Stigma - Pastor's pen for 28th March

Photo by Adrien Bruneau on Unsplash

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines stigma quite fully and variously, literally meaning; 'a mark made upon the skin by burning with a hot iron, as a token of infamy or subjection, a brand.' of course we refer to the nail holes in Jesus hands and feet at Easter as stigmata, which is just a plural use of the word. Stigma also has the figurative meaning of 'a mark of disgrace or infamy, a sign of severe censure or condemnation...'

I clearly recall talking with the teaching Marist brothers at Sacred Heart during a teaching practice I completed there. We had a mutual friend, a young teacher from my old church who was gravely ill in hospital. I passed on the news of his suffering, and the head brother, a spiritual and pastoral man, undertook to visit him in the hospital, as a friend and colleague.

Turns out the young man's parents were mortified that someone had discovered he was actually in there, and set about finding out how the brother knew their son was in hospital. The young man actually had AIDS and his parents were at pains to protect him from being stigmatized by Christian acquaintances and others. Granted, he was leading some sort of 'double life' in forming his adult identity, but I felt a sadness that those in the wider group of those who knew this talented and personable guy were unable to visit with him and comfort him in his last days. I stood by my decision to get the pastoral brother to visit with him. This was literally before anyone had heard of AIDS in New Zealand, it was like some whispered rumour emerging from Africa. Drug regimes were not yet available that would keep it at bay indefinitely. The stigma was all too real.

Humans give up their right to brand, to stigmatize others quite reluctantly at times. Mental health is a bastion of such branding, even in the church. I have to say it's been 'interesting' to have grown up in a family of origin where mental health wasn't really a thing. It's particularly excruciating where the person who is possibly the root cause of the overwhelming anxiety doesn't really have anxiety in their vocabulary or consider it a legitimate response to trauma.

Last night the Coastal presbytery region had the privilege of listening to Professor John Swinton zoom in to us speaking on mental health from his home in Aberdeen. I'd be delighted if mental health was something our church and presbytery could continue to have affirming and informative conversations about, perhaps even engaging with some of John's books and identifying resource people in our midst. May we continue to de-stigmatize such differences and the challenging, formative things people carry. As with the crucified Jesus, may your wounds become beautiful...

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