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Longing to belong

Longing to belong

Longing to belong

27 October 2017

We are all vulnerable creatures who have been given God’s image and called to witness to all people. To fail to properly include people with disabilities in that is to place them on the outside. Photo:Karl Frederickson

By Vaughan Olliffe

"Your results are like the equivalent of winning the gold medal.” These were the words of the genetic counsellor to my wife and I following our 12-week ultrasound.

She meant that it was highly unlikely that our child would be born with Down syndrome or other related genetic disorders. I wondered if she was aware of the implication of her words: that to have a “normal” baby was to “win gold” while having a child with a disability was to lose the race.

As the days passed, that implication stayed with me. For while it was easy to speak of how we believe all people are “equal”, the question that kept coming back to me was whether those words or beliefs were seen in my life.

And not just in my life but that of our churches, both in terms of theology and practice. We assume that our theology naturally leads us to embrace all people but it is less clear that we have a view of humanity that truly does that.

Disability theologian Deborah Creamer argues that people with disabilities are often seen, within the Christian community, as symbols of sin, images of saintliness, signs of God’s limited power or capriciousness or personifications of suffering.(1)

Her point: in being seen exclusively in terms of their disability, they are “othered” rather that recognised as fully human like the rest of us “normal” people.

In objectifying and "othering" people with disabilities in this way, we follow the lead of our culture, which glorifies a certain type of body.

Impairment is regarded as a challenge to overcome or a burden to be borne. What is seen is the condition rather than the person.

Image of God

Christians seek to provide a challenge to this attitude by turning to the “image of God” to secure dignity for all people. And yet, understandings of the “image of God” routinely exclude people with disabilities.

For example, ethics professor Hans Reinders suggests that Augustine’s linking the image of God to the intellect can justify the creation of different classes of people depending on their intellectual capacities.(2)

Yet image-of-God theology should shape our understanding of what it is to be human. 

In Genesis 1:26-28, God creates humanity, both male and female, in his image. The image is not given to one particular individual or one sex. Nor are there any conditions set for someone to have the image.

The image of God is the gracious gift of God to humanity. To be human is to be made in the image of God. This is something that all people share in. While Augustine has been criticised by disability theologians, he makes the point that all children of Adam and Eve are truly human.

There is an equality among us all as we are all persons created by God. God has called each one of us into being. No one person has more of the image than another. Each human, therefore, is a unique person who is equally worthy of dignity and respect.

We do not need to work out what characteristics someone might have to grant the image. Instead, knowing that they have the image, we should reach out with love towards them to discover what it is that makes this person unique.

In doing this we should remember that while we write and speak of disability as an overarching condition, the reality is that there is no single experience of disability. To view someone as their disability, therefore, is to fail to see them as a unique person first.

The other part of the creation story is that humanity is given the image corporately. We bear it together. And in Genesis 2 we learn that the man is not complete by himself. People are made for relationship. We discover who we are through relationship with God and with one another. This is a need shared equally by people with disabilities.

Inclusion versus belonging

So why do we struggle to rightly welcome people with disabilities? Theologian Thomas Reynolds suggests it is because disability forces us to confront our own fragility and contingency.(3) And in a world that celebrates youth, health and beauty we are uncomfortable with difference.

Yet we are all vulnerable creatures who have been given God’s image and called to witness to all people. To fail to properly include people with disabilities in that is to place them on the outside. So if our practice rightly reflects our theology, then it must affect the way that our churches gather together.

We do not want our churches to merely include people with disabilities, we want them to be places where people with disabilities feel they belong. Welcoming people with disabilities will not always be easy, but we must not reject them because it is more comfortable for us. Photo Nathan Anderson

Theologian John Swinton notes the following differences between inclusion and belonging. Inclusion makes sure there is a ramp for people with disabilities to come into a room. Belonging means that there is love and acceptance waiting as the person with a disability enters the room. While inclusion can be a way of making sure things remain the same, belonging welcomes difference. When someone belongs, they know that they are wanted.

Take Stephen, Swinton’s friend with Down syndrome, for example. His love for Jesus would lead him to shout out “Jesus” during church services. Stephen was moving to another home and Swinton went to help him find a church in the area where he could enjoy fellowship.

