Disabilities and the Church

As we began to think about persons with disabilities and the ways in which the church has excluded them, we read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

We noted, especially, that “there is a time to speak” and that this is that time. We read about the encounter between jesus and a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11):

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

From one point of view it may appear that the scribes and Pharisees were furious with Jesus because he had violated the Sabbath. But from another point of view, the fury of the scribes and Pharisees that was directed at Jesus might just as well have came about because he reinterpreted (and in many ways rewrote) the law. The law was seen as a direct gift from God and only God could write (and hence rewrite) the law. When Jesus acted on that Sabbath day he was claiming the role of Torah for himself, an act that drove the scribes and Pharisees to distraction. Jesus’ new thinking about the Sabbath placed the restoration of a disabled man above the law to do no work on the Sabbath. It seems that Jesus really was committed to the idea that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Today, it seems, the church often allows legalisms to exclude groups of people from participation (in the time of Jesus, a man with a withered hand would have been excluded from full participation in the life of the Temple) and yet it seems that Jesus had a different set of priorities.

In our conversation about disabilities, which we noted cannot be discussed in the abstract but are always associated with personhood, we were blessed to be joined by Meshelle Lesner. Meshelle is the Spiritual Life Coordinator at Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio, which is a Mennonite-affiliated, non-profit organization serving people with mental retardation and other development disabilities and their families.. In a dialog with Meshelle, several key points were raised:

• Often when people encounter someone who has a visibly obvious disability, they assume that the person must be grieving over their loss of function, that their life must be in tatters and ruins, and that they must be very sad, angry and frustrated. In fact, it is entirely possible that the individual has come to terms with their own life, is quite happy, and simply wants to share a joke with someone! The assumptions that we know what is wrong and we know what someone must want are simply false. We noted how Jesus, upon encountering some blind men at a roadside did not naturally assume that they wanted him to cure their blindness. Instead, he asked them, “What can I do for you?” (Matthew 20:29-34).

• In a very real sense, all of us have “disabilities”. It is simply that for some of us those disabilities are on the inside and others don’t see them right away. It is when a person’s disabilities are visually obvious that there is the tendency to separate into “them” and “us”.

• There is a tendency, at least in the US, to measure the value of someone’s life by “productivity”. By this measure, a person with significant disabilities appears to have a life that has little or no value. If instead we were to think of the value of life as measured in terms of the ability to love, then perhaps this devaluing of human life would stop.

• It is easy to exclude people, even when this is unintentional. As an example, we compared the sorts of things that we might consider when we decided whether or not to come to church that day, to the sorts of things that someone with a significant disability might consider. One set of questions included, “I wonder if the music will be any good?”; “I wonder if the preacher will go on and on (again)?”; I wonder if it is easy to park close to the building?” while the other set of questions included, “What will happen if I have to go to the toilet?”; “Will I be able to get my wheelchair through the door?”; “Will they include me and ask me how I can serve, or will they think that I have nothing to offer?”; “Will everyone stare at me?”. One important lesson is to keep trying to be inclusive and to learn from our mistakes. Inclusiveness can get messy and it takes time and energy to get it right. One important lesson comes from our Ecclesiastes reading. Not only is there a time to speak, but there is also a time to be silent. Allowing others to speak and listening to them is a big step towards being inclusive.

We were blessed to be in conversation with Meshelle Lesner, who has spent considerable time reflecting theologically on issues of exclusion, especially as they relate to persons with disabilities.

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