Monday, December 4, 2017

To Speak and to Hold Silence (a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent)

A cozy spot for sermon prep
I was honored to be invited to preach at Dumbarton United Methodist Church here in Georgetown for the 1st Sunday of Advent. This Advent season, Dumbarton's theme is "The Journey to Bethlehem." Each Sunday, they are reflecting on different characters we encounter as we prepare for the coming of the Christ. This first Sunday was focused on Elizabeth and Zechariah. Having some familiarity with the story, and given all that is going on in our national news at this moment, a sermon title immediately popped into my head: “Maybe Men Should Just Shut Up?” And while eventually I could not reconcile the irony of me, a cis white man, delivering a sermon with that title, I did think the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah affords us an opportunity to reflect on speech and silence. On the times when we are called to speak up, and the times we are called to step back. And on the spiritual discernment required to know which is which.

You can listen to the sermon here, or on Dumbarton's website


"To Speak and to Hold Silence"

Sermon preached at Dumbarton United Methodist Church
December 3 , 2017
Advent I

         So. Here’s the set up. With the exception of the brief preface that the author of Luke’s gospel uses to set the stage, Elizabeth and Zechariah are essentially the first characters we meet in this gospel. And right away, Luke wants us to know what kind of folks we are meeting. Zechariah is a member of a prominent priestly class. Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron – in other words, herself of priestly origin. And this association with priestly piety isn’t just an act for Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke makes sure we know that they are righteous and godly people, inside and out. No hint of hypocrisy here—they keep all the commandments, all the observances, and they are “worthy in the sight of God.”
            It’s important that we know all of this because we are quickly introduced to another piece of background about the couple – they don’t have children, and not because they’re young or haven’t given it a shot yet. Apparently, the couple has been unable to have kids, and they are too old now to have any human hope for a change in that reality.
            In a religious and cultural milieu in which children are seen as a particularly special kind of blessing from God, and in which childbirth is seen as the primary duty and honor of women, a lack of children can all too easily be interpreted as a sign of sin, shame, or moral failing. If we are honest about our own religious and cultural milieu here in the 21st century United States, we know that we are not so very far from this sort of stigma around childless couples. We know, from the words uttered quietly by Elizabeth later on in this same text, that this holy and righteous woman has internalized this stigma as shame and disgrace. So this sort of revelation about this “first family” in Luke’s gospel is meant to disturb and disrupt the reader’s – if you’ll pardon the pun – pre-conceived notions about childbirth and childlessness. They have no children, but not, the narrator insists, for lack of godliness or worthiness.
            In beginning the story here, the narrator of Luke’s gospel calls to mind a foundational story in the Jewish scriptures. The situation of Elizabeth and Zechariah resonates through the centuries with the stories of Abram and Sarai, Hannah and Elkanah, and others – righteous God-followers whose childless existence is miraculously reversed by divine intervention. Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe points out that even the language style of this section of Luke’s gospel seems designed to invoke the reader’s connection to more ancient narratives of the faith. While the preface to the gospel is scholarly in tone and the body of Luke’s narrative is quotidian in usage, the section we heard from today seems designed to echo the style of the Jewish scriptures.[1] Writes Sharon Ringe:
The contrast is like what happens in a worship service where all the prayers are in Elizabethan English and the sermon in modern speech….[F]or many people who were brought up on earlier English translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the rhythms of Elizabethan English connect them to the entire biblical story. The language itself is strengthening and reassuring because of the memories and associations it invokes, and in that way it makes real again the presence, power, and love of God. It does not require a great deal of imagination to see the peculiarly biblical-sounding Greek of the beginning of Luke’s narrative having a similar effect on his hearers.[2]
So if we as readers are tuned in to Luke’s stylistic choices, and if we are familiar with the narratives of the Jewish scriptures, we can predict what will happen next: God will act in a miraculous way; the surprised couple will welcome a child into the world; and this child will have some sort of special purpose or role to play in the great narrative of God’s people.
            In a bit of dramatic irony, Zechariah is not able to see what we, the readers, have already guessed. While serving his shift in the temple, Zechariah is visited by a messenger of God, who lets him in on the good news. Zechariah questions the angel, and is slapped with a particular sort of fine: he will be unable to speak for the next, oh, say, nine months or so.
            Let me just say that I’m inclined to be pretty sympathetic to Zechariah here. I like that he doesn’t mind asking questions. I think it’s overall a pretty healthy thing to pose some questions to heavenly messengers who show up unbidden to announce seemingly ridiculous things. I am all in favor of a healthy amount of doubt, curiosity, and skepticism. So at first read, I want to leap to Zechariah’s defense. What’s so wrong with asking questions? Doesn’t this passage stigmatize doubt and promote unquestioning faith? Isn’t this seeming punishment a bit unjust?
