I do not remember exactly when I discovered and read for the first time the letter he wrote while jailed in Birmingham, Alabama on the obscenely ridiculous charge of parading without a permit. The truth was he had been a participant in a non-violent demonstration against segregation; a privilege he was guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States under the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and protest.
As I write this, it has been 52 years to the day since King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in response to criticism levied against him by 8 prominent, white, clergymen from the South. The letter; almost poetic, almost apostolic, is a scathing lament against the heinous moral crime of institutionalized racism and the overt practice and complicit tolerance of it on the part of the citizens of this country and the Church.
To anyone who has even the slightest claim to literacy, it is impossible to read King’s letter and not marvel at; even envy, the power and the passion of King as he made heard the voice of righteousness on behalf of those who had few other defenders. Re-reading it for the umpteenth time, I could not help but wonder how much longer the horrifically, un-Holy oppression might have continued had it not been for that singular voice that would not remain silent.
The injustice King fought against has not been totally eradicated but he would no doubt be pleased with the progress that has been made. Though they are not even remotely comparable to King, the truth is the cause of racial equality has a great many advocates in this day and age; among them the sitting President of the United States. There remain however, groups of people in our country and in our world to whom alienation and ill treatment are still the order of the day. Groups that have no champion to publicly and eloquently defend their cause. Groups that do not represent vast sums of money nor great blocks of votes; virtually guaranteeing that the secular world will never, on its own, take up their fight to any meaningful degree. Of these, there is no group more easily nor more often ignored than the mentally ill.
Mental illness is pandemic in our country and around the world. A 2013 study by the National Institute of Mental Health indicated that one in 4 adults suffer from some form of mental illness. One in 4! That is approximately 61.5 million people in the United States alone. Let me put that in perspective for you. Prior to 1955, there existed a disease so sinister that the mere mention of its name struck terror in the collective heart of the nation. When polio came to town, swimming pools closed, movie theaters were shut down, the doors to schools and public buildings were locked tight. One year a college football team cancelled an entire season out of fear of the dread disease. When Dr. Jonas Salk finally developed the first effective cure for the disease, he was literally hailed as a national hero. The worst year of the polio epidemic was 1952. In that year there were approximately 58,000 cases of polio reported. Of those, 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with some form of permanently disabling paralysis.
As a boy, I witnessed the hideous after effects of the debilitating disease in a man that attended the church where my Father was then Pastor. I vividly remember his bent, disfigured leg and the specialized shoe and cane he needed to even sustain the limp that allowed him his most meager form of mobility. I can still remember the strained expression on his face that gave away the difficulty with which he took every painful step of his life. I think I can say with a great degree of confidence that to that man and the people who loved him, polio was not an insignificant disease, but when the number of its victims is measured against those of mental illness, polio was essentially meaningless. If 61.5 Million people had been stricken with polio in this country, I am not certain there is any force on earth that could have contained the hysteria.
Considering the sheer number of people suffering from mental illness, the disease should be the priority of every medical research facility on the planet. Tens of millions of dollars in public and private funding should be set aside every year to assist medical professionals in their efforts to understand the causes of and the treatments for mental diseases and disorders. Congress should hold hearings on the horrendous quality of life many of the mentally ill are forced to endure and the public itself should be outraged by their plight.
The unfortunate reality is none of that is likely to ever happen. The truth is, the world prefers to turn a blind eye to the mentally ill and the mentally ill themselves make it easy to do so. We have so thoroughly stigmatized mental illness, those living with the disease are often so ashamed of their legitimate affliction they choose to suffer in silence and isolation rather than endure being ostracized by a callous and uncaring public.
In their effort to alleviate their intense emotional pain; a pain every bit as real as any physical pain, a large percentage of those with mental disorders self medicate with drugs and alcohol; exacerbating their already serious difficulty with substance abuse and more often than not, addiction. Those addictions often lead to crime and other bad behavior. They get arrested. They go to prison. Prosecutors declare victory, calling them thieves or drug dealers; sometimes worse, but in truth they are just ill.
