In Flannery O’Connor’s story Revelation, the protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, accompanies her husband, Claud, to the doctor’s office. The narrative ping-pongs between Mrs. Turpin’s conversations with people in the waiting room and her internal assessment of each person present…and assessments she has! The poor white mother, grandmother, and grandson; the common lady; the pleasant, well-dressed lady, and that woman’s quote “ugly,” Wellesley- attending daughter. With every interaction, Mrs. Turpin’s assessments sharpen. Happily for her, her assessments agree with what she’d always known about people like that.
In one of these internal musings, Mrs. Turpin creates her own personal caste system. On the bottom are Black people. Then next to them–not above, just away from–are the poor whites; then above them are the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belong. Above she and Claud are people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.
Observing Mrs. Turpin’s internal sorting process calls to mind Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book, Caste. “All men are created equal,” the Preamble to our Constitution begins. Wilkerson details how we have not yet achieved true equality and lays out our country’s history of sorting people into a hierarchy of worth. Reading Caste, one wonders if the equitable society for which we hope is even possible.
I recently watched a documentary series on PBS called The Mysteries of Mental Illness. In the episode titled Who’s Normal?, the question of diagnosis is explored. Who determines who is mentally ill? Do you know the year in which homosexuality was deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? 1973. Where were you in 1973? If your experience doesn’t resonate with heterosexist normativity, what was your life like then? Did you ever feel crazy? Do those feelings linger? In 2017–just four years ago–the Danish parliament became the first country to remove transgender people’s classification as “mentally ill.”
One wonders where Mrs. Turpin might have placed folks from the LGBTQ+ community in her personal caste system.
Mrs. Turpin’s mental musings come to a screeching halt when the Wellesley student’s book–ironically enough, on Human Development–sails across the room and crashes into her forehead. The young woman follows the path of the book and digs her strong fingers into Mrs. Turpin’s windpipe.
The doctor and nurse run out. The nurse tends to Mrs. Turpin. The doctor subdues the young woman and gives her an injection. As the EMTs load the sleeping woman into the ambulance, another woman looks down at her and says, “Thank God I’m not a lunatic.” Was the young woman a lunatic? Was she?
Did you know that after 1850, enslaved people who tried to escape were diagnosed with a mental illness called Drapetomania? The very fact that they wanted to escape was the only symptom necessary to be diagnosed.
Here’s a more current example of unjust diagnosis of mental illness.
“A 2012 government effort to reduce unnecessary antipsychotic drug use in nursing homes included an exemption for residents with schizophrenia. Since then, diagnoses have grown by 70 percent. Experts say some facilities are using the schizophrenia loophole to continue sedating dementia patients instead of providing the more costly, staff-intensive care that regulators are trying to promote” for patients with dementia. The increase in schizophrenia diagnoses also coincides with a governmental crack down on the excessive use of patient restraints. Black dementia patients receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia at a rate 1.7 times greater than white dementia patients. (New York Times, October 16, 2021)
Often on Mental Health Sunday, we talk about how we can extravagantly welcome people who struggle with mental health issues. Some people in our community have told stories about their own struggles with mental illness. Because of the church’s (big C) spotty history of providing comfort for those who are mentally ill, it is good and important that we create spaces for people to tell their stories and to find support from a community of faith.
Providing support to those who struggle with mental illness is vital. Equally vital is calling out diagnostic practices that result from both intentional and unintentional discrimination. When mental health diagnoses are used to dehumanize people who don’t fit social norms, then we, as followers of Jesus, are called to name the injustice.
Another key part of mental health advocacy is looking at how unjust laws and societal practices impact the mental health of our more vulnerable fellow citizens. A story included in Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste illustrates what I’m talking about. Warning: It’s a hard story. But stay with me…because the sermon’s going to end with Jesus and hope. I promise.
In 1951, a little league baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city-wide championship. The team’s coaches “decided to celebrate with a team picnic at a municipal pool.” When the team’s only Black member, Al Bright (whose parents had been unable to attend), was refused entrance to the pool, the coaches realized the terrible mistake they’d made. Their pleas to the lifeguard to let Al swim went unheeded.
One of the coaches laid out a blanket outside the chain link fence surrounding the pool. Various adults would bring snacks to Al as he watched his white teammates splash and play in the pool. “From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him before returning to join the others.”
Finally, one of the coaches asked what it would take for Al to be able to swim “just for a few minutes. The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.
“Once everyone cleared out, ‘Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft…A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines.
“After the ‘agonizing few minutes’ that it took to complete the circle, Al was then ‘escorted to his assigned spot’ on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided on the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again of one important thing. ‘Just don’t touch the water,’ the lifeguard said, as he pushed the rubber float. ‘Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.’
“The lifeguard managed to keep the water pure that day, but a part of that little boy died that afternoon. When one of the coaches offered him a ride home, he declined. ‘With championship trophy in hand,’ Al walked the mile or so back home by himself. He was never the same after that.” (120-1)
I always think of Mrs. Turpin when I read Jesus’ words about who’s first in the kingdom…especially the end of the story when she says, “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
Will there still be a top and bottom? If the first become last and the last first, will the same structure be in place, just different people inhabiting each place? Or was Jesus inviting John and James, who’d asked for special privileges in heaven…was Jesus inviting James, John, and the rest of us to see how unjust, how antithetical to God’s kindom, how silly it is to sort and label people?
Who is first in God’s kindom? Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.
That is our hope for today. In God’s kindom, we ALL get to be first! All of us! In God’s kindom, there is no such thing as last place. In God’s kindom, we all get the championship trophy. All we have to do is serve others. All others. That’s it. To be first, we must simply be the servant of all.
Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.
In the name of our God, who create us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021