            But these days, I’m not so sure that a sentencing to silence is such a bad thing, at least not for folks, like Zechariah, that are accustomed to having some say in matters. Sharon Ringe notes that “Zechariah, who is used to speaking, is silenced, while Elizabeth, whose body itself communicates what Zechariah cannot, articulates God’s favor.”[3] A quick look around our nation at the folks who are “used to speaking” is, I think, instructive here. I wouldn’t much mind a moratorium on speaking for the folks who talk the most in our country. Imagine – nine months with nothing from the president, nothing from Congress, nothing from the most powerful actors and producers and network owners and news anchors, except for silence. Blessed, peaceful, silence. Perhaps the angel’s message to Zechariah is as much an invitation as it is a condemnation.
            Unless you’ve been without internet or radio access for the past month or so, you’ve probably heard about the #metoo hashtag campaign. [[EDIT 12/8: The "Me Too" campaign actually began much earlier than this past month, led by a black woman named Tarana Burke. You can find out more on the Me Too website.]] As women across the country speak out on social media about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, courageously shattering the culture of complicity, stigma, and silence that surrounds such attacks, the inappropriate and even abusive behavior of one powerful man after another has come to light. For some, at least, consequences have been swift. And not surprisingly, American men have had a mixed record of reactions, from the bumbling to the hand-wringing to the outright defensive. In a recent sermon at Foundry United Methodist Church, our mutual friend T.C. Morrow had this to say:
I’ve appreciated the 'we hear you. we believe you.' messages Ive seen on social media as people share their stories of surviving sexual harassment and sexual assault. These are important first steps, but it will take significant cultural change to fully shift away from the vestiges of the notion that women are property….Gentlemen, a few social media posts, especially of the 'well, I respect women' type do not necessarily mean you are fully an ally to women. I invite you to engage in some truth-listening, you may learn an additional way or two that you can more authentically respect women.[4]
I’m struck by T.C.’s phrase “truth-listening,” the other side of the “truth-speaking” coin. T.C. invites men to engage in some “truth-listening.” And I wonder if men, even men like Zechariah who genuinely seek to be good and righteous and law-abiding and worthy, practiced silence a bit more, whether “truth-listening” would come easier for us. I wonder whether the speech that would arise out of the practice of silence might be wiser, less reactive, and more empathetic.
            In fact, I think the Elizabeth gives us a hint of this very thing in our readings for today. At first, oh-so-unsurprisingly given the patriarchal underpinnings of both Luke’s society and our own, we hear little from Elizabeth. When she does speak, it is only after she has “gone into seclusion” – we don’t know any details about this, but she is certainly not shouting from the mountaintops. And yet, a somewhat surprising thing happens when Elizabeth receives a visit from her cousin Mary. In Sharon Ringe’s words, “Elizabeth’s body teachers her” – and thus teaches us – “theological truths.”[5] Elizabeth’s child, the one who will become John the Baptist, leaps in her womb at the sight of Mary, pregnant with the one who will become Jesus. And it is Elizabeth who is the first one in Luke’s gospel to proclaim the Messiahship of Jesus, the first to make a Christological affirmation. She exclaims this in a loud voice, and her blessings and exultations in turn invite Mary into singing her earth-shaking, power-challenging “Magnificat.” Out of Elizabeth’s seclusion arises wisdom and gospel truth; out of her silence she pours forth proclamation, prophecy, and praise.
            And what of Zechariah? His story, as it turns out, is not over. When the time comes for Elizabeth to give birth, their community assumes that the baby will be named after his father, Zechariah. “No,” says Elizabeth, taking confident command of the situation, “the baby’s name is John.” How did she know this, if Zechariah is unable to speak? Did he write her a note? Or does Elizabeth have her own access to the divine good news, and the wisdom to share it? The community doesn’t seem to want to believe Elizabeth – “Big surprise,” says every woman ever, “they don’t want to believe the woman.” But Zechariah, prompted to sign to them, does finally ask for a writing tablet and lets them know that Elizabeth has it right. Then, and only then – after writing, “You know, y’all, she’s right, you should listen to her” – is Zechariah permitted to speak. And the speech that pours forth out of his long silence? It’s an echo and a continuation of Mary’s earlier song, a Benedictus to echo and amplify her Magnificat. We sang and recited pieces of Zechariah’s prayer earlier in this service, praising God for liberation and for mercy, for holiness and justice. “Such is the tender mercy of our God,” Zechariah cries, “who from on high will bring the Rising Sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Out of Zechariah’s silence arises a call for our feet to be guided in the way of peace.
