We Need to Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness Every Time There’s a Mass Shooting

53dc9ad853199-fullI haven’t quite figured out how to say what I want to say here.  It’s just not coming out right.  So I’ll start by saying these three things that I think are absolutely true:

First, there is no excuse for the Parkland shooter.  What he did was evil and horrible.

Second, we cannot have a conversation about mass shootings that only looks at mental illness and not at gun availability, gun sales, or our culture that idolizes violence.

And finally, when we talk about mental illness or mental health in these tragic situations, we need to start being more specific.

Because not all mental illness is the same.  And we further stigmatize it when that’s (now) all that we talk about after a mass shooting.

In fact, there are over 200 different classified forms of mental illness.

And every time we have mass shooting in this nation, pundits and politicians and talking heads start pontificating about “mental illness,” as this generic, scary thing lurking in the dark corners of the classroom, of the internet, of the backstreets of America far from where normal, happy, and healthy people live.

And the problem with all of this is that many children (and adults), who would never pick up a gun and never hurt anyone, live with mental illness.  And more and more are being diagnosed with mental illness at an earlier age…using that term (because that’s what it is)…and so they hear all this mess and it heaps loads of shame upon them.

Depression is mental illness.

Bi-polar disorder is mental illness.

ADD and ADHD are forms of mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are forms of mental illness.

Schizophrenia is mental illness.

PTSD is mental illness.

Dementia, even, is mental illness.

The Greek word for “desert” is eremos, which literally means “abandonment.”  And for many people, living with a mental illness already feels a bit like a desert experience, like you’re alone and abandoned and no one understands quite what you’re going through.

And to trumpet this as the cause behind these mass shootings, well, it’s just not the full case, and doing so just intensifies that desert experience for many.  It further stigmatizes an already stigmatized illness.

And if we can’t talk about banning gun sales because not all gun owners and not all guns are the same, then we can’t talk about all mental illness as being the same.

(And don’t even get me started on the phrase “nut job” being in the same sentence as mental illness…which I heard from one politician.)

And today I heard calls for people to report “trouble children,” and news reports continually use the word “loner” when talking about him, and I’m not sure what to do with that.  If more energy was put into befriending and including and lifting up these so-called trouble or loner children, we’d probably be better off.

Sure, we should report any activity, online or otherwise, that fantasizes about mass murders (which this individual did…and authorities knew about).  And of course if a kid is talking about shooting up a place, we need to tell someone (which he did…and the authorities knew about it).

But, if you ask me, instead of looking for so-called loners, look for kids (and adults) with unhealthy idealizations of war, first-player shooting game obsessions (especially if they can talk to others online without parental supervision), unquestioned racism and bigotry, and unaddressed tragedy in the home or in the heart…these are probably more accurate indications of brooding unrest than just being a “loner.”

If you ask me, we should start talking about how we, as a society, have become violence voyeurs.

All of this is more troubling than having “weird kids” being singled out. So let’s not go reporting every kid who is quiet in class, wears black instead of blazing colors, likes to write and read and play role-playing games just yet…

All of my church’s research on youth ministry hammers home that the more adults that are active and involved in a child’s life, the more that child will feel cared for and accepted.  It’s not just peers, and even probably not primarily about peers (though peer-love is necessary), but active adults.

Active adults who can change the narrative of “you’re strange” and “you’re trouble” into the real truths that point out the good qualities of a youth, that reinforce their strength and creativity and courage.

And you want to talk about courage?  Talk to a kid who gets picked on every day at school but yet gets up the next morning and goes anyway.

Look, your parents may have mental illness.  Your pastors may have it. Your children may have it. Your spouse may have it.  You ma have it.  Mental illness is not some thing that people bring into “normal” society.

Mental illness is part of normal society.

There is no excuse for what this individual did. And it is clear he was ill in some way. But we all have to look in the mirror, too.

Our society has to look in the mirror.

And until we can all come to grips with the ways that our society hurts where it should help, alienates when it should alleviate loneliness, and ostracizes our children at the fringes, we’ll just keep stigmatizing mental illness, avoid talking about gun laws, and wait around as one so-called “nut job” after another amazingly reenacts the same scene over and over again.

