Differently Abled in the Church: “Life Unworthy of Life” & the Kingdom of God
What does your church do with people who are differently abled, disabled, mentally handicapped, handicapped, or crippled? (All of those terms have been used in my thirty-odd trips around the sun.)
Do you have someone in your church who comes in a wheelchair? Do you have training for teachers and nursery workers, preschool workers and children’s ministers on how to engage kids with autism? Do you know a person with Down’s Syndrome? Are you equipped to recognize mental illness? When you offer communion, do you comment on how someone who is differently abled may access the Body and Blood of Christ?
I have two children. So far, to my knowledge, neither one is differently abled. The youngest can’t yet read; it’s possible we’ll learn she has dyslexia later on. Both are what strangers would call, “healthy.” For now, of course. A disease or tumor or accident could hit, leaving one with impaired cognition or missing an arm or with burn scars. When I was expecting my first child, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for various possibilities – miscarriage, birth defects, a disabled child. After all, there are a few pregnancy screenings most expectant mothers go through.
Growing up in North America at the end of the twentieth century during a constantly shifting linguistic atmosphere that aimed for more sensitivity, however imperfectly, meant changes in popular dialogue.
Recently a news story emerged about the drastic reduction of Down’s Syndrome in Iceland, ostensibly nearly “eliminated.” Actress Patricia Heaton stepped up and publicly challenged the portrayal of the reality: you’re not eradicating it, she said. You’re eradicating people with it. Because Iceland’s supposed “progress” wasn’t through some medical breakthrough: it was through abortion.
Around the same time, when I didn’t recognize the name of one of the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, I researched it online. The preview of their site used the word, “fit.” Fit. Not healthy or well-toned or strong. Fit, as in, fit or unfit. As in, who is fit to live. Nazis had no use for people with disabilities, or people who might need special education. I was sickened to see the word “fit” on that website as my mind went back to the documentaries on the Holocaust.
Life is a gift. Life is a good.
All those people went into camps and didn’t come out.
Life is life.
Jesus said, “let the little kids come to me.”
When someone talked about a guy born blind (in front of the man, mind you) and asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus challenged the notion that there was something wrong with parents of a child who was different than other children, and Jesus challenged the notion that there was something to be avoided about a person who was born with a physical limitation.
In fact, Jesus went on to clarify that the differently abled man was part of God’s inbreaking Kingdom, a specially chosen revelation of the power and love of God.
Around the same time that I read the word “fit” on the Neo-Nazi website, around the same time I saw the news out of Iceland about the approaching “eradication” of Down’s Syndrome, I happened across the video below.
Sometimes Wesleyan Methodists use the word “perfect” or “perfection.” We use it to mean, “complete in love,” “fullness of love,” “free of the desire to separate ourselves from God.” We use it to mean the kind of perfection alluded to in the Greek language of the New Testament – perfect, having met a full goal: whole, complete.
We never, ever use it to mean superior, or “fit,” or more worthy than another. All through the New Testament, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies work differently than other peoples’, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies don’t work “right,” but Jesus always sees them. Jesus makes eye contact. Jesus extends dignity. Jesus acknowledges personhood.
Zaccheus, we read, was a man “short in stature.” He may have been a little person, a human with dwarfism. Zaccheus was small, and for whatever reason, he was in a very unpopular profession. He risked ridicule by climbing up a tree to see Jesus. In the middle of the shoving crowds, Jesus looked up and made eye contact. He saw Zaccheus, he didn’t see through him. He didn’t avoid him. While Jesus is the star of the day, the big news in town, whose house does Jesus decide to go to? “Zaccheus, get down from there. I’d like to come to your house for dinner, is that okay?” The small man’s life was changed.
There is no “life unworthy of life” in the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Matthew we read about Jesus saying, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
One of the sisters of Mother Teresa’s Order commented on the value of disabled children a few years ago. “Each life ought to be lived,” Sr M. Infanta said, even if it does not meet utilitarian criteria or is not “productive” according to today’s models. “These children have been created to love and be loved. They are a unique source of blessing for us, society and the whole world,” she said.
Similarly, a few years ago a movie called “The Drop Box” was released about a Korean pastor who takes in otherwise abandoned infants, many of whom are disabled in some way. (At the time of publication, “The Drop Box” is available to view on Instant Netflix.)
What a diametrically opposed view Christians are called to embrace in contrast to the concept that there is, “life unworthy of life.” But more than a viewpoint or a concept is the challenge of practice.
In a subsection editors titled “The Judgment of the Nations,” we read these words from Matthew 25:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
An Icelandic mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome posed this question in the news story referenced earlier: “what kind of a society do you want to live in?”
I don’t know about you, but I want to live in one that looks more and more like a place that welcomes people Jesus loves. I want to live in one that looks more and more like the Kingdom of God, where we make eye contact, where we smile, where we kneel down, where we reach out and touch, where we embrace, where we see what we have to learn from people who are different than us.
Churches can become beacons of this merry, determined band of disciples that doesn’t leave anyone behind. The question is whether you will.
Picking up mentally handicapped adults in a church van for Sunday services isn’t glamorous. Pushing a heavy person in a wheelchair uphill with an oxygen tank banging into your shins doesn’t readily come with an apt hashtag. Learning how to serve a family with special needs kids might not headline any popular ministry conferences.
But Jesus made eye contact. Jesus knelt down. Jesus reached out. Jesus went out of his way. And we cannot ignore that Jesus made eye contact with us. Jesus knelt down for us. Jesus reached out to us. Jesus went out of his way for us.
A convenient time will never arrive. But if you look for them, beautiful moments will. There is no life unworthy of life. Life is beautiful.