            And so as I read these texts, I reflect on Elizabeth who, out of her silence and seclusion, speaks. I reflect on Zechariah, whose hasty speech leads him to silence before he can be invited into speech again. I think about all those #metoo posts on my Facebook wall, which have now been joined by #churchtoo posts, breaking an oppressive form of silence and naming the reality of sexual harassment and assault in our supposedly sacred spaces. I think about silence and speech. I reflect on times in my own life, too many times recently it seems to me, in which I leapt to hasty speech instead of pausing, waiting, holding a wise silence. And times when my speech has served to silence others. And I think too of times when I could have, should have, spoken up and said something. And times when I’ve felt shut down, or silenced, or shamed, or stigmatized. I’ve been reflecting on when to speak. And when to keep silent.
            I suppose I wish I had some sort of easy, three-step guide for you this morning. Here’s when to speak up, and here’s when to hold your tongue, I could say, and they would be pithy, and alliterative, and they would rhyme. I don’t have that. But I do have three themes, or maybe three spaces in our lives, which I think call us to discernment and wisdom in deciding when to speak and when to hold silence.
            First, for folks like me who like to talk, who have a tendency to jump in and speak right away, I think we need a regular practice of silence. I think we, like Zechariah, need to listen to the divine messenger who invites us, rather than condemns us, into a space of silent reflection. Perhaps we may discover that there are forms of silence that are more powerful than our habitual speech. Perhaps if we begin from a space of silence, our speech will be wiser, more empathetic, based more in believing and amplifying the stories of those who have been marginalized and silenced, and thus more evocative of justice, and of mercy, and of peace. Perhaps those of us who are accustomed to speaking but suddenly seem to lose our voice when it comes to naming and interrupting abuse and injustice might spend more usual time in silence so that we can speak more rightly and more justly when the extraordinary is called for. Perhaps we can learn to, as T.C. Morrow says, “truth-listen.”
            Second, for folks who, perhaps like Elizabeth, instinctively move toward silence and seclusion, perhaps in that silence and seclusion you might hear the voice of the Spirit calling you to speak out, calling you to cry out. Perhaps, like the courageous women who have broken oppressive silence with the #metoo campaign, your voice is needed. Perhaps silence is the seedbed out of which good news and the proclamation of truth can arise.
            Third and finally, I want to just say a few words about silence as it relates to stigma and shame. As I mentioned earlier, this whole story of Elizabeth and Zechariah is based around this trope of the barren woman who miraculously conceives a child. Of course, in its original context, this trope was intended as a message of hope, a reversal toward justice for those who have been unjustly associated with sin and shame. And yet, the idea that somehow finally having that child fixes everything still leaves some of that stigma in place, doesn’t? Still says that those who have children are somehow blessed by God, while those who do not…..What of them? There’s a danger in interpreting the text this way, reinforcing the very shame the text is meant to undo.
            But I don’t think that’s the core message of this text. This text calls us to think critically about the stigma and shame that surrounds those whose circumstances are popularly blamed on their own moral failings, their own decisions or sins. In Luke’s time and perhaps still in our time, barrenness or childlessness – always blamed on the woman, never the man, by the way – was one of those circumstances. In our own time, those who come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault are often blamed for the violence enacted against them, told that if only they had not dressed like that or had that drink or associated with that man, they would have been safe. We need to challenge that sort of stigma, and the silencing that it seeks to enact.
            And while I can’t speak with much personal authority about the stigma surrounding childlessness – as the male partner in my relationship, I’m largely spared such things – or about the silencing of survivors of sexual assault, I do know a thing or two about the silencing effect of shame and stigma. As someone who struggles with a mental illness, I’ve grappled with the question of whether the suffering associated with my illness is somehow caused by God or by my personal failings or my lack of faith, which I am convinced it is not.
And so what I see as good news in this text for anyone who has an experience that has been surrounded by stigma and shame and enforced silence is not that there is some miraculous cure waiting out there if we just have enough faith. That doesn’t really strike me as good news. No. The good news is that it is  from those places of silencing, from those places of stigma and seeming shame, that the words of gospel truth, of liberation and mercy, can pour forth. It’s not that Elizabeth’s barrenness is “healed” but that her experience of shame, stigma, and silence becomes the source, the seedbed, out of which the proclamation of good news can arise. Not because suffering is good, but because in the midst of suffering we are able to stumble across the goodness of a God who proclaims hope to the hopeless. In the deafening silence, in the feeling of seclusion, in the seeming darkness, there, perhaps, we can be quiet enough to hear the voices that need to be heard – whispering now, perhaps, but soon to shout out for justice and truth.
And so I pray for us all. That we may have the spiritual discernment to know when to speak out and when to hold silence and when to break the silence. That we can practice the kind of silence and the kind of speech in which we can hear the voice of the Spirit proclaiming that the dawn from on high is breaking, shining on those who dwell in the shadow of death, and guiding us along the way to a promised future of justice and of peace.

