The Sick and the Sinner

Sunday 20th June 2010
Year C, The Third Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 8:26-39

Do you think that mass killer Derrick Bird was sick or a sinner? And if you have come out on one side or the other, how did you make up your mind?

Even at a superficial level, matters are not straightforward. The tabloid press is always ready to characterise people as evil - the word is nice and short and the idea is apparently simple - but do we honestly believe that dismissing people as "evil" really helps our understanding? We say that Hitler was evil; and we say that Dr. Shipman was evil; and certainly the outcomes of what they did were terrible. But were they evil or sick?

Saint Luke is clear enough in today's Gospel about the man who lived in the tombs. He says that the man was possessed by demons. Elsewhere in the Gospels the  evangelists make a distinction between possession and lunacy; and there is no evidence that they associate possession with sinfulness.

Our culture has been less kind, particularly to women, deliberately blurring the line between genuine illness and social indiscretion: we have tortured and executed what we call witches, using the label of sin for something we do not understand; and we have imprisoned what we called 'fallen' women in lunatic asylums, using the label of illness for what we don't approve of. On a larger canvas and, more pertinent to men, we have frequently convicted obviously inadequate people for crimes for which they could not have been responsible, even if they committed them, and our prisons are stuffed with people who are suffering from mental illness. Perhaps worst of all, children who have been cruelly reared in the worst possible environments, beaten, abused, degraded, deprived and exposed to the most terrible depravity, have been punished in courts of law as if they were fully responsible adults, fully in control of their own circumstances and life chances. There is something particularly cowardly and wicked about blaming our failings on our children. I need hardly remind us that the case of the two children who killed Jamie Bulger is the worst of all, not just because of what happened to the victim but  equally how we mistreated the perpetrators. And in recent times the use of the criminal courts to try two ten-year-olds for rape was equally cruel on the perpetrators ad the victim.

You would have thought that with all we learned in the 20th Century about biology and psychology we might have been better equipped to understand the border between sin and sickness; but apparently not.

For our society, the crucial distinction is whether the cause of an act justifies revenge. If people can be shown to be wicked, or evil, or sinful, or whatever term you like, then our communal revenge is justified. If, however, medical experts can prove that a person was not in their right mind when they committed an act, then there may be mitigation for which people can be confined but not punished.

It's a distinction that Jesus would simply not have recognised. Occasionally he is given details of a case by a parent or guardian pleading for help; but he never asks. He does not ask: "Are you in this poor condition because you're a sinner, possessed or a lunatic?" Jesus wants to put right what is wrong but he is not interested in trials or in judgment, let alone revenge.

That is where we need to be. As citizens we must accept that the secular world has to deal with the consequences of our necessary human imperfection - for, we were made imperfect for the very good purpose of being able to choose to love - but we must not confuse this civic obligation with our Christian duty to love unconditionally and refrain from judging.

It is bad enough in principle to judge when we are warned against it by Jesus; but it is much worse when we judge without knowledge. Frequently we condemn those who live in appalling physical and moral circumstances a few miles from us when we have never experienced them. We twin with nice little towns in Europe but know nothing of our poor neighbours.

At the moment our Church is in a raging controversy over the role of gay people in clerical office but few people engaged on either  side have any idea whether sexual orientation is a matter of nature or  nurture. There is a related controversy about women clerics but we know remarkably little about the difference between men and  women outside the fundamental difference in their reproductive roles. There is a great deal out there about "left brain/right brain" and language versus spatial skills but much of it is popular science, about as reliable as daily paper astrology.

And so, if we ought not to judge and we don't know how to, what are we left with? I want to suggest that we ought to be left in a state of profound humility for what we do not know and a state of constant vigilance for what we might do. Many mothers know how close they have come to bashing a crying baby; many men know how close they have come to striking out in frustration and impatience; only god knows how many of us have failed to injure somebody because our execution has fallen short of our intention. By all accounts, Mr. Bird was an average sort of bloke who was dissatisfied with his brother's will and in dispute with his colleagues over the conduct of his taxi rank. When have I heard that before? None of us is very far from the precipice. Civilisation is skin deep. Only The Holy Spirit can get to our centres and keep us strong.

If we look carefully at our reactions to what happened in Cumbria, is there not just a frisson of recognition? Calling people "evil" or "mental" is a way of separating people from us and de-humanising them. But we are they and they are us; and denying that they are our neighbour does not stop them being so.