One of the most knotty problems that come before the governing body of a church for consideration and possible disciplinary action is the psychologically abnormal person whom the psychiatrist calls a “psychopath.”
Such a person seems to possess little or no sense of guilt, or at best the sense of guilt is very distorted. In his dealing with such a person the pastor soon discovers that he is confronted by a person who seems to be almost wholly devoid of conscience. The psychopath is often on the surface a suave individual who seeks to convince the pastor and the board of his utter sincerity. If the situation calls for a penitent spirit, he may beg for forgiveness and utter the expressions of sorrow which seem to be demanded. But his confession is a performance and over it all there hangs the aura of the utterly “phoney.”
To assess the degree of their moral responsibility for their deeds poses a difficult problem, as does the degree and permanence of the spiritual change that may be expected from such erring parishioners.
The Psychopath Defined
In psychiatric classification these persons are listed as “sociopathic personality disturbances,” their illness being a severe personality disorder which manifests itself in abnormal social behavior. This type of disturbed personality is found among the so-called pathological liars, bogus check passers, repetitional forgers, and among the impersonators of officers, and professional men. Sometimes they live off the charity fund of the church, and sometimes either cannot or will not hold a job.
The psychopath is often a person of loose morality. He may flit from one spouse to another as a bee from flower to flower. He may be a sexual pervert, a homosexual; or again he may be heterosexual, openly promiscuous and engaged in prostitution. The psychopathic personality may also be among the alcoholics or drug addicts.
Psychopaths are often in danger of imprisonment. If their offense is no greater than bad checks or financial defrauding, their families often supply the monies to keep them from prison—and thus abet their evil deeds. The most dangerous psychopath, the sadistic (the sadistic raper, for example), the so-called born criminal, inevitably ends in a prison cell.
Psychopaths have been on the earth from earliest times. Solomon in Proverbs 26 lists almost all of them: liars, drunkards, sloths, sexual transgressors, and others. Some of these are simply godless sinners; some psychopaths. Proverbs 26:11 and 2 Peter 2:22 stress their antisocial behavior, that is, their failure to profit from instruction and their tendency to revert to their former habits. The psychopath is “incapable of exertions for the sake of others” as Robert M. Lindner asserts in his Rebel Without a Cause.
The Psychopath’S Capacity For Guilt
As stated, a psychopath has a distorted sense of guilt at best, and at worst seemingly little or no sense of guilt at all. Why? Does this make him less guilty? What is guilt? Is he less responsible before men and God? How must such a church member be dealt with? As a sick person, or as a sinful person? The answer depends on our world and life view.
In the Freudian view, human personality reveals three mental structural levels: the id, the realm of the unconscious; the ego, the conscious realm; and the superego, the realm of conscience. Neither a humanistic, nor a Christian-oriented psychology, assume that a child comes into the world devoid of mental endowments, its mind a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper on which life will write. Neither regards the primordial basic psychic substance with which the child enters the world as being of a high order of goodness, morally laden toward all that is noble and worthy. On the contrary, modern psychology regards the id, the child’s primary mental structure on entering the world, as being essentially a moral swamp, a cesspool squirming with all the primitive aggressive and sexual drives of the jungle, pressing from the very beginning for expression. Out of this swamp of the unconscious a garden spot, so to speak, the ego, the conscious, thinking, intellectualizing factor somehow emerges.
The ego of even the youngest infant soon discovers that it cannot reign as king without conflicting with innumerable traditional values and ideals which confront him first in the persons of his father and mother. The infant soon learns that society will enforce its mandates by a system of rewards and punishment even upon him. Thus the ego becomes aware of morality within society. Thereupon, according to Freud, the superego develops from the ego and functions as a censor, as an internalized “moral arbiter of conduct.” This develops in response to the rewards and punishments meted out by the parents, and is well developed by the age of five.
At this point anxiety is born. “We see,” says Freud, “this same ego as a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by dangers from three directions: from the external world, from the instinctive energies or libido of the id, and from the severity of the superego.” Three kinds of anxiety of corresponding variety arise: reality anxiety, neurotic anxiety, and moral anxiety or guilt.
The normal man would like to be at peace with his own “superego” as his ego has a great dread and fear of his conscience. If he is abnormal, lacking conscience, his behavior will be at variance with society since he fails to develop anxiety because of his misdeeds.
Freud postulates that we have anxiety even before birth. He asserts: “We think it is the experience of birth … (which has) become a prototype for all occasions on which life is endangered, ever after to be reproduced again in us as the dread or anxiety condition.” The unborn serenely floating for nine months in the amniotic fluid in the womb, its temperature controlled by the thermostat of the mother, protected against all wounds by a fluid cushion, is suddenly pushed through the narrow birth canal into the world. Thus the child is anxiously thrust into a world of anxiety. The word “anxiety” itself means “narrow,” as is evident in many languages and comes to expression in the English slang “to be pushed through a knothole.”
Christian Concept Of Anxiety, Guilt
Christians must disagree with the notion that the birth canal is the primal origin of all anxiety, and that the birth experience is the prototype of all later anxiety manifestations. Man entered the world not first of all through the birth canal but by the creative act of God. Man entered life as an adult, physically and morally perfect, made in the image of God. Man as created was devoid of pathological anxiety, until the Fall. Anxiety was born out of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden.
Anxiety, especially moral anxiety, which is guilt, is the consequence of sin. It was only after the Fall that man for the first realized the difference between “being naked,” which was anxiety laden, and his previous state of “being nude” which was free from anxiety. Only then did man hide himself from the presence of the Lord God, and being found of him cried, “I was afraid; I was naked: I hid myself.”
