Associate Professor, Liturgical and Sacramental Theology
In 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright presented a paper to the Medical Convention of Louisiana demonstrating the existence of a previously undiagnosed mental illness among slaves: drapetomania (from ????????, meaning “runaway slave,” and ?????, meaning “mad” or “crazy”). The observation of this well-respected physician was that “the cause, in most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable.” Should a slave be afflicted by drapetomania, Cartwright suggested that the cure should very literally be “whipping the devil out of them.” Prevention was also possible – “if treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night, separated into families, each family having its own house – not permitted to run about at night, or to visit their neighbors, or to receive visits, or to use intoxicating liquors, are not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed – more so than any other people in the world.” Cartwright’s classification, which he supported biblically as well as scientifically, was immediately lauded by some and, just as quickly, ridiculed by others. An extreme example, to be sure, drapetomania is now dismissed as an example of “quasi-science,” and is added to a list of conditions once, but no longer, considered as mental illnesses.
The example of drapetomania is consistent with the theory of mental illness proposed by Michel Foucault in his 1961 book, History of Madness. Madness, he argued, is best understood as a social construction. Our modern conceptions of mental illness emerge from the Age of Reason – a period which, according to James White was a period that was “not necessarily atheistic; it simply made God emeritus” (47). In the Enlightenment, all persons, created equally, were equally able to pursue objective truth. Those who refused to do so were deemed mad, and they were consequently incarcerated (along with other moral degenerates who rejected reasonable living) to protect society from corruption. Once isolated, the mad could be scientifically studied: asylums became medical institutions where moral judgment and scientific observation intermingled; and madness eventually became mental illness. In short, Foucault argued that the scientific method is not actually an objective standard for assessing mental illness, but it is here constructed by moral judgments which precede and influence the method. Being declared “mad” depends upon the cultural conditions in which “afflicted” individuals are seen. In this light, it is easy to understand why drapetomania was affirmed by some and rejected by others.
As we have already seen, in the Gospel reading for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, and Saturday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Jesus is named as mad by his family. Nathan Mitchell, summarizing the work of John Meier, writes that Jesus was “jobless, homeless, a vagrant, a grown man with no visible means of support, unemployed and perhaps unemployable, an uninvited ‘house guest’ who relied on the kindness of strangers… [who] lived – deliberately and voluntarily it seems – outside the institutions of marriage, parenthood, and family… Far from being a poster child for family values, Jesus chose a life on the margins of respectable society, highly irregular and suspect” (78). Meier himself continues in A Marginal Jew, volume 1: “By the time he died, he had managed to make himself appear obnoxious, dangerous, or suspicious from everyone from pious Pharisees through political high priests to an ever vigilant Pilate. One reason Jesus met a swift and brutal end is simple: he alienated so many individuals and groups in Palestine that, when the final clash came in Jerusalem in A.D. 30, he had very few people, especially people of influence, on his side” (9). Thus, if Foucault is correct, then the charge of Jesus’ relatives may have been appropriately leveled. Insofar as anyone is mad, it is precisely because they are perceived as mad by those around them. Jesus unreasonably lived on the margins of his society. He refused to conform to the reasonable standards dictated by his culture. What other answer, besides demonic possession (which the scribes charged him with) could there be? One might even go so far as to say that by such standards, those who cried out “Crucify him!” were the ones behaving reasonably.
No doubt, the prospect that Jesus was “out of his mind” is difficult for us to consider. Once again, if Foucault is correct, then madness and morality are intermingled. How could Jesus, the Son of God, be mad, if that would imply that he is immoral? Perhaps this is why Mark 3:20-21 is so infrequently heard in the liturgy? It almost certainly accounts for why some interpretations attempt to revise the charge, and why some translators take such great pains to rework those verses (compare, for example, the New American Bible, Douay-Rheims, King James, New King James, and The Message!). That we are uncomfortable with this possibility is not, ultimately, because we have the objective tools necessary to determine Jesus’ mental state. Indeed, the benefit of hindsight here seems to be that we can insist that Jesus was not mad – but that the divine wisdom incarnate in Christ surpasses human understanding! Rather, it seems to me that something far more dangerous has actually happened. In order to deny the charge that Jesus was mad, the madness (i.e., shocking nonconformity) of his ministry has been softened and “rationalized.”
