“If we could begin to see much illness itself not as a cruel twist of fate or some nefarious mystery,” writes Gabor Mate in The Myth of Normal, “but rather as an expected and therefore normal consequence of abnormal, unnatural circumstances, it would have revolutionary implications for how we approach everything health related” (page 8).
Mate urges us to turn our understanding of life in our culture inside out. What is abnormal is the toxic culture we inhabit. Our responses to such a culture are “normal,” insofar as they respond to the realities of the world in which we live.
“Far more than a lack of technological acumen, sufficient funds, or new discoveries,” Mate continues, “our culture’s skewed idea of normality is the single biggest impediment to fostering a healthy world, even keeping us from acting on what we already know” (page 8).
The normality Mate indicts is the white, male, individualist, capitalist, rationalist, hierarchical, hegemonic, patriarchal, racist, classist, and ableist colonial system which is so familiar to us Americans that it is like the air we breathe.
For the few privileged at the “top” of this system — those who seek to define what is “normal,” the benefits of the system are huge. For the rest of us, the system takes resources from us and leaves us feeling chronically ill and personally responsible for our own disease.
“The core of it,” Mate writes, “which accords entirely with what the science shows is this: health and illness are not random states in a particular body or body part. They are, in fact,” he continues, “an expression of an entire life lived, one that cannot, in turn, be understood in isolation: it is influenced by — or better yet, it arises from — a web of circumstances, relationships, events, and experiences” (page 9).
I see this whole-culture understanding of disease in the healing ministry of Jesus in Matthew, chapters eight and nine. Jesus doesn’t blame any victims of illness for their conditions. He restores them to health and community. Jesus doesn’t expect any victims of illness to demonstrate that they are somehow “normal” or deserving of his attention. He just touches them. He just talks to them. He just sees them. In that welcoming touch and talk and gaze, they are restored to wholeness.
“Normal” in the first-century Mediterranean world was defined by the honorable, free, male, Roman noble man. Others in the culture found themselves placed on a scale of value with such “normal” individuals at the top of the scale. At the bottom of the scale were enslaved persons.
It it probably not entirely accurate to describe the enslaved as “persons” in that system. In fact, the enslaved were regarded as “natally alienated” and “socially dead,” according to Orlando Patterson. Such individuals were often regarded as two-legged cattle or tools that could speak. They were seen and treated as extensions of their enslavers’ bodies and were thought to have no independent existence of their own.
Other free males, free women, freed persons, children, and foreigners were assigned varying degrees of normality in comparison with the ideal and honorable man of Roman ideology. At the top of the top of the scale was the emperor — the epitome of maleness, the paragon of virtue, the font of all wisdom and intelligence, the bravest of the brave, father of the fatherland, source of peace and prosperity, and either a god himself or soon to become one.
Imperial life was a contest of honor and shame. The goal was always to increase one’s own honor. Since this was a zero-sum, limited good society, such an increase was always at the expense of someone else in the game. It was an agonistic culture, defined by struggle and competition. The definition of human flourishing was to be one of the few who reached the pinnacle. Of course, that position was always threatened by other contenders. Thus life was always an exercise in anxious self-protection.
Is it any wonder that such a system would produce numerous and serious chronic physical and mental illnesses? Compound that with that grinding poverty and lack of resources among the majority of the population, and it’s no wonder that Jesus was doing land-office business when it came to healing. Compound that with the effects of multi-generational trauma imposed on subject peoples and you get a culture consumed by infirmities and diseases.
I could just as easily be describing what Kelly Brown Douglas identifies as the imaginary of Whiteness in American culture and society. I’m working my way through her book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter, and I see the connections all over the place. Let’s start with her definition of Whiteness:
“…whiteness is not a biological or an ethnic given. Rather, it is a socially constructed demarcation of race that serves as a badge of privilege and power. It fuels white supremacy, which in turn exists to protect it” (page 3). In Greco-Roman culture, noble and honorable maleness was the social construct that presumed to define normality, underwrite privilege and power, and protect the system upon which that privilege and power depended.
