To be a psychopath in the vernacular of character abuse is to be mentally ill, if not quite mad or completely insane. The word conjures up all manner of personality deficiencies and disorders, from a lack of empathy or remorse to a totally destructive egotistical disinhibition, verging on criminality. It is to be in some sense ‘disturbed’, with an assertiveness, antisociality and exploitative tendency which ordinary people would find somewhat disturbing. Clinical measurement can be as hard as actual diagnosis, not least because one man’s psychopath is another’s narcissist; and one woman’s psychopathic experience of toxic masculinity is another’s unwanted wolf-whistle.
John Cleese says Jesus was a psychopath. To be strictly accurate, he tweeted his belief is that Jesus existed on the psychopathic spectrum of personality disorder, and that many of his followers exhibit the same tendencies, if not exceed them. His assertion is vague, subjective and judgmental, but that’s the essence of psychopathology. It isn’t an exact science of mental abnormality, but his comments certainly aren’t meant to be complimentary.
To some, John Cleese is himself a psychopath. How else do you explain Monty Python’s Life of Brian (or, indeed, the Monty Python phenomenon at all) if not the creative product of some kind of frontal-lobe dysfunction?
But the problem with casting Jesus as a psychopath is that socially, fraternally and compassionately, he wasn’t anything of the sort. He exhibited none of characteristics which are symptomatic of the disorder. He was not callous, manipulative, Machiavellian, self-serving, self-seeking or self-aggrandising. He was by no means lacking in empathy or regard for others, and was not inclined to delinquency, crime or violence.
Some of his followers may have been, and no doubt quite a few still are. But Jesus himself was not of a self-centred disposition. He may have sought occasional solace on lonely places, but he was not unreliable or of poor behavioural control.
You may argue that he was a weird kid with a certain juvenile psychopathy, preferring to debate with rabbis than chuck pebbles into underground streams. He certainly manifested a loyalty, if not an ideological fanaticism to an ideological cause, even to the extreme of sacrificing himself for it. And this may be contiguous with a certain extremist psychopathy, but self-sacrifice for the salvation of others is not a common psychopathic trait.
And yet Scripture does suggest that Jesus was accused of being mad:
And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.
And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils (Mk 3:21–22).
There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings.
And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him? (Jn 10:19–20).
And the early Christians were perceived as being mad, if not insane:
And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.
But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness (Acts 26:24f).
The word here translated as ‘mad’ (μαίνῃ) is rendered elsewhere as ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’. And the cause is ‘much learning’, which is the source of his wisdom. There is a fine line between genius and madness, and if you espouse that carpenters get resurrected because a crucified Jew gave light to the world, then you can hardly be surprised if people think you a little foolish, if not mad.
John Cleese may be of the view that Jesus was more insane than divine, but perhaps he himself inclines by disposition more to insanity than divinity: he certainly manifests a pathologically-strong excitability of the imagination. And he wouldn’t be alone in believing that religion is more disease than cure, because, like mental illness, it springs from dissatisfactions, discontents and disorders. But, unlike mental illness, it is concerned in its higher forms to better our affective relationships with each other: it is ethical and social, not amoral and selfish. It also expresses itself in social institutions, rather than in misery, alienation and dementia.
Jesus and his followers are obsessed with sin, guilt, reconciliation and the kingdom of heaven: the appeal of a salvation doctrine to neurotic anxiety is easily intelligible. And St Paul was already a murderous religious fanatic before he became a loving Christian one, so psychologically ‘disturbed’ with divergent neuropathic traits throughout his recorded life. But in Christ, psychopathology becomes psychotherapy: it is a healing, curing, reconciling and saving. And one generation of ‘psychotherapists’ becomes the channel of healing love for the next generation of neurotics.
‘Psychopaths for Christ’ unite.