My experience of working as a Chaplain in a mental hospital back in the late 70s left many lasting impressions on me. The strongest was a question that emerged from a combination of my own experience, seeing the movie "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" again in the context of that experience and reading an article based on a controversial study into Mental Hospitals in the United States entitled "Being Sane in Insane Places."
In a world where even a simple everyday act, like keeping a diary, can be interpreted as a symptom of mental illness and any religious belief is regarded by some in authority as a sign of insanity, the boundaries between sane and insane become blurred. In a world where the abnormal passes as normal and the normal as abnormal who can say who is sane and who is not?
This question has come again for me with the arrest of a Catholic priest and his two companions for breaking into and damaging the covering on one of the satellite dishes at Waihopai in New Zealand. As I was sifting my own mixed reactions I was struck by the terms used by some key people to describe the event. The Prime Minister Helen Clarke saw it as a "senseless act of vandalism" and Air Marshall Bruce Ferguson, the Director of The Government Communication Security Bureau as a "warped and nonsensical act."
I found myself asking if a world that spends huge amounts of money to spy on people, but can't seem to find enough money to fund education and health in a way that makes them available to those who need them most, is not acting in a warped way?
Does it make sense to think and act as if the impact that humans are having on the planet isn't doing serious damage? Yet many would want us to believe that everything is just fine and that warnings about climate change and environmental damage are alarmist nonsense.
Is it sane to wage war on terror, poverty, drugs and anything else that we have issues with as if war were the only response that we can come up with?
When Jesus overturned their tables and threw the money lenders out of the temple it could have been described also as "a senseless act of vandalism." I imagine that it was a common fate of the prophets to have been labelled as ‘mad'. From the perspective of the vested interest of their times their words and actions could be seen as "senseless and warped." They certainly disturbed the peace.
But the peace that they sought most to disturb was in the hearts of those who were saying to themselves that all was well, saying "Peace, peace, when there is no peace" (Jer 8:11). They were seeking to reveal how much people had bought into and accepted the way their world was as normal without asking deeper questions. It was easier to label the prophet's message and actions as warped and senseless than to face the deeper issues they were trying to raise.
The role of the prophet was to break through numbness and denial so that people might see what was going on from another perspective - the perspective of God.
All this reminds me of the story of the priest who announced that his sermon had three points. ‘Firstly millions of people go to bed hungry every night. Secondly, there are a great many people in the world who don't give a damn about that fact. Thirdly a number of people now will not remember my first point because I used the word ‘damn' in the second.'
We may not agree with the particular action taken by the protesters and we may have questions about the effectiveness of what they did in furthering the cause of peace.
But because they have disturbed the peace and have broken the law and we are not comfortable with that, do we risk missing the point that Jesus was making when he said, "...You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin; but you have overlooked the weightier demands of the law - justice, mercy and good faith?" (Matt 23:23)
Fr Patrick O'Shea resides at St Columban's Lower Hutt, New Zealand.