[1] Sharon Ringe, Luke, part of the Westminster Bible Companion, series editors Patrick D. Miller & David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 25.
[2] Ringe, Luke, 25-26.
[3] Ringe, Luke, 30.
[4] T.C.’s 11/26/17 sermon, “Don’t Hold Back,” is available on Foundry UMC’s website:
[5] Ringe, Luke, 34.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mental Illness Isn't Violence (But Our Systems Sure Are Sick), Pt. II

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part I looks at the inaccurate public perception of a connection between mental illness and mass violence. Part II looks more closely at systems.Even as I share this post, I am mindful of the fact that for those directly affected by violence, no think piece and no blog post can address the pain they are going through. For a lot of people, the world feels like it has ended right now. Let's try to honor that with our words, our reflection, and our action. 

I Wish I Wasn't Writing This

I wish part II of this blog post wasn't so relevant.

I wish, I really wish, that there hadn't been another horrific mass shooting.

I wish, I really wish, that it didn't fall so closely on the heels of another horrific act of violence, and that there weren't such easy comparisons to make between the response to the former and the response to the latter.

That the latter is "sad" and "a mental health problem" while the former was "ISIS-inspired" and led to more calls to close the borders.

So clearly illustrating that when the killer is a white man, we scapegoat mental illness, and when the killer is a Muslim man, we scapegoat Islam, or immigrants, or both.

But the scapegoating and the individual pathologizing won't help, it won't stop this, and it will just lead to more hurt and more violence against already marginalized people.

Here's how I concluded my last post:
If we want to talk about violence as form of illness, a form of dis-ease, that's fine. Let's talk about it. It's just that mental illness, which deals with an individual's struggle with experiences that prevent them from functioning the way they want to function, is exactly the wrong category for such a naming. Rather, violence represents a systemic un-health, an interaction between an individual and larger forces that are harmful, that are in-and-of-themselves violent. Paul called them "the powers and principalities." Such unhealthy systems do very much impact our health, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. But that doesn't mean they can be diagnosed by pathologizing an individual's violent actions. Mental illness isn't violence. But violence might well be an illness, and a systemic one at that. We've got some very sick systems that we're operating in and amongst, and perhaps they are indeed in need of diagnoses. 
So, let's talk about systems. And if it seems to soon to talk about this in the wake of the shootings in Sutherland, TX, that's ok. Just assume this is a belated post about Manhattan. Or Las Vegas. Or...God dammit, really, sincerely: God damn the lengthy, blood soaked list. Let's talk about it now.

What We're Talking About When We Talk About Systems

Dr. Cedric C. Johnson, in his book Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age, writes about an "integrative approach" to soul care:
An integrative approach argues that understanding human functioning is not possible without comprehending the context in which it is formed as a subsystem within a matrix of interlocking historically situated systems. It entails assessing interpersonal dynamics, family systems, sociocultural systems outside the family, economic and political systems, as well as religious, spiritual, or other meaning-making systems. An integrative approach considers the potential influence these systems may have on those who come for care. It thus requires one to "think systems" at all times, even if the practitioner of care is seeing only one member of a family. Strategies for care are derived from an ongoing assessment of where and how to intervene, whether the practitioner is addressing interpersonal dynamics, family dynamics, or the larger systems within which the person or group exists (pg. 6).
Maybe that seems like a lot. Never fear! Dr. Johnson provides a helpful graphic:

From Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age, pg. 7
The behaviors, strengths, and pathologies of an individual are impacted by the multiple systems they operate in, and vice versa.

