The Disease That Shuns

Image result for Jesus heals leprosyAs I sat listening to our pastor describe the plight of people with leprosy during Bible times, I began to listen more intently. Not that I did not know already from my own studies, but in that moment there was an epiphany. What I heard about the person with leprosy in the first century had an uncanny similarity with what I have experienced as a person with a mental illness in the 21st century.

A person with leprosy – which included far more skin diseases than what the modern “Hansen’s Disease” diagnoses, together with mold on clothing and in houses – was immediately cast out of the community. There was no quarantine period or time given to put personal or business affairs in order. Instantly the person was told to leave his home, family, job, and city. He was condemned to live alone or in the company of people who had the same illness as he. Not permitted to live in any walled city – the equivalent to our metropolitan cities – and outside any town or village, he was left to live in a separate dwelling, in caves, or in the open air. The religious orders of the day banished him from the temple or synagogue and it was often thought of as punishment from God. In his Middle Eastern culture, a greeting involved an embrace and a kiss, but no one was allowed to touch him nor could he touch anyone because he was “unclean.” This is why it is sometimes referred to as the disease that shuns. The day that he was told that he had leprosy EVERYTHING changed.

Yes, I understand that most people with a severe mental illness do not experience extreme measures, but notice the similarities. As a person with a severe, recurrent major depressive disorder, I isolated myself at first. I did not want to be around people. That demands energy and I had none to give. But, as my illness progressed people did not want to be around me. After all, who wants to be around a person with depression? What fun is in that?

People with mental illness – for more reasons other than that they are not always the life of the party – are often shunned because people do not understand mental illness and are poorly prepared by our society to communicate with people who are so afflicted. Still others think it is “all in your head” – which is ironic since that is exactly where the problem lies. And, there are still ill informed or misinformed religious leaders that proclaim and congregants who believe that it is all a punishment from God for sins we have committed. We are “plagued” and therefore, isolated. It can be a lonely existence at times.

I experienced the loss of my home, going homeless a few times. After 34 years of marriage, my wife abandoned me because she could no longer deal with the effects or extent of my illness. Two of my children turned their backs on me for the same reason. One job discharged me for my inability to carry out my assignments. Another demoted me twice until I gave up and quit. Yet another broke my heart when I resigned because I recognized that I could never again carry out the responsibilities of that position. I reinvented myself twice and am now trying to do it again as a writer. My story is an all too common scenario among we who have a severe mental illness. Sometimes we are stripped of our rights and given a guardian or assigned a conservator to look out for our affairs. Others of us are sent to a mental facility to live out our lives, out of the sight of the community at large, or allocated a spot in the world where we will not be a bother. We, too, lose home, family, job, and city.

A man with leprosy in the first century had to proclaim to all his disease. Whenever people approached him or he approached people, he had to cry out in a loud voice, “Unclean, unclean!” He had to show the world his disease by rending his outer garment, keeping his hair unkempt or be bald with his head uncovered. His beard and upper lip was to be covered by his mantle when in the presence of people without leprosy. Around others he appeared to be in a constant state of mourning as if wailing about his impending death.

Many of us with mental illness understand the posture of such a man. Although not required, we sometimes appear unkempt and sloppily dressed. It is because the task that calls us into public requires a focused effort and we cannot be distracted with peripheral things. But, often we are put into that box of “publicly proclaimed separation” by society.

When I was a boy, a diagnosis of cancer was almost always a death sentence. You did not want to be around that dying person; there was an associated fear that hovered over them. If you were, you did not know what to say or what to talk about. One rule was clear though; never say the word “cancer” to or near them. They were going to die; the stench of death reeked from every pore of their body and we were told to be silent about it. Thank God, times have changed for the cancer patient. My doctor told me I had cancer in 2015; I hardly blinked an eye, took my treatments, and have been cancer-free for 18 months. Many others tell the same story.

Today, mental illness is the cancer of yesteryear. We do not talk about it in polite society. None of us volunteer our diagnosis to others and they do not ask. And, it would be totally uncouth to actually have a conversation with someone about their illness. We have a forever disease whose symptoms can be treated, but whose cause is incurable. People fear us because they do not understand us or the nature of our illness.

Jesus did not follow the first century rules concerning leprosy. He touched them, which as I mentioned above included an embrace and kiss. These banished people flocked to Jesus in large numbers because He welcomed them and was not embarrassed or afraid to be with them. He was not put off by the missing fingers, toes, noses, and ears that were often a result of their disease or the brilliant white spots that threatened to destroy their ethnic identity. In multiple instances throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus had compassion on these ostracized people, healed them, and restored them to a life free from shunning.

