All Jangled and Out of Sorts: Christians and the Mentally Ill

Editor's Note: This is part three in a series of theological reflections following the Arizona shootings. Previous posts include: Christians and Guns and Giving Up Hate Speech Cold-Turkey.

Greg GarrettJared Loughner, the accused shooter in the Tucson, Arizona shootings, was clearly a deeply disturbed person. He said crazy things in college classrooms, posted wild ravings on the Internet, and had five separate run-ins with the Pima Community College police. While, as my boys are fond of reminding me, I am not that kind of doctor, if Mr. Loughner is guilty of the crimes of which he is charged, whether or not his attorney uses an insanity defense, there seems little question to me that he is mentally ill.

This essay is not intended as a defense of Mr. Loughner, nor as any kind of excuse for his alleged actions, which are reprehensible. But it is intended as an indictment of our culture, and as an exploration of how Christians might respond to the problem of mental illness.

Lots of Americans at one time or another will suffer from mental illness. I am one of them, and have written at length about my struggles with chronic serious depression. During whole years of my life, I was barely in control of my emotions and actions, and I hurt those around me—and myself—in ways that a sane person doesn't. I came to the brink of suicide on more than one occasion, and the fact that I am still alive is miraculous; it is an act of God I cannot explain and do not pretend I deserve.

I was fortunate. I worked for a major university with great benefits, and I had excellent medical and psychological care that kept me alive long enough for the spiritual cure I needed to take hold. But not everyone is so fortunate.

Studies suggest that as many as a quarter of Americans will suffer from some sort of mental illness in their lifetimes, although how they are treated will vary widely. Even those of us who seem to be a danger to ourselves or to others may not receive medical treatment; it was easier, for example, to expel Jared Loughner from college than it was to compel him to receive medical treatment.  For those mentally ill who are homeless or poor, the chances that, even if they seek it, they will receive effective care—even where it is legally mandated—are slim to none, particularly as states like Arizona slash budgets.

The scriptures suggest a possible approach to mental illness that is Christ-centered, because Jesus did have a response to those who were all jangled and out of sorts. Of those healing and feeding actions that Jesus performs in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), the most dramatic is the exorcism of demons—Jesus' love and care for those who, because they were out of control, were a danger to themselves or others.

Now, my personal reading of these scriptures is that "demonic possession," as wonderfully dramatic as it seems, was a pre-medical society's way of understanding the kind of self-destructive behavior and alienation from self and community that mental illness causes, of understanding a person's radical change in the face of physical or emotional problems. There seems some warrant for this; the demonic possession related in Matthew 17, for example, uses the Greek word for "moonstruck" or "epileptic." The boy had seizures and fell into the fire or into the water; when Jesus casts the demon out, the Greek tells us that the boy is "cured," or "healed."

Likewise, although the Gospel of John doesn't show demon possessions and healings as in the synoptics, Jesus himself is accused in John 10 of having a demon that is making him insane. The Greek mainomai in John 10:20 (the same word used when Paul in Acts 26 tells Festus "I am not out of my mind") again suggests a physical malady explained by reference to demonic forces: mainomai means to be unable to think rationally, to be insane, to not be in one's right mind.

In Jesus' ministry, he is constantly engaging those who have been cast off or pushed aside: prostitutes, tax collectors, the lame, the blind, the possessed. And the way Jesus behaves toward those he encounters—including the marginalized who are not in their right minds—is to offer them healing and wholeness. Jesus engages with them, brings them back into concord with their thoughts, and brings them back into communion with their families and friends.