This, by the way, is true even for folks who really do have a diagnosable mental illness. Here's John Swinton writing in his book Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems:
Mental health problems are incredibly complex phenomena that occur to human beings, who are themselves highly complex creatures. Because of this, there can be no such thing as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or any other form of mental health problem, apart from the person who is experiencing it....Likewise, there can be no such thing as a person apart from the particular communities within which the person exists.....Mental health problems, rather than being definable in terms of biology or diagnosis, are an ultimately indefinable combination of pathology, personhood, and community; the aspects are inextricably interlinked. If we omit one from our caring equation, we risk misunderstanding the others (pg. 27).
In other words, even for folks who do indeed have a diagnosable mental health challenge, the diagnosis is only one aspect of a complex human, in community, impacted by systems. We can't just say, "X person had a mental illness" as if that explains their behavior or their personhood. It's an oversimplification, and an ineffective and stigmatizing one at that.

So when we're talking about systems, we're talking about the relationships, communities, and broader forces that impact (and are impacted by) the actions of individuals.

Sick Systems

So what are some of the systems whose sickness I think we should be diagnosing in order to prevent horrific acts of mass violence in this country?

Sick systems, not a sick person.
Here is a by-no-means complete list:

Toxic Masculinity
The vast majority of acts of mass violence in this country (and, I would venture to guess, throughout the whole damn history of the whole damn globe) are committed by men. Men, particularly white men, commit the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. (here's one source on that). There's a strong correlation between men who commit acts of mass violence and a previous history of domestic violence or abuse against women (again, here's just one source on that). Why? Here's my friend Jay Yoder, writing a month ago:
Masculinity is all the ideas about what being a man means that we’ve decided as a culture are true and important and necessary. So: being a man means being strong, violent, aggressive. Being a man means being in charge. Etc. etc. etc. ....When we demand certain things of someone because of what gender we need them to be, and in the case of manhood, when we punish it with ridicule, shame, violence, degradation, humiliation (see frat rituals, team rituals, etc.), it creates a toxic masculinity that is bound up in and enforced by violence.
When we teach men, and before that, when we teach young boys, that being a man means being dominant, aggressive, and in control, this has consequences. When those young boys grow into men and find out that they can't, in fact, always be strong, always be in control, always win, this has consequences. Violent consequences.

White Supremacy, Race, and Racism
As already noted, mass shootings in the U.S. correlate not just with masculinity but, more often than not, with white masculinity. I've already written about white supremacy and violence after being in Charlottesville in August. My friend Alicia Crosby offers this definition of white supremacy, which stretches beyond the overt white nationalism of neo-Nazis and KKK members:
White supremacy establishes whiteness as superior to other racial identities through the elevation of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of white people over that of people of color. This includes the centering of the theological, rhetorical, aesthetic, and economic priorities and preferences rooted in whiteness as well as the appropriation and rebranding of cultural expressions sourced from people of color.
To this, I'd add that white supremacy teaches white people that we deserve to succeed, that we deserve to be in charge, that we are supposed to be the most successful and most important and the peak of civilization.

And then we aren't.

Then we fail at things, and we lose jobs, and we mess things up, and we're sort of mediocre most of the time just like most other people are, and because we've been taught (often subconsciously, sometimes overtly) that by virtue of the color of our skins we are supposed to be superior, and we don't feel very superior at all, we experience this unnamed type of shame. Stir that in with toxic masculinity and violence very quickly becomes a way to re-assert this felt need for control, for success, for extra-ordinary-ness, that is falsely promised to us by white supremacy. Which makes young white men susceptible not only to individual acts of violence, but to intentional radicalization and recruitment.