During the service of a church they visited, Stephen yelled out “Jesus” several times. A church member eventually came down and suggested to Swinton that perhaps Stephen would be better off leaving or joining the Sunday School so that people could “worship in peace”. 

This type of attitude places a greater emphasis on “the way we worship around here” than on loving those made in the image of God and welcoming them and their ways of worship. Welcoming people with disabilities will not always be easy, but we must not reject them because it is more comfortable for us.

Forging relationships

To welcome people with disabilities means that we regard them as we would any other member of the congregation. We should recognise that they are sinful just as we are and that they are saved through Christ just as any other member of the Church.

This means that we should also seek to find the ways in which they can serve the body. If we only ever have certain people up the front it tells those who come in our doors the type of people we value. This is of prime importance given our tendency to be drawn to people just like us.

Our churches should not simply be reflections of certain small groups of people. Swinton points out that the reality of life is that we become persons-in-relation with other people who are similar to us. But in the Church we have the opportunity to forge relationships with people who are significantly different from us.

In relationship with people with disabilities, we recognise difference and celebrate that people with disabilities are equally in God’s image. When we do this it allows us to broaden our thinking, theology and practice. If we are to change our churches to seek to make them more welcoming, then we need to do this in consultation with people with disabilities and their carers.

Churches need to hear the voices of people with disabilities about how to ensure that their gatherings are places where they feel they are wanted and belong. We should not assume that we know what will help address their needs because if we do we are thinking about including them rather than welcoming them.

It may be as basic as not offering communion in an area where you have to walk up stairs or having a Braille Bible available. But we should also not inadvertently disqualify people from serving just because they have a disability. These steps are just a start and yet are ones that many churches have not made.

A survey of 13,000 churches in the United States found that only 23 had programs that intentionally welcomed people with disabilities.(4) The parents of children with disabilities interviewed, expressed a feeling that they were ignored or overlooked. Most did not blame the Church. Instead they simply said the Church was no different from the world.

Unique gifts

At the core is how we think about people with disabilities. We need to regard them as people with needs to be met and gifts to use. It is not that we “allow” them to serve us but that we acknowledge that we need them.

If we offer true hospitality then we recognise people with disabilities as “someone with inherent value, loved into being by God, created in the image of God, and thus having unique gifts to offer as a human being.”(5)

Truly believing that people with disabilities are made in the image of God should also affect how we think about mission. When mission is discussed in our churches, it is often done with a focus on verbal proclamation and intellectual assent. Little thought is given to those people with disabilities who cannot make an intellectual assent.

Swinton argues that just as God has accommodated himself to us throughout history, revealing himself through his Word, he reveals himself in the communication of love to those with severe intellectual disabilities through loving relationships.(6)

We can offer the love of Christ through the way that we treat and interact with them. We as a church need to do a better job of reaching out to people with disabilities, holding out to them the love of Christ. While we acknowledge some of the shortcomings of the attitudes of the Early Church fathers to people with disabilities, we could do far worse than to take up their call to care for all people because we recognise them as being made in the image of God.

We can care for them in a way that values them as individuals with gifts for the body, not as passive objects of care. We also recognise that they have special needs and that we as a body should seek to ensure that those needs are met.

We should not simply wait for people with disabilities to seek us out before we change what we do. Instead we should take steps to seek them out so that they may know the glorious news that Jesus died for them and invites them to put their trust in him and come into his kingdom.

Vaughan Olliffe completed a Bachelor of Divinity at Moore Theological College, which included a major project exploring Disability and the Image of God. He is now the manager of the Doorways program in The Salvation Army Australia Eastern Territory.

Read another article on disability by Vaughan Olliffe.

Endnotes

1. Deborah Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (Academy series; Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 36. 2. Hans S. Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 229. 3. Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2008), 29 4. Amy Jacober, “Ostensibly Welcome: Exploratory Research on the Youth Ministry Experiences of Families of Teenagers with Disabilities”, J. Youth Minist. 6/1 (September 1, 2007): 75. 5. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 14. 6. John Swinton, “Restoring the Image: Spirituality, Faith, and Cognitive Disability”, Journal of Religion and Health, 1 March 1997, 26.

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