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Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?

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Voicing a Vision: Compulsory Marriage, Part 3

Marriage is not necessarily sinful, just a distraction from the more important work of ministry. That was what the Apostle Paul seemed to think (1 Corinthians 7:25-32); and the Church has never figured out what to make of it.

While there has never been a coherent tradition of “marriage theology” in Christian history, we can say this much: the Church usually reacts to whatever else is going on in the wider culture or in its own ranks, whether in response to Greco-Roman marriage practices, the privileging of monastic vocations, or the emergence of an official state contract that decided how to divvy up property for legitimate heirs (which happened relatively late in European history).

Today’s complex socio-religious landscape threatens to lure the Church into that familiar, reactive pattern – either the Church embraces or rejects the State’s decisions about civil marriage.

Civil marriage equality ought to be a no-brainer for the Church – it’s a civil contract to which any couple should have access. But is that all the Church wants to say about marriage? Will the Church simply baptize Las Vegas wedding chapels and be done with it? Couldn’t Christians offer something a bit more compelling, something people want to hear but don’t expect the Church to say?

The Church has an unprecedented opportunity today to voice a vision of human relationships that speaks to how people really live their lives, and in the process, advance what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” I don’t know everything about what that vision ought to entail, but here are just a few thoughts toward it, clustered around families, finances, and fidelity (yes, I like alliteration).

1. Families

A recent congressional hearing on the “Defense of Marriage Act” highlighted the paucity of coherent arguments among those who oppose marriage equality. Among the several absurd things now on the congressional record is this: “Marriage makes a family.”

No, actually, it doesn’t. Civil marriage makes a contract between two people. That contract comes with a lot of benefits, but “family” is not among them. My mother and I are a family, not because we have a contract but because of the love, care, compassion, and commitment of our relationship. That’s what “makes a family.”

The Church could voice a vision about families by, well, turning to Jesus. When told that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And when he was dying on the cross, Jesus looked at his mother and his beloved disciple and said, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).

Let’s be clear here: The State does not (and probably never will) recognize either of those two Gospel forms of family as a family. But the Church can and should do that. If the Church did, thousands of people would be profoundly grateful.

2. Finances

If I lost my job tomorrow, my health insurance would become exorbitantly expensive. Linking health care to employment is among the more absurd features of American culture. And marriage matters here because of another absurd feature of American culture: If you’re unemployed but married to an employed person, you can get access to your spouse’s health insurance.

Why in the world should affordable health insurance be linked to whether or not you’re married? As I noted in Part One of this mini-series, health insurance is just one reason why the so-called “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get access to a physician.

There are many other financial benefits that attach to marriage, and the Church might turn to Jesus (again) for developing its own voice. Jesus looked rather askance, to say the least, at the privileging of some types of social relation over others.

The Church could voice a different vision by insisting that we no longer live with economically or socially privileged relationships. Everyone should have equal access to what everyone needs to thrive and flourish, regardless of the relationships to which they are called – both human and other animals. I know that sounds like socialism. Don’t blame me; blame Jesus.

3. Fidelity

Everyone knows what “infidelity” means without having to spell it out – a spouse broke a sexual rule. But that kind of marital fidelity emerged in human history mostly to protect property inheritance rights for legitimate heirs.

Biblical writers had a dramatically different view: faithfulness is not about what one cannot do, it is instead what enables one to do something better. The Hebrew prophets denounced the “adulterous” practices of Israel because they weren’t caring for orphans and widows, or showing hospitality to strangers, or tending the land responsibly, or practicing economic justice for the poor. Faithfulness to their covenant with God would have enabled them to do all of that and more.

The Church could offer a compelling vision of fidelity by paying attention to Jesus (again). We know a good tree, Jesus said, not just be looking at it but by the kind of fruit it yields (Matthew 7:16).What does your relationship (of whatever type) enable you to do to make the world a better place?

Civil marriage contracts don’t make families, and they don’t create financial justice for all, and they don’t empower people with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That doesn’t make civil marriage “bad,” just short of the Gospel mark toward which the Church could and should aim.