Radicalization and Recruitment in the Neoliberal Age
Here's just one article (from Vox) about the radicalization of white Americans, about how many of the people who are radicalized are perceived as, and experience themselves as, "losers," and how certain extremist groups can take advantage of that. After Charlottesville, my friend Julie Norman wrote in the Washington Post about her research on youth radicalization, drawing connections between her research with youth in the Middle East and North Africa and the Charlottesville attack. Julie and her research collaborator Drew Mikhael wrote:
From our focus groups, youths who were the most susceptible to radical messaging were those who perceived themselves to be politically and/or economically marginalized, resulting in a pervasive sense of purposelessness and lack of hope for the future. However, it was not poor socio-economic status itself that pointed toward susceptibility, but rather a sense of relative deprivation, coupled with feelings of political and/or social exclusion.
So if you've been told that you're supposed to be in control, and successful, and in charge, but instead you feel excluded, or like a failure, or like a loser...well, it's that much easier for you to radicalize yourself on the internet, or to be intentionally radicalized by a particular organization. The folks who are most susceptible to this are the cast-offs of the neoliberal age, the ones who have been promised much but offered little. And so they go looking for something that can provide them meaning, purpose, a sense of superiority or at least of value. Julie and Drew again:
Ideology matters, but not necessarily its core messaging, be it Islamic fundamentalism or white supremacy. Rather, radical groups use religion and ideologies to legitimize grievances, placing themselves as agents of change and promising empowerment and a sense of purpose.
And if you're looking for meaning and purpose and power, in this culture, there's no promise no alluring than the meaning-making power of violence.

A Culture of Violence, or, Violence as Meaning-Making System
Remember Dr. Johnson's handy diagram? The largest circle in the multi-systems model is "Religious, Spiritual, and Meaning-Making Systems." Ideologies such as white supremacy can fill this role; but I'd argue that in our country, violence itself functions as a meaning-making system. We could talk about theologian Walter Wink's work on "redemptive violence" here, or Chris Hedges' excellent book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, or any number of other pieces. We could talk here about an entertainment industry that relies on portrayals of violence to make sales. In a culture of violence, enactments of violence promise meaning, purpose, and power, obscuring the fact that violence gives none of those things. It just gives injury and death.

Gun Companies and War Profiteering
Of course, all of these factors are exacerbated and made more deadly by the ready availability of guns. Groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety lobby for legislative changes, which is important; but of course, the biggest obstacle they face is the big money available from the gun lobby and, behind that, from gun companies. The biggest guns in the room, literally and figuratively, are corporations that make billions off of selling weapons. And you know who the biggest buyer of weapons from private companies is? Why, the U.S. government. We've normalized war profiteering in this country. How are gun companies that sell personal firearms doing anything different than what the military industrial complex has been promoting on a massive, hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars scale? These are big, big, money making industries that make donations to political campaigns and lobby members of Congress. What's a few dozen dead church members or concertgoers against trillions of dollars?

The Stigmatizing and Scapegoating of Mental Illness
I wrote already in the previous post about the inaccurate representation of people with mental illnesses as violent. But I'd add to that, here, and say that the stigmatizing scapegoating of people with mental illnesses is itself an aspect of the violent systems at play in mass shootings. For one thing, people who genuinely do have a mental illness are discouraged from seeking help and sharing their pain by the stigma. For another thing, mental illness provides an easy scapegoat and a "pretend" response to violence -- we can easily talk about the invisible thing that is mental health, not do anything about it, and allow the violence to continue while patting ourselves on the back about our statements. How many people who talked about mental health after the Las Vegas shooting have genuinely rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work to fix the mental health care system in this country in the month since? Very few, I suspect. And of course, we then have a whole other set of overlapping systems we could talk about an analyze as far as mental health care in this country: insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, national legislation, lack of mental health parity, and more.

Multiple Systems Are Always at Play...So What Do We Do?

As I've already said, this isn't an exhaustive list of the systems at play, nor an exhaustive diagnosis of each of these systems. Multiple systems, visible and invisible, are always at play, impacting and being impacted by the actions of individuals. Which can seem very overwhelming. So, what do we do?

I've written before about self-care in a systems context, and how action at one level of a system affects the other component parts of a system. Remember Dr. Cedric C. Johnson's words: "Strategies for care are derived from an ongoing assessment of where and how to intervene, whether the practitioner is addressing interpersonal dynamics, family dynamics, or the larger systems within which the person or group exists" (Race, Religion, and Resilience, pg. 6-7, emphasis added). And Dr. John Swinton's words: "Mental health problems, rather than being definable in terms of biology or diagnosis, are an ultimately indefinable combination of pathology, personhood, and community; the aspects are inextricably interlinked. If we omit one from our caring equation, we risk misunderstanding the others" (Resurrecting the Person, pg. 27).

So. We think systems. We look at the many different systems impacting a particular person or situation, knowing that we might be missing things, that we probably can't understand the whole picture with 100% accuracy. And then we choose where to intervene, where to put energy, where to try to affect the system, while being mindful of the intersections and interactions between our interventions and other parts of the system.

