No Jew or Greek but Plenty of Elephants (Galatians 3:26-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28

I like this verse. It speaks to the Star Trek fan in me , the Utopian; we can get beyond our differences and move forward into the future because we’re reconciled to God and we’re all his children. So let ‘s treat each other as equals and embrace a world in which we’re post-racial, post-feminist, a world in which sexism and racism are artefacts of seventies sitcoms. Our differences take second place to our unity.

But that’s not always true in practice, is it? Our differences do still matter; if they didn’t, would there be protests in Ferguson, Missouri?

There’s a danger that we end up using verses like this as a silencing tactic – “Paul said we’re all one in Christ Jesus, therefore I’m not racist. Please stop asking awkward questions.”

Now, I’m not arguing that, through Christ, we’re all God’s children, all joined together as a family in which, despite our demographics, we’re all equal. But if we are all spiritual siblings, then we don’t get to ignore or explain away the experiences of those outside the church’s power structures. We get to shut up, and to listen, to to join with our brothers and sisters as a force for justice.

We’re not always keen to do this. We don’t like to talk about race. We don’t like to talk about feminism. We don’t like to talk about abuse or mental health, inequality or sexuality. And if go on ignoring each elephant in the room, all we’ll end up with is a church full of elephants.

Here’s the thing. I like to think I’m not particularly prejudiced, but I’m a white, straight western male and I’m acutely aware I have no idea what it’s like to face police suspicion every time I walk down the street. I have no idea what it’s like to receive rape threats just for expressing an opinion online. I don’t know how it feels to be ostracised because of my sexuality, or how it feels to suffer in silence because I’ve been told that depression is just a lack of faith. I don’t go to church and feel a second class citizen because the wheelchair access is like something from The Crystal Maze. I’m not late for church because I’ve had to stop off at the local food bank.

I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but I do have to acknowledge that I benefit from a system that disadvantages others, and I do have to make sure I’m listening to the voices of those without my levels of privilege. Heck, my sons have autism. Life’s not going to be a picnic for them, and as parents we have to be their advocates, and that’s a hell of a fight at times. There may be no Jew or Greek in Christ, but there’s prejudice and bigotry and ignorance and apathy in society, and if we can’t advocate for our family, then all our claims about the unity of the church are empty rhetoric, soundbites for our corporate Facebook pages and about half as useful. We need to maintain a pastoral eye towards these issues; if we don’t, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is.

The people looked at him as if he was crazy. “When did we see you stopped and searched for no reason? When did we see you threatened with rape, or told not to report the man who abused you? When did we see you looking for the number for the Samaritans, or struggling to feed the kids? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our church. Someone would have mentioned it.”

And Jesus replied, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.”

Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.