But covenantal relationships (of various types), entered into deliberately and with spiritual intention, can create families, and promote economic justice for all, and bear fruit in households and communities of remarkable generosity, hospitality, and compassion.

That’s the vision the Church could be voicing today by saying unequivocally two things at the same time: 1) civil marriage equality is good and necessary for social justice; and 2) civil marriage equality is not nearly enough for a Gospel vision of human thriving.

If the Church voiced that vision, we’d see many more people saying “I do” to queerly Christian discipleship.

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I Do and So Must You: Compulsory Marriage, Part 1

Full civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples now stands within reach. If the Roman Catholic governor of New York can get this done, so can everyone else. This is nothing short of amazing and cause for great celebration. If we’re not careful, however, this heady moment could derail a queerly Christian witness to the good news of the Gospel.

I worry, for example, that at least one diocese in the Episcopal Church has so quickly boarded the state’s marriage train that it left its theological luggage in the station. The Diocese of Long Island, responding to the recent marriage equality legislation in New York, is now requiring its clergy in same-gender relationships to get married. Some of these couples may have had their relationship liturgically celebrated and blessed already, yet Long Island is now relying on the state’s civil contract to make those relationships religiously legitimate. (Read more about those diocesan policies and their national implications here.)

In microcosm, Long Island casts the ongoing confusions between Church and State in bold relief. Surely Christians want to say something more about marriage than whatever the state says about it. But what do we want to say?

I recently heard feminist Catholic theologian Mary Hunt preach a wonderful sermon in which she applauded the inevitable march toward full marriage equality and then urged us to imagine how we can do better.

Marriage, she said (rather provocatively), is not a right but a privilege. Health care, on the other hand, is not a privilege but a right. We can do better than marriage equality if we detach the basic human right to health care from the privileging of just one kind of relationship. If we continue to make human rights contingent on a privileged relationship, then the “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get affordable access to a physician.

In a similar vein, Christian ethicist Marvin Ellison has noted that the divorce rate is so high in the United States because the marriage rate is so high. Ellison would have us notice, in other words, that marriage has become the default position for what it means to be a grown-up, a rite of passage into being a responsible, contributing member of society. Here the “freedom to marry” becomes the “pressure to marry” just to look like an adult.

In the midst of this ever-shifting cultural landscape, the Church has good reasons to applaud the freedom to marry as a matter of social justice. But is that all? The Church can and should do better. The Church can and should bear witness to something other than the economic necessity to marry or the social pressure to marry, and the Church could do this by turning to its own theological traditions.

To be sure, there is no single, coherent theology of marriage in Christian history, but there are rich theological themes in that history that we can still tap today. Christian traditions, for example, invite us to consider marriage as a vocation to which some but not all people are called. There are many other vocational paths through which we can bear witness to the good news of the Gospel and the Church can and should celebrate them as well.

Other themes in Christian history also come to mind to provoke our spiritual imagination – the creation of households (of many various types), the significance of covenants (rather than contracts), how relationships of all kinds empower us for ministry in the world, to name just a few.

Most of all, perhaps, many married couples know what the Church seems rather strangely to have forgotten: marriage is not the best thing we can hope for. Yet over the course of several centuries in the modern West, the Church has baptized marriage as the apex of human fulfillment – just ask the modern wedding industry how much it costs to celebrate that fulfillment.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul would find such exultation of marriage rather strange indeed, as both of them suggested something quite different: rather than marriage, union with God is the apex of human fulfillment. At its best, marriage can only reflect and point to that hopeful promise and, thankfully, other types of covenantal relationship can do the same.

Everyone who wants to enter into a civil marriage contract should be able to do so. The Church should say that, loudly and clearly. The Church could also say something else: no one should feel compelled to get married for economic or social reasons. And to those who don’t want to get married, the Church can offer some queerly Christian hope: you can live a full, meaningful, responsible, adult life – even if you’re not married.

Will the Church say those important things? Only if it ends its collusion with the State. And I’ll say more about that in Part Two. Stay tuned.