On August 25th 2014 I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Mat Ray from the charity Livability as we talked on the topic Disability: Are We Talking About It Enough? – a talk aimed at people of faith and their Churches. As the talk wasn’t recorded (sorry, no idea why) I thought I would put my notes here so that anyone who wants to remind themselves of anything I said, or anyone who might be interested, but who wasn’t there, might be able to see where my part of the hour went. So, here it is, please enjoy!
Good afternoon. It is a real pleasure and privilege to be able to spend a few minutes with you this afternoon. If you’ve been listening so far you will have picked up that Mat and I do not think there at the present time the church is making the most of the opportunity that it has to change the tone of the conversation regarding disability in our society.
I do not seek more power or influence for the church in the conversation merely so that people might be made to conform to our way of thinking, after all it’s not as if we all agree on what we think anyway, rather, I seek more influence for the church in this conversation because I believe that the church has something distinctive and unique to offer within it.
Whereas throughout society disability is almost uniformly seen as a negative thing which needs to be eradicated as far as possible and where it cannot be eradicated ignored, the church instead has a different message. We have a God who allowed himself to become disabled to the fullest extent of any human person in all of history in order that salvation might be made available to all and that none might be excluded from the offer of his love and participation in the coming of his kingdom. We have faith in which weakness is celebrated rather than something to be avoided and God whose power is made perfect in our weakness. The Christian Scriptures tell us that the body of Christ, the church, being as it is made up of many parts, is only complete when its weakest members are given the greatest honour. Is this the kind of society in which we live today? Are those who are weakest, whether they be impaired or not, given honour, and deemed not just necessary but crucial in the enterprise of societies to succeed to the fullest extent possible? I don’t think they are. I think we live in a society in which many people would prefer that they were not faced with disabled people or the prospect of disability. Only this week, Richard Dawkins made his reprehensible remarks about the moral duty incumbent on us all to ensure that foetuses which have the possibility of Down’s syndrome should be aborted. While of course this is an extreme view and one which I expect Prof Dawkins wished to express in a more nuanced fashion, I think we in the church are faced with a growing clamour in society to understand why disability should be tolerated. This has far-reaching consequences, not least in the areas of medical ethics in terms of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. What a society does not deem valuable it can eradicate with an increasingly clearer conscience.
Now, a couple of caveats. I do not in fact think that, if you are impaired, you are necessarily weaker. Far from it. I hope that some of the Scriptures I’ve already mentioned also indicate that God doesn’t hold that view either. Impairment of God led to salvation for all. Impairment, or the possibility of impairment was present in the original creation. The world God made was very good, good enough for Him, and within it, the possibility of difference, of differing abilities and strengths and weaknesses was built-in. Impairment, development, loss, change, ageing, these were all parts of the original creation. What was not is any hierarchy other than God first, man second, and most certainly what was not present is social disablement. For those who don’t know, social disablement is what happens when I am disabled or disempowered or disallowed from being or doing something in a society because there are barriers erected to stop me doing so. For example, not being able to enter a building, because there are steps, not being able to use a bathroom in a place, because you can’t get a wheelchair in, being denied a job on the grounds of disability, being denied access to salvation, or having my ability or suitability to receive the gifts of God in salvation on the basis of an impairment. These kinds of things have no place in the kingdom of God.
We all need the life, love, hope, peace, joy and freedom offered to us by Jesus Christ. All of us, whether we claim to understand anything about Him and who He is and what He did or not. Jesus lived, died, rose again and ascended once, for all, for us. We don’t have to understand it, it’s probably best we all stop claiming that we do, but we are adopted in to the family of God, heirs to the promise of the spirit of peace. Jesus has done it, it is won, it is for us, so that we can be for Him.
If, in the original creation, all are created equal (let’s just accept that they are), what goes wrong? It’d be easy to just say sin in a serious tone of voice and move on, but it’s deeper than that. Because we choose not to live the way we were designed to, we don’t know how to relate to god, or one another, or ourselves. We’re a mess basically. In trying to put things back together, we fall into fear, selfishness, grabbing for power and authority wherever we can get it. Autonomy is the order of the day. Choice, freedom, which is really no kind of freedom at all. We decide what kind of society we want to be, who’s in, who’s out and how we’re going to include and exclude, on the basis of behavior, economic viability, whether we’re worth it.
Here’s the thing. God already did that in creation. Jesus already did that in the cross. Everyone has the opportunity to be in. It is sacrilegious for us to exclude anyone from the offer of the kingdom of God. Otherwise, how would any of us expect to get in?
Is it about understanding? No. Is it about physical or mental ability? No. Is Jesus all in the head? No. Can I save myself? No. Only Jesus can do all these things.
If we claim that impairment shouldn’t exist, and therefore exclude disabled people because they don’t conform to the kinds of standards we want for our “pure” Church, we are basically telling Jesus to bugger off. The cross can’t happen because it is an offence to our standards of purity. Instead, we need to know the difference between healing and cure. God heals people all through scripture, and today. Ultimate healing, for all, is coming to be the person that they were made to be by God, receiving salvation. Cure is what happens sometimes, either through the medical or the miraculous, when a condition or illness is taken away. We all need the former, that’s the big deal, but because we can’t control it, we sell GOD out by seeking the latter. There’s more to life than this.
God doesn’t include or exclude, he offers full participation to all, in his family, in the coming of His kingdom. It’s only when we live like this that our Churches will begin to live out the radical differences that they have the potential to offer a hurting society.
Most of us think we’re worthless: God made us all to be like Him and grow in to His likeness. Most of us will, at some point, become impaired in some ways, whether it’s physically, mentally or emotionally. This is unavoidable. It is part of life, part of Creation. It is to be embraced. Just as the three parts of the trinity coexist and codepend on each other, so we are to coexist and codepend on one another, as we seek to live to give glory to God. How can we do this if we are elevating ourselves over and above some of our brothers and sisters? How can that be?
Christianity is a future-facing faith. It’s not just for or about now. It’s about what is coming. From the beginning of His ministry Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, and so, as well as having the best way to live that there is, now, we could usefully be aware that we have been set free for the purpose of spending eternity with God.
Lots of people ask me about whether I will still be disabled in heaven. Aside from the obvious answer (gold plated wheelchair) there’re a few problems with this question.
- We don’t know what heaven will be like, but assuming it is physical, do we really feel like it’ll be like something that we recognize? I struggle personally with the idea of spending eternity in something that looks anything like Northampton.
- Scripture tells us that “surely we will all be changed”. As far as I’m concerned, all means all, so if I was changed, I wouldn’t be the only one. It might well be that I’ll be able to walk in heaven, but, honestly, so what? It’s not about me, it’s about God. I spend so much of my life thinking only about me, it’s a scandal.
I realize of course other people think very deeply indeed about wanting to be rid of an ailment, or healed of a memory and so on in the age to come. I don’t want or mean in any way to diminish your desires. Far from it. I believe God loves us enough, more than we could possibly ask or imagine, to deal with us individually, on a case by case basis. What a revolutionary thought. I don’t think God will be constrained by having to treat us all the same. His boundless, matchless love for us is His to offer, not ours to limit.
What I do know is this, whether there is impairment in heaven or not, there will be no disablement. We will, all, finally be free of the burden of not knowing how to relate to one another, not knowing how to love. We will be eternally in the presence of love, grace and mercy. For me, personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that whether or not I can walk will pale in to insignificance next to the possibility of being finally free. That might be a cop out, but in the end, no-one really knows what is to come. We just know that it’s good, better than what we have now, and probably won’t look much like Northampton.