How to deal with violent threats in the world, part IV

I agree with the NRA.

Not often, but as the blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn, so the NRA has rightly noted, in my humble opinion, that our nation needs to better reach out to our mentally ill.

That’s a bingo!

In all the tough talk one hears these days about “fighting terrorism,” I find myself scratching my head (SMH) the most about our neglect of the suicidally depressed loner who’s rageful murder fantasy extends beyond one’s self to include other people. Terrorism is essentially a murder-suicide problem found now on a global scale. It is not a religious problem, although religious fantasies of heavenly rewards for martyred believers does, in all reality, find a home in the Muslim faith at least among its most conservative of adherents.  Such “radical Islamic extremism” does throw gasoline on this fire of murder-suicide among the depressed mentally ill.  And it does need to get talked about.  And acted upon.

To fight terrorism, or even to fight gun violence in America, without fighting mental illness is no different than having a fire department fight the smoke without first locating and extinguishing the fire. It just ain’t gonna happen!

Now, I know. There’s a ton of denial out there within the behavioral healthcare community about a link between violence and mental illness. But this denial is not always itself a healthy response. True, most mental illness does not link up with violence. Most, but not all. Some mental illness manifests itself largely in just that: violent tendencies. Let’s accept that reality if we are to be even a bit more sane than those we seek to help in this world. Please!

Major Depressive illness, whether unipolar or bipolar in category, is in its advanced stages suicidal. Anger is so internalized as to reach deadly proportions in some people. Suicide, or self-homicide, carries with it both a psychological and sociological component. Speaking myself as a clinical Social Worker, it is a mix of major depression, poor impulse control, mimetic desire (also known as copycat behavior), and…….are you ready for this…….social withdrawal and loner behavior.  The spark that sets off the fire that produces the smoke of murder-suicide is loneliness.  That’s right.  Loneliness.

It’s true that most sparks do not start raging forest fires. Most kids who play with matches don’t burn the house down. And most loneliness does not start a murder-suicide for ISIS or any other terrorist type gang or organization.   Yet, every massive fire starts with some spark.

My wish is that we would all watch out for lonely people in our midst as closely as we watch sparks flying out beyond our fire pits at night.

What to watch for? That’s the first question we have to address. It’s a tricky question. Lonely people are not always alone. Some feel loneliest and even most depressed when in a crowd. The best way I’ve found, at least clinically, to see loneliness in extreme is to ask families. Or even work related groups. Ask this question, “who could you say is probably the loneliest person in your family, or in your group, or in your church, or in your school, or in your apartment building?” Chances are high you’ll get some answers. People know. They just don’t answer until being asked.

Were I ever in charge of community policing, I’d put this question pretty high on the list of those aimed at preventing crimes of murder-suicide. But I’d also put it right up there for pastors, teachers, doctors, nurses, and about anyone else looking to help people. Lonely people need help. They need outreach. They even need to be needed. And if we don’t know that, let me tell you who else does: street gangs, ISIS, and other racially or religiously oriented terrorist groups.

And God knows.

The Bible’s Gospel of Mark 5:1-20 tells the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. This same Jesus, who said his mission from God was to seek and to save the lost, is said to have called out to this mentally ill man who then shouted back, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me.”

Do you mind if I unpack this one just a bit coming from my background as an old therapist and pastor?

Let’s try not getting too lost ourselves here in the ancient languaging of mental illness as being demon-possession. Let’s just agree that this man knew what it was like to be tortured. And that he didn’t want any more of it. Can we accept what he says to Jesus on these simple terms? If so, let’s understand that the man was tortured in part by his own Gerasene people. That’s right. They had responded to this lonely creature of a human being by binding him in heavy chains hand and foot. Didn’t work, but that is what they attempted in way of help. They tried to, the NIV says, “subdue him” and they were “not strong enough.”

Sidebar. There are many among us today, even well-intentioned Christians, who think that being strong means subduing those we don’t understand. Controlling them. Not loving them. Not influencing them. Not helping them. But controlling them as if to help protect mainly ourselves. For the Gerasene community in which Jesus was seeking and saving the lost, this made matters worse instead of better. It threw gas on the fire. And the same is no less true for today’s communities in response to their mentally ill. We intuitively exacerbate human loneliness. I know. More than a head-full to think about, but it’s still true.

So how did Jesus deal with this violent threat in the world of the Gerasenes he reached out to?

This is highly important stuff for us to learn about today, I believe. Jesus clearly appears to talk with this man about his problem. Doesn’t tell him he is the problem. May have even said something to the effect of, “Sir, you are not the problem. Your problem is the problem.” Or, “let’s try to solve the right problem here and not the wrong one.” And then he asked the man to name his problem. Notice that? What name would you use to describe your problem? “Legion,” the man answers, and he explains why as Jesus apparently listens. And then Jesus does something many counselors understand quite well. He speaks directly to the problem as if it’s sitting in a separate chair or on the ground alongside the man.  This man himself is not allowed to speak for the problem. He has already said, leave the problem alone.  But the problem then says to Jesus, in effect, let us live somewhere else if not here in this man. And, cutting to the chase as Mark often does, the problems…..and they were multiple……left the man alone by taking up residence in a herd of local pigs.

So is that the end of the story? Not really. This loneliest and most violent of men was still on the “outs” with his own Gerasene neighbors, the ones who tortured him before with chains binding hand and foot. But Jesus helped him to now have an “in” once again with his own family. Thus ending, we may at least assume, the torture of his loneliness and violence.   And chains.

Lesson to be learned nowadays by any of us who self-identify as Christians, or Christ-followers: go out into the community and seek out the lost. Ask about the loneliest or even the scariest. Or just ask even this simple question to the group: do you know anyone who strikes you as maybe mentally disturbed? They are out there waiting to be identified and found. They are being tortured in body and mind long before they set off any spark of any potential killing or terrorist violence. They have problems. Sometimes legions or multiple problems.

Again, most mentally ill persons are not violent. Most matches don’t burn down the house. But, unlike anything the NRA might say, never let mentally ill people have guns anymore than you would let toddlers carry matchbooks. Use some common sense here. And do what Jesus would do. Be a Christian if we dare call ourselves that. Don’t simply welcome home the prodigal son as the town of Aarhus, Denmark so helpfully welcomes home their radical Islamic extremists from Syria (per my prior blog). Do reach out to the least, the lost, the last, and also the loneliest who are afflicted with mental illness. In that instance, the NRA is absolutely correct.


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