As of 2013, there were approximately 356,000 men and women with known severe mental illnesses imprisoned in the United States and there are many, many more than that when we add those with mental diseases not considered to be severe. At the same time, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 receiving treatment in state mental health facilities. Now think about that. There are ten times more mentally ill people in prison than there are in treatment facilities. We cannot even envision the outcry if say, starting tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM, we stopped treating 90% of all infants in neo-natal care facilities and instead locked them away in institutions where their condition not only goes untended but is allowed to worsen until it eventually claims their young and guiltless lives. The mere thought of it is so preposterous it does not merit consideration, but that is exactly what we do with the mentally ill. Do the parents of the mentally ill love their children any less than the parents of babies that require neo-natal care? Are the lives of the mentally ill any less valuable than the lives of an infant born far too soon?
Let there be no confusion, people die from mental illness. The coroner may put things like suicide, or homicide, or hypothermia, or over-dose; or any number of other causes on their death certificates, but the cold, hard truth is for too many, the real cause of death was mental illness. Evangelical Christians do not hesitate to assemble in large numbers; rallying at state capitols, marching on Washington in massive, well organized campaigns all conducted in the name of the “right to life”. So fervent is the opposition to the evil of abortion, its opponents want it rendered illegal even in instances of rape and incest. Try to imagine the bewilderment of the God “with Whom there is no partiality” as He looks on and sees His people expend so much effort and so many resources to save those who do not yet exist while they utterly ignore so many that already do.
To be sure, not all of the mentally ill make their way to prison. A lot of them wind up on the streets, bouncing around from crisis center to crisis center. When fortune favors them, they may temporarily get a bed in a homeless shelter where in spite of horrifically over-crowded conditions they know only the alone-ness of abject isolation.
Every Thursday, I teach a Bible class at a treatment center that serves people who have been double diagnosed; that is to say they have both a mental disorder AND a drug or alcohol addiction. Yesterday, a few minutes before my class was to start, I walked out on the facility’s front lawn. The sun was out and the weather was warm. It was a beautiful day and anyone lucky enough to be outside should have been basking in it as I was. Off to my right a woman was sitting on the front steps of the building. At first I just assumed that she was enjoying the gorgeous Spring day, but as I looked closer it became apparent that the woman was quietly weeping. One of the ladies at the center went over and briefly talked to the woman. When she returned to where I was standing, I asked her what the problem was and she told me that the woman had said almost inaudibly “I just can’t talk right now.” She was still weeping there when I went in to my class.
I do not know what that woman thought she needed at that particular time, but I do know what she does need. She needs what all of the mentally ill need. They need champions. Men and women who, seeing the abysmal hopelessness of their condition, do not merely say to them “be warmed and be filled”, but men and women who are willing to again, like King, raise a righteous voice and speak loud and long on behalf of those who “just can’t” speak for themselves.
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul made plain that all God is ever going to do in and for the world, He did through Jesus Christ and all that Jesus Christ is ever going to do in and for the world He will do through the Church. So we are able to know beyond any doubt that it is futile for us, as Christians, to sit back and expect that any meaningful, lasting good in behalf of any cause will ever be brought to pass unless it is born of the Church and the Lord Jesus Christ. The champions that will ultimately share the triumph over the foe of mental illness will come from the Church. Men and women who themselves comprehending their own inability, will recognize like Jeremiah before them, that every genuine and enduring victory, as it always has, comes only at the hands of the “dread Champion” of the Church that bears His name.
It was from that Church that Martin Luther King came and his cause was righteous. King was angered, and rightly so, that a country that held as one of its foundational premises the concept that “all men are created equal” could openly and publicly deny the African-American even the most basic of human dignities. It weighed heavy on King and though he never understood it and never accepted it, it was the indifference of the Church; the people of God, that genuinely broke his heart.
