to God because justice is not rolling down and righteousness is not flowing. Wisdom will not find us and our lamps will remain unlit.
We have long since fallen asleep. It’s time to wake up, fill our lamps with oil, and follow in the way of Christ. We’ve been asleep for far too long.
RCL – Year A – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2017
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7 or
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18