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Theological Publications





Yardstick for Lunatics: One Point of View

By Robert M. Price

In Michel Foucault's book Madness and Civilization (I'm trying to be the hip Postmodern pastor here. Humor me, will you?), he begins his history of madness by observing that the conventionally sane have never tried to understand insanity on its own terms. Never have the rational sought to meet madness on its own ground. And if you look at something from all sides except the inside, how can you hope to understand it? You can't.

But what an irony, says Jacques Derrida! Zut alor! Even Foucault himself does not attempt to do it! He is as rational as the next guy even in his book on madness. Derrida credits Rene Descartes with coming pretty close to giving madness a fair shake in his famous Meditations. There he speculated that we could never know the truth if perchance some evil genius were to be, unbeknownst to us, controlling our thought patterns, making us think that two plus two equals four when any fool ought to be able to see that they add up to three. Descartes never adequately dealt with this chink in the armor of his Cogito ergo sum argument (or several others), but in this moment, Derrida says, a rationalist finally allowed the whisper of paranoid madness into the game.

I think we can suggest a much better candidate for someone who was willing to meet madness on its chosen battleground: Jesus. I don't mean that he was unique in this. Our French philosophers are overlooking the whole class to which he belonged. I mean Jesus the Exorcist, Jesus the expeller of demons. What is the exorcist but a swat team member who goes on a search-and-destroy mission deep within enemy territory, the scorched and pitted terrain of possession-mania? The exorcist is a little bit mad himself, mad enough to be willing to take the ranting demoniac at his word. "Okay, you are possessed, the possession of a strong man named Satan, but I'm kicking Satan's butt. You're coming with me, like it or not."

You may think there are literal, actual demons, the kind with ectoplasmic horns. Or you may think they were just prescientific names for psychoses. It doesn't matter. The exorcist has to shadow box with them anyway. The exorcist plays the game by the rules and wins. It's a big ad hominem argument. "All right, we'll play it your way, mister." And you can win that way, because the person with the delusion of being devil-possessed also believes it is a game with a limit, that there is a script and that his role is to lose. "His wrath is great, for he knoweth that his time is short." He knows, like Christopher Lee playing Dracula, it is time to leave the playing field when the cross comes out, even if you go kicking and screaming. The strategy of the exorcist: "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."


Most of us do not belong to a church where one must take exorcism as a serious concern of ministry. There are such churches, and in such cases, I would say it's the inmates running the asylum. But Paul Tillich in one of his sermons once asked what we as ministers are to do with those passages in which Jesus sends his disciples to heal the sick and cast out devils. Naturally we could just ignore them, like we do the texts where we are told point-blank to give away our money to the poor. But instead, Tillich suggested we make the connection with psychotherapy. We ought not hesitate to employ modern psychology to ease the burdens of neurosis. Tillich took anxiety to be one of the great problems of modern men and women, which the gospel must creatively address (see his The Courage to Be).

But let's try to go him one better. Where can we use what we have learned about exorcism? I am thinking of the homeless. I mean the Homeless, since they now seem to qualify as an ethnic group. I think many of the Homeless are our closest analogues to the massed demoniacs dogging the steps of Jesus. It is they who are most likely to jump up and hurl blistering absurdities in your path. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are! Have you come to destroy us?" Yeah right, buddy. Calm down. Officer?

I have read that about a third of the wandering Homeless are insane folks dumped out of federal asylums. Local asylums were supposed to take up the slack, but they didn't, and the rationally challenged, God bless them, got left in the lurch. They don't want homes, or don't remember what they are. They'd rather live in the McDonald's dumpster. As they did in the middle ages, they throng the city streets panhandling, a troop of demoniac Holy Fools, Street Theatre of the Absurd. And certainly among the least of the brethren of the Son of Man. If only we might deal with them as the Son of Man did. If we could but say the word and drive the devil out of the poor wretches. We can't. But maybe we can take a leaf from Jesus' magic book anyway. We can meet them on their own mad ground.