In his letter, King wrote of the “South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward” but to a man who had seen elderly African-American woman have police dogs set upon them, young African-American boys and girls beaten and brutalized by heavily armed white police officers; and all of this in full view of the Church, he confessed to his readers that he “found himself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”” A half-century later with the face of the Church still flushed red with the shame and embarrassment of our indifference to the systemic racism that most assuredly enraged the God worshipped inside those Southern churches, we cannot allow ourselves to give cause for anyone or any group of people to ever again pose King’s cutting questions. God did deliver African-Americans through the Church but let us not lose sight of the fact that He also delivered them in spite of the Church.
Just as God would not tolerate forever the deplorable living conditions to which African-Americans were so long subjected, neither will He tolerate them for the mentally ill. God is FOR the mentally ill. God is just and He actively opposes injustice; wherever it may be.
Sadly, just as the Church at large failed African-Americans, so the Church at large fails the mentally ill today. There is no question that the Church is not in position to render the medical care necessary to treat mental illness, but it is only the Church that can offer the eternal hope of the message of the Lord Jesus Christ and it has a sacred and binding obligation to do so. Unfortunately, too often the Church puts the onus on the mentally ill who come to it for help, as if their disease were an indicator of some deeper spiritual problem. Or as if some sin or some failure to pray, or some equally as moronic a notion lies at the root of their legitimate illness.
Make no mistake about it, the mentally ill nor anyone else is ever in the position of being forced to “audition”, beg, or qualify for the right to enter the Lord’s Church. No, ALL are welcome in the Lord’s House, and when anyone finds their way to that House, wherever it may be, the Lord’s expectation is that they be welcomed and loved and served and taught and encouraged and supported and made disciples. And if that were not enough, the Lord also expects that the mentally ill be given the opportunity to themselves serve. In the Church. His Church.
There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of mentally ill Christians. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “we are His workmanship”, he meant ALL Christians; including the mentally ill. That word translated “workmanship” is the same word Paul used in Romans 1:20. His point was that the “Divine nature of what has been made” was of such quality, such inimitable perfection that even those who had no prior knowledge of Him, had cause to know of His existence by virtue of His creation alone. When Paul used the term in Ephesians, the context is essentially the same. A perfect creation, as if a Master artisan had painstakingly fashioned it according to precise specifications void of even the slightest flaw, “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand”. The mentally ill are not only God’s Divine creation, but He created them for a purpose and that purpose is “good works”; works which He intends for them to perform under the banner of His Church. It is a verse of great clarity and allows individual churches to accurately assess themselves. Since we know that one in four adults suffers from some diagnosable mental disorder, if a church does not have some sort of a ministry to benefit the mentally ill or does not have mentally challenged individuals serving in some capacity, then that church is not meeting the full expectation of the Lord.
Though it has a long way to go, I do believe the Church has begun the process of correcting its failures where the mentally ill are concerned. Slowly but surely society in general and the Church along with it are becoming better educated about mental illness and there is a growing awareness of the nature and extent of the despicable disease.
Near the close of his letter, King wrote almost prophetically, “We will win our freedom because the eternal will of God (is) embodied in our echoing demands.” He could not have been more correct, and I think he knew that. That same eternal will of that same God is equally as embodied in the cause of the mentally ill.
It was a long time ago, when after 430 years of oppression and bondage, the voice of the God of Heaven spoke to the champion of the Hebrews from a burning bush in the backside of the desert. Since that time, despotic leaders still commit atrocities against their people. The powerful still exploit the weak. Evil still works against good. Groups with little influence, like the mentally ill still suffer injustice and neglect. Though it may sometimes seem like it, the One who spoke through that ancient bush has not gone silent and the word He speaks to the mentally ill today is the same irrevocable word that He first spoke to Moses and has spoken to the suffering and the abused and the forgotten and the helpless and the hopeless through all the ages, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people and I have given heed to their cry, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them.”
The Lord would have very much preferred it if every white Christian in the country had stood alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in his fight for racial equality, but the Lord’s strength is not limited and He certainly did not need the white Church to achieve His purpose. That same thing is true when it comes to the mentally ill. The Lord would like it if hundreds of thousands would stand up and be counted as champions of the mentally ill, but He is well able to deliver them with just one.
Read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” @ http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0