Racist or Mentally Ill: What Would You Do?
Imagine taking the train to work, and witnessing a commuter making disparaging comments about people of other races. What would you do? What would a right Christian response be?
That’s the question I asked myself when I read a recent article about a woman verbally assaulting others and accusing them of harassing her. Later, it turned out that she had been putting up what appears to be racist videos on social media for many years. She has since been terminated from her job, and police are investigating the incident.
When I first watched a video of her—taken by a bystander—I was shocked by her words and behaviour. Apart from accusing an elderly man of another race of molesting her, she also screams and yells at other people, even chasing them away.
Her behaviour was so bizarre, and the things she said in her YouTube videos so full of paranoia, that I couldn’t help thinking: something’s not quite right. Was she just being racist, I wondered, or was she suffering from some kind of health condition that was affecting her behavior?
We don’t know if the woman actually has a mental condition, but according to one news report, her mental state is being assessed.
The incident prompted me to ask myself: What should I have done, as a Christian, if I were there?
Of course, we should denounce any racist behaviour. The Bible tells us that all of us—regardless of skin colour—are created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). We are also called to defend the rights of the oppressed and seek justice where we can (Psalm 82:3–4, Isaiah 1:17)
I must confess that as someone who tends to avoid confrontation, I would probably have ignored the woman and moved away, or encourage her victims to keep away as well. Even if I felt I should confront her, I wouldn’t know what to say, and I’d worry that I would trigger further aggression in her.
But what if the “oppressor” is mentally ill? I sought the advice of Pastor Chua Seng Lee, an advocate and advisor on mental health issues, for advice. A deputy senior pastor in Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church, pastor Chua is also the author of My Voice: Overcoming—A Journey Of Hope, a collection of stories from people suffering depression.
He gave several thoughtful suggestions:
1. Act with Discernment
The first thing we can and should do, says Pastor Chua, is to ask the Lord: What do You want me to do?
While some people may feel compelled to act, we must discern whether we’re being compelled by our flesh or God, and think about how we can step in. “We may try to do things in the flesh, like how Moses in his younger days killed an Egyptian in his hotheadedness,” he notes.
Of course, he adds, if someone’s life is being endangered in any way, we must act to save that person immediately. But if not, it may be a good idea to bring the victims aside or shield them from the attention of the attacker.
And, if we feel prompted by the Lord, we can try to talk to the person. But, Pastor Chua cautions, this requires much wisdom, as it may feed their anger and cause them to overreact.
“We need to take a step back as believers, and be more discerning about how we should respond,” he says.
2. Respond from a Place of Care
The second thing, says Pastor Chua, is to come from “a place of care.”
The behaviour of a person with mental illness may be odd and not socially acceptable, he notes. “But this person is as much a victim himself. After all, who in their right mind would want to put themselves in a negative spotlight?”
“We need to ask ourselves: ‘How can I show care of this person?’ rather than to judge him or her,” says Pastor Chua. “It’s about coming from a place of concern, rather than a place of judgment. Our role is to be a good Samaritan, not a judge.”
He gives the example of encountering children with special needs. “If a child is having a meltdown on the train, we shouldn’t harshly scold him or his parents to stop his crying—because it only adds more stimulation to the child,” he says. “Instead, we should talk in a gentle tone, and ask the parents what we can do, for example.”
Aside from asking the Lord what role we can play, we can also pray for the person, fulfilling the exhortation in 1 Timothy 2:1–4 to pray for “all people”. Says Pastor Chua: “We’re not to be mere spectators, but to pray for them.”
3. Stay Informed
Finally, we need to inform ourselves. Pastor Chua, who’s certified in pastoral counselling and mental health first aid, stresses the need to equip and inform ourselves so that we can be used by God in such instances.
This means reading up on the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
“Superficial knowledge is worse than no knowledge, because we may end up giving simplistic answers to complex issues on mental health,” he says. “And knowledge is easy for us to acquire today. So it’s important for us to know the fallenness of man, including mental illness.”
But, aside from possibly addressing the behaviour of a stranger who we suspect may have a mental health condition, what long-term help could be provided?
It’s a tough question that has no perfect answer, says Pastor Chua. That person—and his family—would first need to agree to receive help, assuming they’re not already receiving some form of help.
While encountering unusual behaviour in public will still be a challenge, these suggestions have given me an idea of what I can do: seek the Lord in prayer, asking Him for wisdom to know what to do if I’m in a similar situation; and pray for such people that they’ll not just get the support they need, but that they will “come to a knowledge of the truth” one day (1 Timothy 2:1–4). —Wendy Wong
Lord, when I don’t know
what to do in difficult situations,
I pray that You will grant me
Your wisdom, grace, and love to know
how to respond to such people.
Help me not to judge them,
but to pray for them.
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