Health and Healing – Has the Church Got Anything to Offer? 21/10/12

Presentation by Dr Kerrigan McCarthy at ‘Johannesburg Health Day’ held at St Thomas Anglican Church on 21st October.

Jesus, in his own words, came to heal the sick! Strange, isn’t it therefore, that in some ways the church has given health and healing a bad name! We can all share stories of people who have been misled by faith healers, pastors and other persons promoting healing. We are all a little sceptical about ‘crusades’ and ‘healing missions’ that we see advertised in papers and posters and billboards. Some of us can even tell of friends or people we know who have had a bad experience related to religious healing. Perhaps some of us ourselves have even had these bad experiences!

So where does this leave us? Can we dismiss the contribution of the church regarding healing to merely these skewed and disappointing experiences?  I don’t think so – I personally believe the church (church universal) has a profound contribution to make with regard to healing.

I think the starting point is our understanding of ‘disease and curing’, and ‘illness and healing’. I am trained as a doctor – in the field of infectious diseases. I was taught at medical school about disease – that is the presence of some abnormality (pathology) in the body. I was taught about curing – that is the removing of this abnormality in the body. So, take the case of tuberculosis, for example. The disease is the presence of this germ, MTB – the cure is taking medicine for 6 months to remove it. That’s it. Simple. The same could be said for hypertension or diabetes – the disease can be cured, removed or controlled by medicine.

But what is ‘illness’? A helpful example is HIV infection. A person gets HIV infection often years before they become ill. A person says they are ‘ill’ when sh/e realises that something is different about themselves, or they cannot do what they could do before, both mentally, or physically. Another helpful example is found in the photo-exhibition there (the ‘Vision and Voices’ photo exhibition) – the picture of the two guys in wheelchairs on the soccer field. They can’t walk – they could be described as ill – with a chronic illness – a long term illness called paralysis. Illness is often socially constructed – that is – as societies, we have conditions, symptoms or experiences that are understood to mean that a person is ill. A stupid example of this - considering our friends in wheelchairs - is that if no one had legs, they would not be considered ‘disabled’. A good example of this could be a societies understanding of aging. In some communities, when a person gets to be 60, and starts to experience memory loss and dementia, that’s considered ‘normal’ and the family would not think to look for care. Or the experience of ‘uthwasa’ – the illness signifying the call to become an iSangoma, often accompanied by the hearing of voices, would be normal in some communities, but in others quite alarming.

So, if we understand illness like this, what then is healing? Let’s go back to those two folk in the wheelchair. If we look closely at their experience of illness, perhaps we could get a glimpse of what healing could mean for them. Physiologically they can’t walk, but the photographer points out that this has far more serious consequences for them than we can imagine. They are isolated socially. They can’t get around, they can’t do what they used to do, or what their friends can do. I don’t know the truth about them, but I imagine, too, that not only did they lose their independence, but at some level they lost their hopes for their future. And they lost their present understanding of themselves as competent functional people. They lost trust in their bodies. They’ve come to see themselves as different, possibly even abnormal. I’m sure that causes grief.  And it’s humiliating to be different. And just trying to be the same causes stress – imagine trying to enter through a door which is perhaps just not wide enough while on the wheelchair. The last thing you’d want is to draw attention to yourself. But someone will notice and ask to help, and once again – you’re identified as being abnormal. And what about going to the toilet? And then, speaking of these personal matters  - what about sex? Are these areas now all taboo, a no go and lost forever because one is now paralysed?  I wonder if these two could ever hope for healing?

So while ‘curing and disease’ refer to a simple, one-dimensional view of taking away a disease, and leaving a person ‘disease free’, ‘illness and healing’ refer to a far broader understanding of what it means to be ill, and what it means to be healed. Curing and disease look upon the person as a ‘vehicle of pathology’ while illness and healing looks at a person as a whole being, - an intelligent, emotional, physical creature, who is sustained in a reciprocal way through the web of relationships that surround him/her. In other words, healing is a ‘whole person’ phenomenon. So, when we are encouraged to ask ‘does the church have anything to offer with regard to health and healing’, which would we rather go for – the removal of disease, or a move towards a more integrated, wholeness of person? Some churches would have us believe that ‘removal of disease’ is what constitutes healing – and would hold evidence of this as ‘god cured me of AIDS – look, I’m now HIV negative’ or ‘I was paralysed and now I can walk again’. When viewed in this one dimensional way of a removal of disease, healing is inadequate, and evidence is sorely lacking, and we are right to be sceptical. While none of us would have the courage to say ‘God cannot take away AIDS’ or make people walk again, all of us would hope for a far more inclusive model of healing, if we were afflicted.

