“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 10:30-35, ESV).
Who of us doesn’t imagine, or at least want to imagine, ourselves the Samaritan? If we can’t imagine ourselves the Samaritan – we all have those days – don’t we at least strive to be like the Samaritan, treating everyone like our neighbor or like Christ is disguise? Now, what if the opening were changed to: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, mumbling to himself. He stripped off his clothes, beat himself and wished loudly to be dead….”
In fact, this isn’t such a stretch: just as the man on his way to Jericho was subject to violence because he was perceived as being in enemy territory (Samaritans and Jews despised each other), people with mental health concerns in our current day are portrayed as “enemies,” which reinforces the stereotype that mental illness is dangerous and causes violence, but they are in reality more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often – rightly – used to demonstrate Jesus’ calling to love your neighbor as yourself, and that your neighbor is ‘everyone,’ specifically including your enemy, whether a foreign invader or someone in mental distress. I also take this parable to speak about who can and should respond to mental health needs. A priest and a Levite, both religious figures of somewhat high authority, walk by: an indictment of the religious establishment, to be sure, but also perhaps a message that you don’t have to be in an explicit healing profession or have a lot of power to respond. You don’t, in fact, need to be anyone in particular at all. We are told of no special trainings the Samaritan has attended, no degrees he’s earned or certificates he’s received. Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics I/2, III, §18, page 418, interprets the Samaritan as “simply being helpful” and as the one who showed mercy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer agrees. In Sanctorum Communio, he writes that the Good Samaritan doesn’t believe himself to be the wounded man’s savior at all, but he act simply because he “sees a need.”
The Samaritan’s only ‘qualifications’ were observation and compassion and it made no difference whether his cultural rules would have him leave his enemy for dead and be on with his day. So who can respond to mental-health crises? Anyone who happens to be passing by. Origen interprets the Parable of the Good Samaritan exactly this way. In Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, 34.3,9, he writes,
…the Samaritan, “who took pity on the man who have fallen among thieves, is truly a “guardian,” and a closer neighbour than the Law and the Prophets. He showed that he was the man’s neighbour more by deed than by word. According to the passage that says, “Be imitators of me, as I too am of Christ,” it is possible for us to imitate Christ and to pity those who “have fallen among thieves.” We can go to them, bind their wounds, pour in oil and wine, put them on our own animals, and bear their burdens. The Son of God encourages us to do things like this. He is speaking not so much to the teacher of the law as to us and to everyone when he says, “Go and do likewise.”
Dr. JoAnn Ford Watson of Ashland Theological Seminary affirms the call, in her A Contemporary Model: Jesus as Friend, for anyone regardless of qualifications to help: “The model of Jesus as Friend defines Jesus as one who offers affirmation of humanity as he works to bring about relationships which are characterized by mutuality and friendship in divine love and freedom.” If we respond as friends to those in need, imagine how strong our communities could be. If people felt like those around them had their backs, crises would still happen, of course, but fewer people might feel reduced to desperation to get their needs met. If people felt like they could count on their friends rather than professionals, which often means having to wait for an appointment and curtail one’s humanness to fit a clinical setting, might we all feel more empowered instead of differing to experts who often don’t know us outside of very restricted contexts? There is quite a lot of evidence that peer support, which when people with lived experienced with mental-health concerns come alongside others who are struggling, is much more effective than contact with providers only.
So then, how do we respond to a ‘wounded person on the way to Jericho’? Typically, if you tell a believer friend you’re having thoughts of harming yourself, they might encourage you to call a therapist or take you to a pastor (it’s happened numerous times to people in my community). If you tell a pastor you are having thoughts of harming yourself, they are trained to call the police or attempt to get you to a hospital (I have personally been informed of this by a pastor) as they “do not have the skills to respond appropriately to a crisis and could do more harm than good.” If you tell the hospital you’re having thoughts of harming yourself, they summon a social worker or other mental-health professional to perform a “risk assessment,” where they will decide how seriously to take you and what level of service – provided by someone else, of course – you need (the clients my facility, which is a crisis center, serves consistently report this – only they use the term “discharge planning”). I know from my work in crisis stabilization as well as personal experience that these familiar ways of responding don’t bring about the healing or abundance of the kingdom of God. I wonder if the Parable of the Good Samaritan can be a guide for how to respond in ways that might.
The Good Samaritan does not kneel down to pray for the man left for dead and then continue on his way. He doesn’t call to the brutalized stranger: “You’re not alone!” as he keeps walking on his way. He doesn’t attempt to give answers as to why this horrible thing has happened to him. He doesn’t provide psychotherapy. He doesn’t speak to the man at all. He offers practical assistance. He gets him out of further harm’s way. He takes him to a place to stay where he presumably can care for his other pressing needs like wound care, bathing, eating, resting. The mental-health equivalent of providing for an injured stranger’s physical needs is perhaps something like a warm line (a support line run by people who identify as having lived experience with mental-health issues), a middle-of-the-night conversation, a crisis hotline, an ER visit.
But the Good Samaritan provides care beyond crisis stabilization as well, demonstrating an understanding that simply getting someone back on their feet after bandaging them isn’t sufficient. The mental-health equivalent of providing for the man’s ongoing needs is community. We’ve all likely heard that “humans are social animals” and that “we need each other” it seems that this is what God intended. The first bad thing in the biblical narrative happens before the fall: God points out that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God says this presumably while God is next to or at least near Adam. Perhaps this is because God’s self is never alone – God is a community that includes divinity and humanity. It is this image in which we humans are made: we need God (divinity) and each other (humanity), too.
But saying “You are not alone” is not enough unless you are also willing to say “I am here with you.” God says this to each of us while also recognizing that we actually need each other, too. Right relationship with each other is so important to God that Jesus instructs worshippers on their way to the altar to stop the moment they realize there’s something unwell between them and a fellow believer. “Leave your offering there before the altar,” Jesus says, “and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering (Matthew 5:24). It may seem like Jesus is telling us to put caring for our relationships before worshipping him but I think relational wellness among each other is part of worship. The healing in Matthew 5:24 comes in the middle of the worship sequence, between going to the altar and offering what you have to God.
Living in community is, as humanity’s record of history loudly demonstrates, very challenging. If we are to offer ourselves into and as community for people wrestling with mental illness, it might benefit us to begin to build an understanding of mental illness – how God might see it, how we as believers might see it and how our culturally conditioned viewpoints might need to be challenged or abandoned altogether. This will be the subject of my next post.