Outside The Walls

This week is Depression Awareness Week in the UK.

I know a man who had to take some time off from his job in a church. A working relationship had broken down to the point of him becoming ill, experiencing a serious bout of depression. Relationship break-downs are complex affairs and as a result the church as a whole wasn’t told why he was absent. Complex as it was, this was a mistake; rumours started to circulate of absence from work for reasons of illegality or immorality, none of which were fully denied by those who had the power to do so. When some of those aspects of the truth which were appropriate for the public domain were allowed into the open, it was too late for some relationships. By then the man was within minutes of suicide.

What’s at the heart of that? A lot, to be sure. There’s a much longer story to be told. Maybe one day it can be revisited; maybe not. There’s explanations, qualifications and different sides of the truth which would doubtless have to be explored and explained. What can be said is that there’s something at play here which speaks to a wider truth; that many of us Christians – and especially we charismatic-evangelical ones, for this was in a charismatic church – are scared to bring issues of mental illness in our communities into the light. Some of us are scared; and when we’re scared of something because we don’t fully understand it, it’s easy to end up with stigma. We keep the thing we’re scared of at arm’s length, away in a locked room, unspoken of and unnamed; or given a different, more comfortable, more morally quantifiable name. We prefer explanations that are easier to explain – illegality  or immorality, in the case of this man. That’s much easier than naming it depression, mental health problems; we know where we stand on pastors who have affairs or who break the law. We’re less certain when it comes to Christians (and especially Christian leaders) with depression. Christians are meant to rejoice and walk in victory, so depression doesn’t fit. So some of us push it away and give it another name, find a different box to put it in. Very few, if any, of the people involved in that story I told are likely to articulate it thus; but it’s there in the subtle ways we find to come up with alternative narratives. It’s a human reflex, a knee-jerk reaction which can seem as inbuilt as hair colour or height.

Stigma. The hiding of the dirty secret which may not actually be that dirty, but can make you feel soiled. It alienates, distances, lies, covers-ups … and depends on a lot of other factors to be maintained. It springs from fear that others will see us differently, fear of something we can’t quite understand or explain, something which once it’s out of the box can’t be controlled and can’t be put back in. Stigma stains, soaks into the fabric and can’t be washed out.

That’s understandable – we believe God heals and we want to see that happen. We don’t know, though, how to pray when confronted by some things. Does a person need deliverance or healing? Does he need love or medicating? Does she need prayer or a professional practioner? The question really should be: why do we have to choose?

Here’s the breaking news: the box is open. The tragic death of Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son who took his own life after a long battle with depression, has lifted the lid. If ever it was really securely on in the first place. Now there’s no hint or suggestion that he was stigmatised for his illness. Everything we’ve seen suggests he was held with love, compassion, dignity and grace. But the public stage of this sad story has taken the issue of depression, mental health and suicide in evangelical christianity and thrust it blinking into the spotlight. A perfect storm of stigma, circumstances, panic attacks and depression nearly killed the man of whom I spoke. He didn’t take his own life, but he was mighty close to it. He felt so trapped, so locked away, that for a while only one way out made sense. It’s hard to argue with that dark logic.

I know another man. A man who was stigmatised. Rumour, spite, manipulation, violence, cowardice and religion led him to be tortured and to hang bleeding and suffocating and dying naked on a cursed cross outside a wall, mocked and sneered at, his clothes won and lost by his executioners on the rolls of dice.

Stigma borne. Stigma owned by the one who shouldn’t have to hold it.

There’s a lid to be thrown away, questions to be asked, conversations to be had. It should start with the consideration of a man who chose stigma and let it lead Him to glory. Then it must move to those forced by omission or commission to carry stigma; it must continue with sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and understanding. It must continue thus until we’re left together at the foot of the stigmatised cross, with an ear open to the one we mistake for a gardener, calling us by name.

I have the man’s full permission to share what I did of his story. I also checked this post out with a handful of independent advisers to comment on appropriateness before finalising and posting.

Dave Meldrum, 17/04/2013