Which means, if you want to advocate for better mental health care....please do!!!! I do. It's a big part of what I do.

But keep in mind the broader contexts. Look at how race and gender, how racism and sexism, impacts mental health. Understand how associating mental illness with violence re-inscribes stigma (see Part I of this blog post for more on that). Think systems, choose an intervention, act, look at the system again.

Mental illness isn't violence. But our systems do create a lot of violence, and our conversation about mental health and mental healthcare in this country ought to include an analysis of the many systems that impact an individual who is struggling with mental health.

A Quick Note on Thoughts and Prayers

Recently, after acts of mass violence in this country, a weird sort of internet debate has inevitably swirled around the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of offering "thoughts and prayers."

Obviously, a big part of this is just a reaction to the hypocrisy of "leaders" who take money from gun lobbyists and refuse to take any real action against gun violence. From these leaders, "thoughts and prayers" does indeed sound like an empty phrase, the useless clanging of a gong.

After the most recent shooting in Texas, this weird debate was even more pronounced because the shooting happened in a church while people were praying and worshipping.

I've already written a bit in a previous post about how I understand the role of prayer in response to violence -- how it's an act of intentional compassion and solidarity that leads to action just as action itself is a form prayer.

So let me just add to that by saying: by all mean, send thoughts and send prayers.

Send prayers by extending real compassion to the people who have been hurt and killed.

Pray for the wisdom and the insight to know how to respond responsibly.

And think. Put your mind to work. Think systems. Think about the multiple factors that impact a person to lead them to violence. And think carefully and prayerfully -- what the Christian tradition has referred to as "discernment" -- about how you, too, and the communities you inhabit, are impacted by and in turn can impact those systems.

Thoughts and prayers? Yes, by all means -- we will need both. Actions? Yes, those to.

Putting them all together?

That's thinking systems.

That's the kind of thing that might just lead us to properly diagnose this problem. And maybe, just maybe, find a cure.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mental Illness Isn't Violence (But Our Systems Sure Are Sick), Pt. I

I have been trying to write this post for more than a week now. It's been a very difficult one to write. And then it was getting very long. So, I have divided it into two posts. Part I looks at the inaccurate public perception of a connection between mental illness and mass violence. Part II looks more closely at systems.

Even as I share this post, I am mindful of the fact that for those directly affected by violence, no think piece and no blog post can address the pain they are going through. For a lot of people, the world feels like it has ended right now. Let's try to honor that with our words, our reflection, and our action.

First, here is how it goes for me.

I hear the news, or see it in that early morning social media check that I keep telling myself I should stop doing.

“Oh, no,” I say, softly, to myself.

I try to stop for a second, before I react, before I think. It rarely works, but I try. I try to just shut up for a second. To extend some empathy, some compassion out into the universe. I try to imagine the unimaginable. I try to feel, just for a moment, some of the terror that the people on the scene must have felt. It is a vain attempt, of course. I try, and fail, anyway.

“There’s been another one.” How terrible to be able to say that, “another one.” Another name, another place, in the litany of mass shootings in this country. “Another one.” How blasphemous that we keep saying that. How horrific.

“The deadliest.” We say that again, too. Of course, it’s only true if we ignore other horrors, other massacres whose blood is still dried on our hands. But even if we add some qualifiers, I wish we’d stop saying “the deadliest.” Every bullet that invades a fleshly home, that kicks down the doors of skin to stop a heart and break countless more. Every sacrifice to this false God is the deadliest for someone,
some family,
some child,
some friend.

The deadliest, the deadliest. Who cares about the number when the blood is still drying on the pavement? That day, whatever day it was, whether children, or Bible-studying elders, or concertgoers, that day the clocks stopped for someone for whom that day will always be the deadliest.

The deadliest. I react to that.

And then I wait.

And I don’t usually have to wait long. To be informed by some “source” or another that --
Since this killer was white
And a male
And we can find no way to blame his violence on people we are killing in much larger numbers than this latest massacre --
he must be insane.

"Mentally ill," they say, as if using medical language makes the insinuation feel less like a knife in my already twisted gut.

And I breathe in sharply. And the tension rises in my chest. And I let myself feel the hurt in my body. In my bones where, I imagine, I can still feel my sickness, even though it hurts me less right now, scares me less. Just for a moment. Just for a moment.

Hold the silence.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Breathe in.

