We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from the Birmingham Jail (1963)
I have a mental illness. The reason I quote MLK, Jr., is because the mentally ill have a lot in common with the African-American population. Not only have we faced rejection and discrimination, we are also among those most incarcerated compared to the general population and who are more likely to live at the subsistence level. I will not attempt to go the full depth of what blacks have experienced here—I could not do it justice. I will just begin this essay by saying that the reader should be mindful that mental illness has, as a stigmatized illness, much in common with people of other marginalized groups, and because of this we can learn from others how to cope, organize, and move forward.
Too many white, church-going, middle-class Americans are satisfied with the status quo. Content to focus on everyday needs of family and friends, few concern themselves with problems of the oppressed—in this case, the mentally ill—unless, of course, it strikes close to home. Many saturate themselves with entertainments, escapism, and diversions with which to be inoculated from the very real pain of the afflicted. But the God of the Bible and, the example of Jesus Christ, shows that God is deeply concerned for the afflicted, oppressed, poor and outcast. So it follows that God’s people will reflect this biblical God of justice in showing compassion for the poor, sick and downtrodden. God’s people stand up for justice; the Christian church will reflect this merciful God in attitudes and actions. The God of the Bible is not concerned with acquiring wealth or fine palaces; the authentic Christian church will keep its focus not on riches and external appearances, but on the deep inner values of caring for others and helping those in need. You might say that the mentally ill and others similarly afflicted, represent a challenge and litmus test for the Christian community which will reveal who are truly God’s people and who are the imposters.
I have prayed for my mentally ill friends. I have asked God, now, to extend His grace as never before in history. Jesus, who is the Judge and yet, the Defender, must come to our aid. We all need the grace of God.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, spoke of the great modern pessimism in perspectives on the state of humanity. He expressed the futility in trying to excuse the vast depravity within man. Yet, he also said that man has a great capacity for justice and it is the duty of a people to work for change and to not give up hope. Niebuhr is a man who witnessed both WWI and WWII during his lifetime whereby prohibiting him from any trace of naïveté. Yet, when someone expressed the futility in attempting to improve the human condition, he still encouraged action and positive thought in the cause of justice. As a Christian theologian and philosopher, his point was that even in the face of evil humans must work for the good and never give up hope. I, personally, would challenge anyone who states that “things never improve.” History has proven this otherwise as we see in women’s suffrage, civil rights and even medical care.
For too long the mentally ill have suffered in silence. I came upon the following quote by Simone Weil:
The afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard.*
From the mid-1800’s to the 1950’s, American mental institutions were houses of horror. Though many attempted to help the ill, treatments were few or nonexistent. The mentally ill were warehoused. Many were abandoned. Now in the present day I see that there are some people at the church I attend who would like to help with this cause. I hope that other churches across this country will also take steps to aid the mentally ill in their communities. Again, I pray for the grace of God to extend to all that suffer from the affliction of mental illness and that healing will result in furthering the integration of this population into our Christian worship and fellowship.
* From “Human Personality,” La Table Ronde (1950) repr. In Selected Essays, ed. by Richard Rees (1962)