My Pastoral Note on Las Vegas

<This went out today.  I’ve made no secret that I have no love for guns. That conviction is ever-growing.  Christians need to consider that perhaps, *perhaps,* faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, might call our desire to own hand guns and assault rifles into question…>

Beloved,

imagesAnother act of domestic terrorism has filled the news, filled our heads, and at this writing, hundreds of people who were enjoying life just hours ago are now filling the hospitals and, tragically, over 50 are already confirmed dead.

Our addiction to violence is a disease, and it is a sin.

I refused to tune into the news channels this morning, fearing that the children that live in my house might see the world they’re inheriting.  They’re too young not to know how to be brave in the face of such madness.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m too young.

St. Peter, in one of the moments when he spoke out of love and not fear, responded to Jesus in a time of perplexity, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of abundant life.” (John 6:68)

We don’t go to guns.  We don’t go to violence.  We don’t go to partisan bickering which all just becomes a distraction.  The war of words rages while people die.  Trite moralisms and vapid optimism will not do any of us any good today.  And, when we go to Jesus, he doesn’t offer that.  He offers true solace, he offers us the chance to confess, to forgive, to breathe, to mourn, and to re-center ourselves in peace rather than fear.

But, we must remember that, if we go to Jesus, if we seek refuge under those wings, Jesus will send us back out, too.  It is not enough to pray for the victims of mass shootings, we must pray with our shoes on, prepared to work for justice and an end to this kind of violence, as Jesus calls us to in our baptism.

Walter Brueggemann, a prophet in our own time, has a book of prayers (Prayers for a Privileged People [Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2008]) that I find myself thumbing through when these mass shootings happen.

And, let me be honest: I have looked at it too much in my almost 10 years of ministry.

His prayer/poem “God’s Gift in the Midst of Violence” is one I offer to you here today.  But pray it with your shoes on.

Peace today.

P.S. One immediate thing that you can do is donate blood at your local Red Cross.  Click that link to find where your nearest donation center is. Blood donations will be needed!

 

God’s Gift in the Midst of Violence

The world trembles out of control.

The violence builds,

                Some by terrorism,

                Some by state greed,

                                Dressed up as policy,

                                Violence on every side.

You, in the midst of the out-of-control violence.

                We confess you as steadfast, loyal, reliable,

                But we wonder if you yourself are engaged

                                In brutality

                We confess you to be governor and ruler,

                But we wonder if you manage.

We in the midst of out-of-control violence,

                We in great faith

                We in deep vocational call

                We in our several anxieties.

We—alongside you—in the trembling.

This day we pray for freedom to move

                Beyond fear to caring,

                Beyond self to neighbor,

                Beyond protection to growth.

That we may be a sign of steadfastness,

                That anxiety may not win the day.

You are the one who said, “Do not be anxious.”

And now we submit to you.

“Excavating Fear” or “If You Want Children to be Safer, Don’t Buy Bulletproof Blankets”

I wasn’t going to post about the recenscreen shot 2014-06-10 at 7.30.47 amt school shootings that we’ve endured as a nation these past few weeks, but here I am.

I wasn’t going to post about them because I just don’t think I can anymore.

When I look down at my son, when I drop him off at school, I don’t think of him as in danger, or as a target.

But I guess we’re starting to these days, right?  I mean we’re talking about more armed guards in schools, we’re talking about lock-down procedures and evacuation routes not just for fire, but also for “live-fire” scenarios.

And I guess now we’re talking about bulletproof blankets to cover my baby should someone come shooting up his school.

In Isaiah 11:6-9 we find a vision for a new Earth, and it doesn’t look like like my son huddled under a bulletproof blanket.

And it doesn’t look like my son cowering behind an armed guard with a gun, a teacher with a gun, or even he himself holding a gun.

In that day, “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  In verse 8 it gets even better, “the infant will play near the cobra’s den, and a young child will put it’s hand in the viper’s nest.”

The problem with that day is that we don’t think it’s today.  The problem with that day is that we think the prophet is talking about animals.  And, I guess, in a way he is because he’s talking about the created order, the whole created order, being turned on it’s head.