I have a mental illness. That's something you likely know, if you've been on this page before. If not, that's ok, I'll name it again. I have bipolar disorder. Type II, if you're into those kind of details. This does not make me statistically more likely to commit a violent act than anyone else (and not just because I'm an aspiring pacifist). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people with serious mental illnesses. The same source reports that people with severe mental illness are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than other folks. Here's the link, if you're curious. And yet, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins, more than one out of two articles on popular news sites that mention mental illness also mention violence, fueling (and being fueled by) a public perception that mental illness correlates with violence. I've seen this correlation play out personally: at my seminary, after students pushed the administration to provide more resources related to mental health and mental illness, one of the first responses of the administration was to provide training for RAs on dealing with someone with a mental illness who, you guessed it, was acting violently. Despite the inaccuracy of this perception, and its stigmatizing nature, it's proven to have a lot of staying power.

There's a few important clarifications to make about this general information. One is just that there's really not one thing called "mental illness" -- there's a bunch of different diagnoses, which in turn are based on a bunch of different presenting symptoms. In my book, which is coming out soon, I write about diagnoses as stories we tell to make sense of human experiences, an idea some people might be surprised to learn I got from one of my psychiatrists. But anyway. Some of these particular diagnoses do include as particular symptoms feelings or urges or compulsions toward violence. This is really important to acknowledge, because these types of feelings can be super scary, and silence and stigma around them can keep people from seeking help.

When I admitted myself into the hospital back in 2011, I was asked several times during the admissions process if I felt like I wanted to hurt myself (I most certainly did, which is why I was there) and if I wanted to hurt anyone else (I did not, though I made a snarky remark about my internet service provider). Those questions are standard because mental health struggles can sometimes include these kind of thoughts. In my case, these compulsions were (and are, though now I've got much better coping tools) directed toward myself. That's not the case for everyone. These kind of urges and compulsions are very scary for people. They're called "intrusive thoughts" because that's just what they do: intrude, invade even, a mind that does not want them there. If you or someone you know is having scary, intrusive thoughts like that, reach out for help. There are a few resources in the sidebar; you can always email me if you need more. 

But having intrusive thoughts is not the same thing as going out and buying dozens of firearms and then meticulously planning a mass shooting. And while some mass shootings have been carried out by people with mental illnesses, since mental illness is actually relatively common in the general population (about 1 in 5 people have some form of diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lifetime), the number isn't really statistically significant.

Do you know what is statistically significant in these cases?

White men with guns. That's what's statistically significant.

We'll get back to that.

Another important clarification I want to make here involves a sort of instinct or gut feeling that people have when such a shooting occurs, which is articulated sort of like this: "Whether or not this person had some sort of diagnosis or not, surely a mentally healthy person would not do something like this?" There's a certain logic to this--shouldn't being willing to shoot hundreds of people in and of itself constitute some sort of unhealthy mindset?

There are problems with this reasoning. For one thing, it's a circular argument: if you define "willing to commit violence" as a mental health problem, then ta-da, every act of violence is committed by someone with a mental health problem. The premise supports itself. It's begging the question.

More important than that, though, the actual effect such reasoning has is to (a) stigmatize those with mental illness, (b) give us an easy out from having difficult conversations about guns, (c) dodge all the other issues involved such as toxic masculinity and white supremacy, all while (d) not actually helping people with mental health issues, because -- and this is important -- if we only bring up the brokenness of this country's mental health care system after a shooting, we make zero progress and just reinforce the stigma that prevents us from making progress in the first place. 

Image from "Mind Your Mind"

But -- and here's the clarification, which gets us, I think, closer to the crux of the matter -- there's some wisdom in wanting to name mass violence as a mentally (and emotionally and spiritually, not to mention physically) unhealthy thing. If we want to talk about violence as form of illness, a form of dis-ease, that's fine. Let's talk about it. It's just that mental illness, which deals with an individual's struggle with experiences that prevent them from functioning the way they want to function, is exactly the wrong category for such a naming. Rather, violence represents a systemic un-health, an interaction between an individual and larger forces that are harmful, that are in-and-of-themselves violent. Paul called them "the powers and principalities."

Such unhealthy systems do very much impact our health, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. But that doesn't mean they can be diagnosed by pathologizing an individual's violent actions.

Mental illness isn't violence. But violence might well be an illness, and a systemic one at that. We've got some very sick systems that we're operating in and amongst, and perhaps they are indeed in need of diagnoses. 


Part II of this post will look at a systems perspective and examine some of the systems that are at play in 'diagnosing' violence.