“Stigma ties…”

One of the cleverest titles I’ve ever seen in print was for a Guardian Society article in 2002 entitled “Stigma ties.” I was in an extremely invidious position as brother to a sister who suffered from multiple (and severe) physical and mental health problems, but she could not tell anyone and neither could I.

Or rather, that was the pressure that we found ourselves under in our family circle. As fully-paid-up members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK, the (sad) reality is that although in principle, theology and constitution this denomination has absolutely nothing to do the the ‘Black Majority Church,’ we might as well be part of the BMC movement – for no other reason than the fact that the overwhelming majority of our church members are from one of: a) the West Indies; b) the African continent; c) the so-called ‘black diaspora’ (the comprehensive failure of our mission to Anglo-European people is not a matter for this particular blog).

Being in a church community that consisted almost entirely of black people, we had been raised with what I would now describe as an almost-pathological (yes, the irony is quite deliberate) fear of mental illness, and the stigmatisation was (and still is) so great that for the sake of our parents – who did the best job that they knew to do as parents, no dispute there – my sister and I both operated under the assumption that her mental illness in particular was something that could not bring glory to God, and so we couldn’t let anyone know about it. An intense prayer sequence was started by my mother with complete healing being the only answer she would accept from God.

This article forced me to confront that fact that all of the major problems of the wider black community here in Britain were in fact present in the church. Problem: as Christians, were we not supposed to have been changed for the better by our acceptance of the gospel? How could people say that they were followers of Jesus and behave in such unloving ways? My poor sister wondered just as I did, but our church is (still) largely not open to certain questions, and she wasn’t ready to think outside the box.

So I had to think on my own.

I then took the decision to tell a tiny number of my best friends that my sister was a mental health service user (ironically, I didn’t tell them – or anyone else – about her physical ailments). Here’s the bad news for my church community: only one of those friends was black, and he was a Christian from a completely different denomination. All the rest were white and secular (bar one Jewish guy). To their eternal credit, they all knew that I’d taken a massive leap out of my comfort zone to tell them and handled the vibe with considerable aplomb. To discover that there were people who would not run away from friendships just because you had those kinds of “stigma ties” – that was profoundly liberating.

It is heartbreaking that despite the story of Job, so many Christians have not understood that God is so much more than we have made Him out to be. He is not only glorified in “success” – He can be glorified as we handle pain and suffering with dignity and grace.

Although I reached a point when I decided that one day I’d study theology, I never once expected to become a fully-fledged theologian. But I have a very important point to make now: there is a great deal of correlation between failed religious expectations and either a) mental health breakdown; b) rejection of Christian faith. This is a huge problem for both psychiatry and clinical psychology. But no coherent Christian response to these challenges can begin without both an interrogation of Christian theology itself AND of the epistemological foundations that govern the understanding and dissemination of this theology.

In this context, “stigma ties” just got a whole lot bigger. The way Christians have all-too-frequently carried on, the gospel is presented as a lifestyle choice which will fix all of your problems. And if your problems continue, you clearly do not have enough faith. So if – as a Christian – your life falls apart, the first people to judge you will be – that’s right – the church members! And if non-church members don’t judge you – what does your theology say about that, eh?!

These are all reasons why people take a lot at church communities and decide not to become Christians. I have never had more sympathy for these decisions where they are taken rationally and thoughtfully, but the faith really does have more to offer than much of what the Church at large presents to the world.

To become a very serious student of theology was not to prepare for a teaching ministry. It was to help me in my own quest for sanity and honesty. It is not nice to have to type these words, but until – at the age of 29 – I embarked upon doctoral studies in theology (and under the strangest of circumstances), I had bee forced to put my deepest questions into a box and hide the key. As certain folks (including in my family) used to say: “Young man, converted people don’t ask such questions.”

[For the Christians reading this: this statement is a grotesque abuse of John 16:23a in much the same way as the anti-philosophy brigade abuses Colossians 2:8. ‘Conservative’ Christians frequently accuse ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ of dishonest readings of Scripture, but their blindness, myopia and anti-intellecuallism is a cancer in its own right.]

My theological ministry has not yet worked in the way that I envisaged, but I now know that what I wanted specifically was literally impossible. But the study of this discipline has saved my life and changed me from the inside out. In these last eight years that have passed I learned so much more about what Christian faith really means and who God really is, and when my sister eventually passed away, the Holy Spirit was a true Comforter to me – and remains still.

It is precisely because of God’s work through the Holy Spirit in my life that I have forsaken a life that was originally dedicated to music, then to theology and music – for a life which will now encompass mental health as well (so that’s all three of those things). My parents took the decision that we would not talk about my sister’s death to any but the smallest number of people closest to us, all of whom had known my sister (the argument went like this: “these people had no interest in her life; why are they interested in her death?”). I joined them in this decision, and the truth is that this decision has been vindicated. Not only that, but I no longer ask people about the manner in which others have died. It’s not important unless they decide it is important to know. At times, I would have preferred to be transparent about everything, but I have become very clear on the fact that while truthfulness is as important as importance itself, this sort of societally-constructed virtue of transparency is in fact a pseudo-virtue. More people across every continuum of race/society/religious faith have become unnecessarily vulnerable to those who are simply not a high enough grade of worthwhile human being to be vulnerable to than would ever be ideal. And yes, I really did say that! What one thinker has termed as ‘judicious self-disclosure’ has never been more important.

I have had to jettison my mother’s emotively-driven theology on more grounds than I ever imagined possible. I have had to abandon my father’s ‘safety-first’ theology in ways that have not been enjoyable for either of us. As I have said elsewhere, I am a Seventh-Day Adventist:

  1. …because of my parents;
  2. …IN SPITE of my parents.

And now, I would like to do what I can to help people from all backgrounds – not just those who share my faith convictions – to be able to live better with whatever mental health challenges they face. I now know that I have my own, so I am right there with those who suffer. I do not intend to force my faith onto anyone, but it is part of the fabric of my existence and without it, I would not be here and in my ‘right mind.’ Thirteen years have passed since the above-mentioned article was published. Seven have passed since my sister died. My parents have not yet healed and in this regard our church has been of precious little help to either of them – as well as me.

It is as well that God is bigger than the Church and can be found in the pages of Scripture for Himself. But some wonderful people from all faiths and none are doing wonderful work trying to help people who don’t have the gift of positive cognitive functionality and who are hurting terribly because of these ‘stigma ties.’

I cannot wait to get trained so that I can become part of the solution.

Thank you for taking the time to come on this journey with me today. It means more than you know.