My sermon from Sunday, talking about mental illness, depression and salvation. Click full post for text. (Texts: Luke 8.26-39 and Galatians 3.23-end)
Doctor, doctor, you've got to help me, my brother thinks that he's a chicken! Well why don't you bring him in to see me then? We can't do that, we need the eggs!
We have in our gospel today the story of the healing a man possessed by demons. I would like to say something about mental illness in general, and depression in particular. As a society we have virtually lost the language of describing certain forms of behaviour using spiritual categories - not necessarily "demonic possession" - but the realisation that theology is an essential component of understanding human life. I'm a bit of a sceptic about "mental illness" as such (see this post), and I'm greatly sceptical about pharmaceutical involvement unless there are exceptional circumstances - in my view much of what we describe as mental illness is most often a spiritual issue, and it requires spiritual treatment; that is, at root, much so-called mental illness is resolvable through faith; it is caused by bad theology and it is cured by good theology. I wouldn't wish to deny the existence, in some situations, of an organic basis, which requires medication - but I think it is vastly rarer than the current medical practice would allow for. To flesh this out I want to talk about depression in particular.
To begin with, some forms of depression can be very healthy and right and necessary - not an illness at all, it is a time of spiritual adjustment to new realities. For example, if someone you love dies then it is both natural and necessary to experience loss - to expect someone newly widowed to be all bright and bubbly is manifest nonsense.
Other forms of depression can also be a response to a great sin, where the conscience cries out for release, and it needs a process of confession and absolution. The trouble with this is that it rests upon a robust account of sin, the idea that some actions are wrong and some actions are sins. In our wider culture sin is not named and people can flounder in great confusion and anguish until they are able to see clearly the situation that they are in - the naming is important, and the truth sets free.
Depression can also be born from a refusal to change to new realities in life, and is therefore about an inner dishonesty. In my experience this normally resolves around anger - anger is seen as illegitimate, it is therefore buried, and the soul is poisoned. The cure for this sort of depression is to let the anger out, to discover more about our own souls and pursue the path of honesty with oneself. The most helpful thing here is to remember that Jesus gets angry - and if the new reality is something toxic, which destroys life, which is injustice - then anger is precisely what is called for to confront that new reality and fight it. Anger has two children, hope and courage - and they are both very healing - for the poison is no longer internalised, it is no longer seen as part of the identity of the sufferer. They are no longer to blame. However, I should note that there is a problem with anger. I think anger is always a gift from God, and a sign of falsehood and injustice - but anger by itself does not say whether the problem, the falsehood or injustice, is on the inside or on the outside. Prayer is still needed.
There is another form of depression which is just as often about transference from a community, where somebody is kept "ill" - the community 'need the eggs' - and I believe that this story of the Gerasene demoniac is an example. Note carefully that the demoniac is kept chained in place - he is not allowed to wander into the desert and separate from the community, but is kept as one who is 'living dead', unclothed (no social standing) and living amongst the tombs. The demoniac is a scapegoat - note the name of the demon is 'legion' or 'mob' or 'crowd' - it is precisely the mentality of the mob that has infected him. In the description of this story in Mark's gospel the man is stoning himself, which is such a potent symbol of internalising the standards of the wider society. How many people do we know who spend their time stoning themselves because they feel that they deserve that punishment? The demoniac is functioning as a scapegoat within the social system - remember the description of the rite in Leviticus, where the High Priest lays hands upon the goat and transfers all the sins of the community onto it, and it is then driven out into the wilderness. This is a very widespread cultural phenomenon, we can see many examples of it in our own time - the one serves the many by being excluded, and then the group feels better - the scapegoat is the lynchpin of the system. What is remarkable is the word for scapegoat in the Greek rite - pharmakos - you could say humans are addicted to the drug of scapegoating, and that in our society we are no longer so vulgar as to stone people, we simply give pharmaceuticals to the pharmakon instead.
'What have you to do with me?' says the man to Jesus. It's as if he is expecting Jesus to be on the side of the established system, but Jesus is different, he is transformative and he breaks the system. He heals the man - not by transferring his sense of wrongness onto somebody else within the community (that would have kept the system in place) but by transferring the demons into a group of pigs who then die. The possession comes to an end. And what really reveals the complicity of the community is there is no relief, there is no delight in the curing of the man - instead there is fear, a sentiment repeatedly affirmed in the narrative. For how can the society carry on functioning without its lynchpin? The possessed man is healed but the community are most explicitly not healed - they are still possessed by the scapegoating process and do not know how to live without it. So the first thing they do is ask Jesus to leave - another scapegoat!
Christ is always acting to stop the process of scapegoating. And Paul has something to say about this too. His teaching from Galatians that we have just had is a powerful call to unity. He abolishes the three most important ways in which the human community separated out the clean from the unclean - racism, sexism and economic oppression - and he claims that for the Christian that is now irrelevant. Nobody is outside our circle - we are all sinners, therefore we are not kept clean by excluding the mad the bad and the dangerous - and the mad the bad and the dangerous are not isolated from us. We are all in this together, and so we can none of us be understood separately from the system within which we are a part. For the Christian, we no longer need a lynchpin - for the one who forms us was himself lynched.
The cure for possession is possession, "until Christ is born in us" - Jesus is the way the truth and the life, his burden is light, he sets us free... but hang on. There is a DANGER here, a danger that the Christian community hasn't always avoided. We could simply set up a new system, where the depressed are blamed for having a lack of faith - then called more and more strenuously to really convert - it really is still all their fault and we are still not really to blame, we are still separate and pure whilst they are unclean: a new system with new lynchpins. No. That is not the faith. The whole point of being filled with Christ is that we no longer define ourselves over against other human beings - 'we're not like those atheists/ catholics/ baptists/ 9.30 people/ 11 o'clockers/ those who haven't been born again - fill in your own definition here....' We define ourselves solely by reference to our relationship with Christ - until Christ is born in us.
This is not an experience, a special holy moment, but a dawning awareness that beneath our wrongness which occupies the dramatic front of stage in our minds, we are right with God. That God loves us, that God likes us, and that God is working to heal us and drive out our demons - that is what a living faith does - it slowly takes up our wounded hearts and minds and it brings them to Christ that they might be healed. Our destiny is to sit at Christ's feet, clothed and in our right mind, and when that happens - only when that happens - we are to follow Christ's command: 'go and tell what God has done for you' - for then the whole community is healed, and the Kingdom shall come.