Guilt is separation from God, the result of sin. In this sense it is something quantitative, measurable. It is so profound a disturbance of the individual’s relationship to God, that man is intensely aware of it. This awareness is the sense of guilt. The sense of guilt is an affect, a feeling, an awareness, laden with anxiety of the deepest nature, whereas guilt itself is measurable, something objectively real, as real as writing on a page, something that only God through expiation, confession, restitution can wipe out. Even punishment cannot itself remove guilt.
With this Eden prototype of all guilt, there arose the sense of guilt, the sense of impending penalty, and the sense of the justice of the penalty. Not all men have this sense of guilt in the same degree, nor do they in the same degree fear the penalty. Nevertheless, there are few in whom the sense of guilt does not emerge in the form of a psychological complex of anxiety, fear, remorse, despair, and depression. The psychopath is one of these few.
What Makes Psychopaths Anti-Social?
With the psychopath, we are dealing with a man, who (we must thus far suppose) has as normal a brain tissue anatomically and microscopically as has the normal person. All of us “normal” people are born with a conscience as a gift of God and proceed from infancy to develop a superego in addition to the conscience. But there has been a difference congenitally and in the personality development of the psychopath. Sin plays a part both in the rearing of each child from infancy onward and also in the terrible wounds which man suffered in the fall of man. Genetically, we see at times physical defects present at birth. A child may be born without a right arm. There is no question that psychical handicaps are also transmittable from parent to child. A child may be born without the capacity of ever learning to “keep a tune.” These are not just environmental but hereditary.
It is too bold a statement to say that the psychopath is born entirely without a conscience. There is a conscience present in the newborn child destined to become a psychopath but in many cases it remains rudimentary, undeveloped. Nevertheless, the child (here under consideration) is a covenant child. In these functionally stunted people called psychopaths there is some of that light “which, coming into the world, lighteth every man” though it may seem feeble.
With the psychopath the dehumanizing occurs in the moral and spiritual realm especially, though he may become brilliant intellectually. In the psychopathic personality, the inborn hereditary psychic and spiritual defects, the minus rather than the plus qualities, as well as the psychic wounds thereafter, result in an individual who is not so much ill as stunted in his moral and spiritual development. They result in a person who lacks a sense of guilt, a person who is not so much ill as one who makes society ill, and makes it suffer.
The psychopath does not get anxious in the same way that neurotic and normal persons do, for faced with tense or guilt-laden situations, he does not have the rapid heart beat, the sweating, nor the blanching or the terror. Some say his misdeeds are the manifestations of his diseased anxiety.
The psychopath does not remain a “child.” He differs from the normal small child in that the small child is still learning lessons of conduct, of right and wrong behavior from the world about him, while the adult psychopath cannot learn these lessons. The normal child becomes guilt-laden, but the adult psychopath will blame himself scarcely at all. He can remain suave and charming. The normal child is punished, but relatives and friends will often permit the adult psychopath to continue to ruin himself, and them, by excusing him and by paying up his bad debts. They will keep him out of jail by paying for his forgeries and will prevent him from ever learning the lessons that society could teach him. The psychopath does respond to disagreeable things. He may have a fastidious nature, and quite dislike the interior of a prison cell. He may, for his own convenience, avoid repeating his antisocial behavior, yet basically he remains unchanged.
Hope For The Psychopath?
Many psychiatrists, convinced that psychopaths are hopeless cases, refuse to treat them. Others are more hopeful even though they realize the needed psychotherapy may require long periods of time, even years.
The psychopath cannot be judged in the same manner as a normal church member. There must be greater understanding. Allowances must be made, though there may be no condoning of the psychopath’s evil deeds, of his lying, defaming, stealing, sex perversion, his deviant actions of exhibitionism or homosexuality.
From the psychopath with homosexual tendencies the same continence must be demanded as one demands of the person with drives to possess an unattached woman or another’s wife. The pastor, and/or church board, must convey to the psychopath that they understand him and his problem, that they regret his stunted sexual and emotional development, but that they must require of him (as it does of normal, unmarried people) that his sexual urges be not satisfied outside of marriage. They should also inform him that non-gratification will cause him no bodily harm. Should he persist, then with no vindictive feelings but only with the deepest sorrow, the board must act in order to save the purity and the name of Christ’s Church. If naught avails, the church board must place such an individual under censure, and refuse him the privilege of coming to the Sacrament of Communion. And this is the pattern of treatment that must be accorded to all psychopaths guilty of persistent gross antisocial behavior.
Where the person is already in the hands of the law and has had previous experiences with the law, it is unwise to now buy his way free, and thereby encourage him in his misdemeanors. Imprisonment has never cured a psychopath, but it does deter him from some of his action.
Nor should one pessimistically state that there is no hope of reaching this person from the spiritual standpoint. He should not be rejected and become an outcast. He should be labored with spiritually. It is amazing what a true religious conversion can do. Are psychopaths capable of such true conversion? Many of them seem genuine penitent at times and, unless one dares to make the judgment that it is insincere, it must be accepted each time as valid, though he fall and repent over and over again.
Understanding is necessary on the part of the family and consistory. We are dealing, it is true, with “sin,” but also with a psychic handicap which is as incapacitating as a physical handicap. “Sin,” yes, but somewhat mitigated by “illness.” Love is still needed by the psychopath. One must get across to him: “We still love you though we utterly reject what you repeatedly do.” And this we may believe the pastor, the church, will do, but only if they first learn to recognize the psychopath.
Finally, the psychopath must ultimately deal with a merciful and righteous God. In his mercy God knows whether this one has ever truly placed all his hope in his Son; in his righteousness God knows the psychopath’s exact degree of psychic handicap. He knows the exact endowment this person has had in the realm of conscience and controls from birth onwards. Perhaps the subject of our discourse falls into the “few stripes” category of Luke 12:48.
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