What do we do when a key aspect of our identity is rejected or stigmatized by the faith communities in which we are involved? This can be a challenge with any social identity that may not be embraced or accepted by our communities, whether that identity be our sexual orientation, race, gender, or even mental health status. Caroline Kittle shares from personal experience and argues that the Third Way is a biblical way for embracing all marginalized groups and creating unity within faith communities.
by Caroline Kittle
My experience with mental illness has shown me in a personal way how those with mental illness are stigmatized in our society. Mental illness is often seen as taboo and rarely discussed openly in faith communities. However, Jesus himself dealt personally with this type of marginalization. He confronted this in his teachings in Mark 3:19-30.1 The first part of this passage explains that Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind and the scribes from Jerusalem believed he was spirit possessed (ie. mentally ill).
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)
Stemming from my own experience, reading this brought comfort to me. I felt less alone. I felt understood. Jesus must have experienced first hand the stigma and the taboo that those with mental illness face.
During the time my mental health problems began, I had been disconnected from a faith community for many years. I hadn’t found a faith community that fully embraced all marginalized groups. When one group is harmed by exclusionary practices (like divorced and remarried, women and/or LGBT folks), it makes other marginalized groups more vulnerable to potential exclusion. It makes you wonder, “Am I next?”
In this absence of a supportive faith community, I started to experience a strong sense of God’s holy presence. Unfortunately, my mind put the “pedal to the metal” in a way. I began to experience symptoms of mental illness leading to hospitalization. While there was great comfort in my awareness of God’s presence through this difficult life event, I was not prepared to experience God’s presence so intensely. Most importantly, I was disconnected from a community of people who shared in faith to help me understand it. I can’t help but wonder if that disconnection contributed to the severity of my symptoms.
Study after study has shown that regular involvement in faith communities improves health outcomes.2 One study, “Religious attendance increases survival by improving and maintaining good health behaviors, mental health, and social relationships”, looked at over 2,500 participants for 29 years. This study found, “Those reporting weekly religious attendance in 1965 were more likely to both improve poor health behaviors and maintain good ones by 1994 than were those whose attendance was less or none.”3 Being involved with a community of people can be an important factor to maintaining health for all of us. It is especially important for those who are marginalized in their broader communities.
What do we do when a key aspect of our identity is rejected or stigmatized by the faith communities in which we are involved? This can be a challenge with any social identity that may not be embraced or accepted by our communities, whether that identity be our sexual orientation, race, gender, or even mental health status. In an earlier post, A Feminist Perspective on Third Way, we discussed how stigmatized social identities intersect and that oppression will not end until all forms of oppression end. We need faith communities who work towards ending oppression for all its members. We need united faith communities which work to overcome the exclusion of marginalized groups. We need faith communities that embrace a Third Way. A growing number of faith communities are choosing unity over division when faced with controversial issues of biblical intent. They are willing to err on the side of full inclusion for marginalized members, such as the LGBTQ community, through the Third Way.
As discussed above, the first part of Mark 3:21-30 sets the context of accusations of Jesus being out of his mind or demon possessed. In the last part of the passage, Jesus responds to these accusations. He calls out to those who would marginalize him and in a parable that goes beyond a simple defense of his mental health, he illustrates the importance of unity.
And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Mark 3:23-25)
Here Jesus simultaneously affirms his unity with the Holy Spirit and affirms the importance of unity among groups of people (in kingdoms; in houses).
My reading of Mark 3 showed me that Jesus understood first hand stigma and taboo. When faith communities reject those in the margins, they participate with those who rejected him. Studies show that involvement in faith communities are important for mental health and overall health and longevity. The Third Way gives a biblically based way for these faith communities to embrace marginalized groups and create unity within. For Jesus taught us that a kingdom divided cannot stand.
1. Mark 3:19-30 NRSV “Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
2. Oman, D., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005). Do Religion and Spirituality Influence Health? In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (pp. 435-459). New York: Guilford
3. Strawbridge, W., Shema, S., Cohen, R., Kaplan, G. “Religious attendance increases survival by improving and maintaining good health behaviors, mental health, and social relationships” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 23.1 (2001): p. 68-74