Accepting Difference

Pentecost 5 – 2013

Luke 8:26-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose love embraces all God’s creation. Amen.

There is an extraordinary story of a boy (now a young man) who lives in Fiji. His name is Sujit and his story is difficult to piece together. It appears that he may have been born with slight cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. When Sujit was given to the care of his grandfather at two years old he was locked in a chicken coop (possibly because he was thought to be demon-possessed). Not surprisingly, the child developed behaviours not unlike those of the chickens with whom he spent so much time. At age eight, having been found on a road, he was consigned to an aged care home, where his behaviour was so disturbing and difficult to manage that for the next twenty-two years he was tied to a bed. No attempt was made to change his behaviour or to offer any kind of nurture. He was left to his own devices and his chicken like behaviour was allowed to continue without any intervention.

Elizabeth Clayton, an Australian living in Fiji came across Surit when she visited the care facility to deliver some plastic dining tables. He was filthy and covered in sores. Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to get him out of there and to provide the care that was so badly lacking. Even then at around age 26, the young man still clucked like a chicken, clawed at his food and didn’t know how to walk, let alone speak. His fingers still turn inward like claws, he understands only a minimum of speech and is not toilet trained.

As awful as this story sounds it is not unique. Out of ignorance or despair, many parents and institutions resort to what appear to be harsh and unnecessary forms of control for children whose behaviour they do not understand or cannot manage. In China today for example, there is no support for parents of children who are autistic. When such children exhibit violent or self-harming behaviour, parents feel that they have no option but to restrain the child – for the child’s safety as well as their own. With little knowledge and no help, these parents can only do their best to keep their children safe. Even if they want to, without support, they are unable to help the child to develop and to live a relatively normal life.

Our failure to understand difference has meant that even until quite recent times those with mental illness or disability were shut up or isolated from the mainstream of society. In many cases those who suffered from mental illness were feared and misunderstood. Not many people knew how to interact with them or considered that they might possibly have something to contribute to society. As a society we are still unable or unwilling to provide the support to families or individuals who do not fit the so-called norm.

In the first century the situation was no better and probably worse. Medical knowledge was extremely basic and demon possession was seen as the cause of many medical conditions which are understood quite differently today. From the New Testament accounts we surmise that conditions attributed to evil spirits or demon possession would have include mental illness and epilepsy to mention. Depending on the nature of the condition, family and friends would have resorted to a variety of treatments and forms of care – exorcism was a popular treatment.

In today’s gospel, we meet a man who is bound by chains among the tombs. In this case there are no clues to help us to understand what his condition might be in today’s terms. We simply know that according to those who knew him, the condition was so severe that he was believed to be possessed by a multitude of demons (Legion). Whatever is troubling the man it gave him such strength that he could not be managed. His behaviour was so intolerable and frightening to those around him that not only was he bound, but he was confined in a place as far away as possible from everyone.

It is shocking to think that people who through no fault of their own are violent and distressed are not only excluded from our presence but bound both by their condition and by the ties that others impose on them. Thankfully research and public education has reduced our fear of those with mental illness and of those who are differently abled. Our education system no longer excludes those who require additional support and we are challenged by the brilliance of such people as Stephen Hawking to reconsider our stereotyping and prejudices. Psychology and Psychiatry have made great strides in understanding not only what goes on in the mind, but how to treat mental illness and to enable sufferers to hold down jobs and to contribute to society in a wide variety of ways. Technology has made it possible for mute to communicate, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to contribute to society.

Jesus is not afraid of the man with the demons, nor does he see any reason not to intervene (despite the reluctance of the demons). He restores the man to his right mind and to his rightful place in the community. More than that, Jesus gives the man a responsibility – he is to be the bearer of the gospel to those among whom he lives. The outsider becomes the insider, the rejected becomes the accepted and the one who was excluded becomes the one chosen and commissioned by Jesus to share the gospel.

In a world that is uncomfortable with difference and which seeks the comfort of conformity, Jesus teaches us that love, compassion and understanding can transform the lives of those who were previously misunderstood, mistreated and excluded. We are challenged by Jesus’ example to create a society that is welcoming, empowering and inclusive of all God’s creation – no matter their race, their gender, their faith, their sexuality or their ability.

 

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