The question is ‘does the church have anything to offer with regard to health and healing’?  I believe so, and in two ways. The first is through encounter with Jesus. This is perhaps the biggest and most profound thing we have to offer. God can heal illness and cure disease. And this I will talk more about tomorrow during our usual Sunday services. And through encounter with Jesus, the second thing the church has to offer becomes present, and that is itself – the gift of loving community.

We can illustrate this through going back to our two friends in their wheel chairs. Let us imagine that through their illness – they come into contact with loving, caring church community. When Thabo’s friends go off to play soccer, instead of leaving him to watch Isidingo repeated for the 5th time, they take him along. They make him be the ref and blow the whistle. They drink beer together afterwards. When he needs to pee they turn away. They tease him about his girlfriends. They get him pap from the shop, they share meals. They go with him to hospital. When they discover that he can’t get a disability grant because he doesn’t have an ID, they help him get one. They discover first-hand what it’s like to be ‘disabled’ – how access to the simplest things is impaired, and things like catching a taxi are just about impossible. They become ‘advocates’ for the disabled in their homes, families and places of work. At church, Thabo hears that God loves him, and that every hair on his head is counted. He is taught to understand that despite the mystery of suffering, that God is present with him in a close way. He even gets to encourage another young person in the same situation. What happens to Thabo’s sense of isolation, and his sense of self, and his dreams that were lost? They get better, they heal, they become whole. His confusion and despair about is condition is slowly replaced with a sense of purpose about his existence, and his misfortune. Sure, Thabo still can’t walk – but he’s a whole person – Thabo. That’s who he is. Of course, this sense of community doesn’t just arrive on its own – it springs out of encounter with Jesus – that opens our eyes to understanding that at some level, we are all wounded, and so we have courage to face the woundedness of others, like Thabo, rather than just ignoring it.

With that simple illustration, I want to share 5 ways that church can be instrumental in bringing about healing. As I mention them, you’ll recognise that they were all present in the story about Thabo. I’ve tried to keep them around the letter ‘s’ so that you can remember them.

•    Restoration from Stress. Where life is stressful, the church can provide a place of restoration. Restoration can take many forms – through providing meaning, spiritual nourishment, social interaction, constructive and uplifting human interactions, opportunity for creativity and self-expression and enjoyment. All of these are possible through the community life of the church. Stress that is well managed prevents the development of illness.

•    Space for expression of emotions. The church can provide a place for the expression of emotions that are otherwise not given space for expression. Stifled emotions, such as guilt, grief, or shame can lead to physical symptoms and the release of these can often bring about healing. Often during healing services, there is space for the bringing forward or arousing of these emotions, either in quiet stillness – as at St Thomas, or through exuberant prayer, dancing and singing. Both are a healthy way of dealing with these strong and powerful feelings that may otherwise overwhelm a person.

•    Responding to social deprivation. When people are socially deprived – like we have seen and heard today, the church is able to address this by giving materially where it is able (and this is something we are all commanded to do). But the church is also able to respond to social deprivation in other ways. Good examples of this are the Mother’s union, or the African Independent churches, where the dress code can provide esteem and status, not otherwise found in their community

•    A haven of structure. Where society is unstable – for example by crime, or by racial instability (like with the xenophobia), or political uncertainty, the church is able to provide a haven of structure, an organisation in which people can find space to re-organise their own inner worlds, to find self-respect, a sense of power and well-being. In this way, the church can help people adapt to new or changing circumstances. In turn, the church then becomes a community that itself helps to stabilise society.

•    Meaning in suffering. The church can provide a framework of meaning that is able to incorporate the experience of illness. In this way, the church can provide hope for those who would otherwise despair, and heal the community by giving members a sense of corporate responsibility. Often this framework of meaning includes the Biblical narratives of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, and entering our suffering. These narratives are powerfully present in the symbols of the church – the Eucharist meal, the bread and wine.

•    Standing against injustice. Collectively, when the church realises the misfortune, injustice and evils perpetuated against others, we can stand against injustice.  


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