But primarily, though, the prophet is talking about people.  Humans.  You and me.

And the prophet is talking about creation not living in fear, even in natural fear.  It would be natural for the goat to fear the leopard, the child the viper.  But in the world that has “knowledge of God,” even that kind of fear isn’t needed.

Because God is doing a new thing.

See, here’s the problem I have with armed guards, with armed teachers, with armed citizens, and with something as ridiculous as bulletproof blankets: it buys into the fear.

If the day of the Lord is to eradicate fear, then why do we belabor under the wrong assumption that we must continue to purchase it?  This youth at Reynolds High School was obviously hurting and sick.  I do not believe he was a monster.  You don’t have to be a monster to do monstrous things.

But his parents were law-abiding citizens with a closet full of guns.  Why?  Recreation?  Collection? Sport?

It doesn’t really matter now, because in the end they were saved for a mass shooting.

And the remedy to that, I think and believe, is not to buy more guns, is not to buy more kevlar, is not to arm more people.

The remedy for that is, I think and believe, to take the prophet seriously and believe that today is the day when the world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.  And I don’t take that to mean that everyone is Christian.  I don’t take that to mean that everyone thinks the same things.

The “knowledge of the Lord” is not the ability to recognize God, it is the ability to trust as God trusts.

And how does God trust?  In the Jesus story, God trusts the power of life and resurrection enough not to repay hurt with hurt, but to bathe in love and forgiveness.  I mean, what would it look like if we raised our children not with a closet full of semi-automatic guns and hand guns, even if we teach them to respect guns, but rather with a closet full of the belief that semi-automatic guns aren’t necessary in this world.

They aren’t necessary to have a good time, they aren’t necessary to obliterate targets, they aren’t necessary for common citizens.

They just aren’t necessary.

We need to excavate fear, dig it up like Indiana Jones, and reveal it for what it is: an idol we’re being forced to worship these days.

It’s obvious these people need mental help.  But they also don’t need easy access to weapons.  And I don’t think that’s an either/or situation.  It’s a both/and.

But I really expect the carillon cry on this issue to come from the church, to come from Christians.  I really expect it to come from people who look at Jesus and see someone who didn’t repay evil with evil. I really expect it to come from people who hear stories every damn week about the Jesus who healed the sick, even the mentally sick.  We need to provide that care.  And I really expect it from people who every year hear the story of how Jesus told Peter to put his sword away. “The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword…”

I really expect it to come from those who would wonder what it means to hold a weapon with no other purpose in the world than for the killing of another human being, a being created out of love by the God who creates all things for joy and good. Licensed police officers, military officers, they all consider that question…at least, I hope they do if they take their work seriously.  We, as a society, have called them to that office, and it’s not one to be taken lightly.

Certainly not one to be taken “recreationally.”  We have licensed law enforcement, and give them licenses, for a reason.  Part of that reason is, I think, because they take it seriously enough to honor the responsibility.  I don’t think the average citizen does, and we’ve shown that by having these “open carry” situations throughout the country now…that, in and of itself, is a sign of mental health issues, I think.

And look, with all this talk, I’m not even talking primarily about gun control.  Gun control has not worked well in Chicago.  I’m all for it, but do I think it will save my baby?  No.  This is a complex issue.  But the church doesn’t just need to condemn the shooting, they need to condemn the situations that led up to the shooting: mental health, easy access to semi-automatic weapons…

And we need to condemn the fact that too many of the “faithful” in this world don’t trust that the Earth can be full of the knowledge of the Lord if they would just live into it.

I’m talking about changing the hearts and minds of this world to realize that the day of the Lord is today.

And tomorrow.

And it was yesterday…we just didn’t trust it enough to live into it.

“Beating Swords into Plowshares” or “Yes, I Want To Take Your Guns”

Image

I should be honest.  I don’t want all of your guns taken away.  You can keep your hunting rifles and shot guns; guns you use for sport.

And I know that puts me at odds with some people, even people within my own congregation.

But I want to take away your handguns.  And I want to take away your assault rifles.  And I want to take away your high capacity clips*.  And I want to take away your ability to sell your guns to anyone you want.