The transformed perception of Jesus’ ministry may well be due to the effects of sin and evil. While original sin has long afflicted humanity, the Enlightenment enshrined humanity’s pride in its own knowledge of good and evil, masquerading it as virtue. It is helpful here to consider the understanding of demons that undergirds the RCIA. Heinrich Schlier argued that Satan and evil spirits “exist by influencing the world and mankind in every sector and at all levels… They withdraw from sight into the men, elements, and institutions through which they make their power felt” (28-29). The challenge is immediately apparent. Evil makes itself appear “normal” by incorporating itself into people and things around us; and the presumption that human knowledge of good and evil is sufficient ultimately blinds us to its presence by offering false comfort that what is “normal” is “good.” Following both Foucault and Schlier, the declaration against Jesus by his family that “he is out of his mind” is actually an indictment of themselves and their ability to understand God’s will. Rejecting the foolish wisdom of God by naming it (demonic) madness, they have instead enthroned human wisdom which, unbeknownst to them, is (demonically) corrupted. This situation becomes even more dire as we progress through history. For the frequency with which we have heard the stories of Jesus has rendered them unshockingly familiar – a seeming result of original sin. No longer perceived as a minister of madness, Jesus instead embodies the virtue that we have constructed. Lip service might be paid to the notion that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, but more alluring is the alternate version of “divine wisdom” in which we create God in our own image. And all the while, we are lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that our rationality and morality are in full continuity with that of Jesus. In baptism Christians are saved from the bondage of original sin, but are then given the responsibility of co-operating with that grace. The rational person, truly enlightened – or illumined – must be willing to set aside their own predispositions in order to recognize that it is God who saves.
We thus finally arrive at the great significance of Mark 3:20-35 for us. That Jesus is opposed by religious authorities is this passage is consistent with much of what frequently occurs within Gospel narratives proclaimed throughout the liturgical year. That Jesus is opposed by his relatives is not only unique, but is also contrary to much of what we otherwise hear. It is disconcerting because in baptism Christians are claimed as God’s own children – brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike the Synoptic infancy narratives, or the Johanine description of the crucifixion, the stark question that Mark 3:20-35 asks is this: what kind of family members will we be? Will we be like those Marcan relatives, trusting in the justness of society’s morality? Will we rest on a titular relationship, baptized in name, but certain of our ability to save ourselves (or to compel God to save us)? Will we be like Cartwright’s ideal slaves, lulled by the lure of being “well fed and clothed… each family having its own house,” knowing that life could be so much worse? Or will we be like those Marcan disciples, fumbling along after Jesus as he scorns what has come to pass as justice? Will we choose to embrace the life embodied by Christ, baptized to be flickering lights in the darkness? Will we be like those slaves afflicted by drapetomania, setting out against all law and against all odds, throwing off the shackles of slavery, without fear of death? Of course, we know that one path is reason, the other path is madness. But which path is which?
 About this passage Morna Hooker writes “His family represents the Greek phrase ?í ???’????? – literally ‘those from beside him’. In both the LXX and contemporary Greek it meant ‘relatives’ or ‘friends’. Since the narrative begun here is taken up again in v. 31 with the arrival of Jesus’ mother and brothers, the phrase must refer in this context to Jesus’ relatives. They intended to take charge of him; the very (??????) is a violent one, and is used in 6.17 and 12.12 of arrest; their purpose was therefore similar to that of the authorities. They is most naturally interpreted of the relatives; they believed Jesus to be out of his mind. Since madness was often regarded as due to possession by a demon, it is arguable that their judgement on the situation was close to that of the scribes in the next verse. Mark gives no explanation for their belief.” The Gospel According to St. Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 115.