Although I am no Jesus (far from it), I have great compassion for we that struggle with mental illness. One of the reasons I am so open about my depressive disorder and the effects it has had on my life is to help someone else feel not so lonely and misunderstood. Another reason is to educate others about our disease. You and I have intrinsic value, dignity, and worth. We are not our disease. There is hope. We who suffer and society at large are redeemable. Let us carry that message to the masses.

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Redemption, Part III

Let me recap. God called for the redemption of many things in the Bible, but the chief among these was the redemption of humankind through the saving work of Jesus Christ in His life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. The Church, too, has practiced the redemption of things and humankind from service for the cause of sin to service for the cause of Christ. Furthermore, God provides for and the Church practices the restoration of fallen Christians.

Part II concluded with the following statement, “God welcomes the fallen Christian who immediately repents of his/her sin and restores him/her to fellowship with Christ and standing in the Kingdom of God. But, the Church? . . . Not so much.” Perhaps that was a far too sweeping condemnation of the Church. It is likely more accurate to say that some in the body of Christ are unwelcoming to the fallen Christian who immediately repents. Most of the time this happens informally and generally is not a behavior common to all believers of a community.

In the interest of full disclosure I am among the fallen Christians who repented and was restored to standing with God. I had a mental breakdown so severe that I ended up with legal issues. Also, because of my mental state, I lost my wife to divorce and my ministerial credentials. (More about that in another post) What confounds me is the loss of fellowship I had with some believers. A man in high position in a church organization professed that I was his best friend, but he has not spoken to me in nearly five years and turned away my gesture to him to reconnect. Another, who has literally known me for all his life, totally shuns me despite my repeated confessions of sorrow and attempts to reestablish fellowship. I turned to a former pastor for help. Instead of helping he told me that I did not understand the kind of damage I had done and that those shunning me were justified in their behavior. I walked away stunned. God, who was the most aggrieved, forgave me, but some believers refused to give me their forgiveness.

But, what about church discipline, shunning, and restoration, you may ask. Church discipline is enjoined by God in the scriptures through the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 and Paul in I Corinthians 5:11-13 and Titus 3:9-11. Paul gives a list of egregious sins as an example of what qualifies for church discipline – sexual immorality, covetousness, idolatry, revilers (to verbally attack or abuse someone), drunkards, extortionists (robbers), and divisive people (those who cause dissensions). In each case the prescription for the unrepentant person is ultimately loss of Christian fellowship and standing with the church. Paul goes so far as to say that we are not to have a meal with the unrepentant Christian (a likely reference to the Agape meal).

When discipline is necessary, it is to be done cautiously, purposely, and gently (Galatians 6:1). II Thessalonians 3:15 states we are to admonish the fallen as a “brother.” And, James 5:19-20 clearly defines the goal of discipline as restoration; not punishment, shaming, or shunning.

But, that is for the unrepentant, the one persistent in his/her known and voluntary sin. What of the repentant who are guilty of one of the sins listed above? Are they not to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ? Are they not to be restored to standing with God and fellowship with believers? Far too often this is not the case. There is within some the desire to continue punishing the fallen like a criminal who is released from serving time, but finds that housing, education, career, and employment doors are closed. This has been called “stealth shunning” and is the purposeful disengagement from a person by another.

If this was the policy of God would we have a David after Bathsheba and Uriah? Peter after denying?  or Thomas after doubting? This is not to say there are no consequences for sin for the early repenter. David lost children to death and murder and there was intrigue in his kingdom. Peter suffered the convicting memory of Jesus’ words at the crow of the rooster, bitter shame at the meeting of his eyes with Jesus’ eyes, and the temporary loss of confidence in his ability to fulfill the calling of Jesus to be an apostle.

The Roman Catholic Church practiced well the restoration of fellowship and standing with God to priests who had fallen into sexual sin. (I am drawing a distinction here between standing with God as a redeemed child of God and standing with the church as an office holder.) Where they erred was restoring standing with the church without consequences. Some sins disqualify a person from holding an office in the church. An immoral minister should be defrocked, at least for a few years, if not for a lifetime.

A new couple came into our church from another community. They were known to me prior to their coming that Sunday morning. He had moved to the community trying to escape the consequences of his past sin. No one in the congregation knew that he had been fired from two previous jobs for dipping into the till. He was repentant and I told no one. After I accepted the call of another church I held a private meeting with the head elder of the church. For the first time I told another individual in the church about this man and encouraged him to protect this man from what was obviously a besetting sin by never allowing him to handle any church finances or resources. Sin has its consequences and both the church and the repentant Christian need to be saved from harm.

The bottom line is: fellowship ought never to be denied the repentant sinner. Jay Adams states forgiveness must be extended to the fallen Christian who repents. (See Ephesians 4:32) He concludes, “Shunning, as defined as a refusal to speak to someone or a total severing of all ties, goes beyond what the Bible advocates.”  Amen!