I do; I have to be honest, I do.  And there are reasons.

The number one reason is because I’m about to have a baby. And in 2012 we had over 500 homicides in Chicago.  In the past month alone we’ve had half a dozen shootings in my neighborhood, most before 10pm.

I walk to Starbucks before 10pm.  I walk to the gym before 10pm.  I walk to the 7-11 before 10pm.  And when we have a baby, we’ll walk with the baby.

And I want your guns gone because I want my baby to live, along with everyone else who wants an ice cream fix at 9pm.

And I know there are gun safety classes.  And I know there are locks for gun cases, and safe handling procedures.

I get that.  But I also get that we could offer tank-driving courses…it doesn’t mean I’d like for just anyone to be able to buy a tank.

And I understand that we’re having a discussion about rights, and about ownership, and about the freedom to do what one pleases.

But my baby has a right to live.  So does yours. They have a right to walk down the street.  And I’m not worried about you shooting my baby; that doesn’t worry me.  I’m worried about that other person shooting my baby.  With your gun.

That worries me.

And I have to be honest, I’m not sure how a Christian can interpret Isaiah 2:4 without questioning ownership of weapons that can cause death on a massive scale, which I think we can recognize as war:

God shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

The prophet is talking about nation rising up against nation; I see that.  But when you live in Uptown…

…or Kenwood…

…or Albany Park…

…or Inglewood…

…or any place you find dividing lines…

…people choose their nation.  War happens.

And they defend their nation.  Sometimes with your gun.

Or when we have people who have an imbalance in their brain, or who have unending despair to the point of delusion, or who become paranoid to the point of insanity, or who are just plain assholes with nothing to lose, they become a nation of one against the world.

And they defend their nation.  Sometimes with your gun.

And despite what the arguments might claim, I cannot conceive of how more guns make us safer.  I want teachers to teach, not to shoot.  I want playground attendants to watch the monkey bars, not scope out targets.

I want tools to fit the situation.  Teachers teach.  Playground attendants monitor the playground.  They fit the situation. A handgun is a tool for only one situation: killing a person.

They’re designed to do that.

And I’m well aware that a hunting rifle can kill, as can a shotgun.  I’m also well aware (because I’ve hunted) of the amount of time it takes to reload, to use, their bulk…

Not the weapon of choice for someone with ill intent.

As a father, as a pastor, as a Christian who takes Isaiah 2:4 seriously, I don’t want to let you keep your gun.  I’m sorry.  I really do sympathize.  Freedom is important, we must be a free people.

But my baby must be free to live.

And I know this problem is bigger than you having a gun.  It’s about mental health support, and about poverty, and about wellness.

It’s about the fact that we teach violence.  As Isaiah says, “we shall study war no more…” except funding for cancer research by the government versus military spending was roughly 5 billion to 144 billion in 2008.

So please, stop saying we’re a Christian nation.  When this statistic changes we can talk about that claim…

We teach violence with our pocketbooks.  We call it defense, but it is violence.  And I’m not saying we don’t need to defend ourselves; what I am saying is that we should call a thing what it is.

Defense spending is paying money to learn war.

And in learning war, we teach war.

And then we wonder why people shoot other people.

And I’m a reluctant Christian at times because I often hear people make the case that somehow the freedom to buy and sell firearms is connected to the freedom that God desires for the nations.

Read Isaiah 2:4.

Yes, yes, I know there are other scriptural examples of God supposedly encouraging nation to rise up against nation.  But the prophets are the conscience of the people, and despite what historic redactors might want you to read, Isaiah speaks a word of honesty.

We must beat our handguns into something else; we must beat much of our defense spending into something else.

And I know you’re reluctant to do it.  But I’m asking you to do it for my child, and your child.  I don’t care if he/she has the right to own a handgun, but I want them to have the right to live, to go to school, to walk down the street without being shot.

We can start unlearning war.  And perhaps a good way to do that is by making the tools for war unavailable to just anyone.

After all, tools should fit the situation…

*Apparently “clips” are different from “magazines” according to responders (see below).  Needless to say, I’ve only hunted with shotguns, and haven’t had to use these items.