The system that underwrites and protects Whiteness is White supremacy: “the network of systemic, structural, and ideological realities that protect the “presumed” superiority of whiteness by granting certain privileges to those raced white and not to others (page 3). Like the Greco-Roman analogue, Whiteness is oppositional, agonistic, zero-sum, and inherently violent.
“Anything that belittles, degrades, or betrays the sacred humanity of another is violent,” Brown Douglas writes, “and, insofar as it separates one from the ways of a just and loving God, sinful. Whiteness, therefore, is both an intrinsically violent and sinful construct” (page 3). The same could be said of the Greco-Roman system. In his ministry of healing and wholeness, Jesus is claiming and restoring the sacred humanity of those he cures.
As Douglas points out, echoing many others, those who benefit from such systems are also cut off from their sacred humanity, even though they are resistantly oblivious to such disability. “Those who remain willfully or obliviously trapped in the privileges of whiteness,” Douglas argues, “are prevented from appreciating their common connection with the rest of humanity. In effect, uninterrupted whiteness overwhelms white people’s very souls…” (page 4).
The Matthean author concludes our small section of the Matthean account with an odd reference from Hebrew scripture. It is odd that the Matthean author doesn’t use the typical formula to describe what’s happening here. It is odd that the Matthean author references the “word through the prophet Isaiah,” rather pointing to what was written in that prophet’s corpus. It is odd that the Matthean author uses a text that seems only tangentially related to what has happened in the previous verses.
I don’t think the Matthean author has gotten momentarily sloppy. Instead, I think the Matthean author wants us to look deeply at what is happening in these healings in chapters eight and nine. Jesus is taking on the whole system of Greco-Roman “normalcy” and rejecting the ideology that underwrites that system. Jesus absorbs the violence of that system which betrays and denies the sacred humanity of those who don’t “measure up.”
And Jesus shows how such a system is inadequate even for one of the beneficiaries of the system — a Roman centurion. The centurion puts faith in Jesus rather than in empire. That’s radical.
“It is no overstatement,” Kelly Brown Douglas declares, “to say that white supremacy is the normative identifying marker of American identity” (page 6). Whiteness is the standard of American normalcy. All other lives are valued relative to Whiteness. The corollary to Whiteness as ideology is anti-Blackness as practice.
When a norm is constructed as superior — as defining the nature of what it means to be human — the justification is created for the denigration and elimination of all that is not “normal.” If I am not “normal,” then my suffering is my own fault, the result of my own deficiencies. Then the system and its beneficiaries are not only let off the hook but are justified in punishing and eliminating the “abnormal.”
The Matthean author proclaims that Jesus has joined the “abnormal” and is dismantling the tyranny of normalcy. He takes it all on and buries it in a rock-hewn tomb. He invites his followers to partner with him in the ongoing project of recognizing and restoring the sacred humanity of all people.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. Maryknoll Fathers. Kindle Edition.
Mate, Gabor. The Myth of Normal.
2 thoughts on “Normal is not all it’s cracked up to be…”
This article provides a powerful critique of the toxic culture that normalizes illness and disease, and the societal systems that underwrite and protect norms that deny sacred humanity. By connecting Greco-Roman and contemporary American cultures, the author invites readers to partner with Jesus in recognizing and restoring the sacred humanity of all people. Great analysis of the normalization of illness and societal systems that deny sacred humanity. The connection between Greco-Roman and contemporary American cultures is thought-provoking. Sharing insights from Kelly Brown Douglas and Gabor Mate is very helpful.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for this analysis – it’s a lot to think about. Douglas just received a Grawemeyer Award for that book, btw, just in case this is news to you: https://www.lpts.edu/friends/grawemeyer/#winner
LikeLiked by 1 person