Consider the failures, or at least the ironies, of those who have tried to deal with the Homeless insane as if they were sane, those who commit the error Foucault pointed out. Thomas Szasz (a genius; read his The Myth of Mental Illness and Ideology and Insanity) pioneered the crusade for the rights of the insane, to all intents and purposes reclassifying them as a persecuted sect of heretics, a group of people merely operating on a different paradigm than ours, one compatible with sidewalk defecation, burning money, cursing passersby. How dare we incarcerate them or force medication on them? Just because we cannot tolerate their obnoxious presence? Is this really any different from the Soviets sending dissidents to the insane asylum? Szasz made an interesting point. But in practice it wears thin pretty quickly.



Take the case of the woman whose behaviors I just described. Perhaps you remember her fifteen minutes of fame. The ACLU brought this woman before the microphones as the latest victim of oppressive Western civilization. She did the typical righteous indignation gig, garnered a lot of sympathy, especially since she provided a good excuse to twit New York mayor Ed Koch. But then she was back on the street cussing, burning, defecating. And her handlers looked, well, kinda foolish. Because she wouldn't, couldn't, play their game. Not sane, you see.

An old history professor of mine used to say "Figures don't lie, but liars sure figure!" How about ace reporter Randy Shilts (And the Band Played On) whose situation ethics allowed him, as he eventually admitted, to inflate AIDS statistics to whip up more funding for the New Plague? In the same spirit it seems some professional advocates for the Homeless have exaggerated their numbers, too, as well as creating the impression that most of the Homeless are Ward and June Cleaver kicked out of their house by Ronald Reagan. You could be next, probably will be, so do something now.

Indeed, do something. But what? First recognize that fully a third of the Homeless are not Ward and June. Instead they are Exidor and Aqualung. They are mad and nonfunctional. Broken toys from the hand of the Creator. Pretend they are sane and you will be ignoring their problem, not solving it. Don't you get it?

I suggest taking the Incarnation as the model for dealing with these damned souls. What is the point of the story of the Incarnation? Not just that the divine savior appeared among men and women. That wouldn't get you all the way to incarnation. You could stop where the ancient Docetists did, the belief that the Revealer didn't really have flesh and blood, was just a phantom, a hologram, like the talking manikins at Disneyland. What the idea of God Incarnate says is that God actually identified with human beings in their quaint and grubby lot. This is what Nestorius couldn't brook, that God could have been a baby with a smelly diaper. But, as St. Cyril pointed out to him, this meant that what Nestorius really couldn't accept was the Incarnation.

Incarnation means God finding out first-hand, hands on, what it means to be a human being. Not slumming, not play-acting, not pretending, not even condescending. My colleague Bill Brettman, the rector of Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, once told the story of how he and a bunch of other clergy

in an urban ministry program were dropped off in Skid Row with five bucks apiece and told to live it up for a weekend. He learned his way around pretty quick. He had to. He learned how to find day labor, food, shelter, friends, and to watch his back. It wasn't one of these "all-you-can-eat steak dinners to discuss the plight of the poor" junkets. It was incarnation.



And I think the way to really minister to the Homeless, the mad, the urban/suburban ghosts, is incarnation. Somebody with real spiritual venturesomeness might undertake to live--yes, live--among the Homeless insane as a resource, someone with enough grip on reality to know where the medical attention and the emergency funds are to be found. Someone willing to learn the code they speak, to hug their sorrows, no matter how apparently baseless they seem (it hurts just as much, delusional or not).

I often find myself sitting in my office trying to figure out what to say, what kind of thing to say, to people who wander in with completely delusional sorrows and outrages. I know by now not to waste a second trying to show them they're outdone about nothing. Foucault's pendulum has swung away from that extreme. I know not to try to set them straight. They're not straight, and they're not going to be ironed out. I need to know how I might share their surreal sorrows, crack their code and say words that will mean something in their strange cosmos. Jacques Lacan might know what to say to them. One thing I have realized, though, is that somehow it is a great and holy privilege to minister to such people.

And I think we need a specialized ministry of presence, of incarnation, among these sad legions. People need to be recruited and trained to do it. But who's willing to live in the grim ghetto of Gerasa with them? If somebody is, I challenge you, let the word of your compassion for the Homeless be made flesh.



Copyrightę2006 by Robert M Price
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