Disability: What does it mean to be human?
In the last post, we talked about changing our view of what is normal and the need to see that people with disabilities have value that is not contingent upon how they perform. In this post, we’ll expand on the value of humanity as a whole, and therefore, the value of those who have disabilities.
When God became man incarnate, He showed us what it means to be truly human. He is our example when trying to find meaning and value and hope for humanity. If this is the case, then to be whole is not to be independent and self-reliant, because Christ was neither of these. If we look at Christ on the cross He was characterized by complete inability to do anything for Himself. He was even dependent upon others for a simple drink. Also, God in Christ came for others. He came to destroy social boundaries that excluded groups of people. In Christ, it was no matter if you were Jew or Greek, male or female, a leper, a prostitute, or a blind beggar – all had a place in God’s kingdom. All were loved by God. God in Christ becomes united with all of humanity and redefines what it means to be human. Value comes not from function but from the life giving love of God. If Christ is our example of what it means to be truly human, then lack of ability (disability) and dependence upon others is of great worth.
All human beings, not just the disabled, are ultimately contingent upon God and others. It is only in Christ that we find our being, our existence. Our existence does not come from any thing that we do or achieve. Being is given to us as gift (Reynolds, 203). And as gift, it is something to be cherished. God, with intention, breathed us into existence. He breathed persons with disabilities into existence with full knowledge of what their life would be like. There is great value in the very weakness of all human beings, even of those who can contribute nothing that society deems to be functional. Reynolds puts it so eloquently in his article “Love without Boundaries” in reference to his autistic son:
I am confronted suddenly, unexpectedly, by a beauty that is more than I arranged for or expected, that surprises me by its very appearance in weakness and fragility, in its capacity to be denied and broken. Astonished, I am awakened and lured into another way of being that suspends the laws of production and distribution so characteristic of the typical economy of exchange. Another, more primary, economy is at work here, one in which the other offers me nothing useful, nothing at all according to standard conventions—nothing, that is, but its own being. Here there are no calculable “reasons” that bid me to enter into a contractual relation with it in order that I may gain something in return, for it shows itself as a value precisely in its weakness, its inability to offer “anything” in return. Apart from all external conditions and utilitarian appraisals of worth, a human being stands before me in sheer givenness. And from this surprising, incalculable occurrence rises in me a profound acknowledgement: To exist is good, a grace received (Reynolds, 203).
To exist is good, a grace received. And if existence is good, and if Christ showed us what it means to live in community with those who He brought into being, then there is great value in community. We need to be in commune with His creation. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community for the disabled, states: “We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging” (Vanier, 41) Because we share a common humanity with all others, Christians and non-Christians, persons with disabilities and those who are able, can all find a commonality in Christ. As creatures of the same God, we all share a commonality that allows people who are profoundly different to relate and build community. The Church’s love for the community, the poor, the needy, the orphaned, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the disabled should not be a love of pity. This love, rather, should be without condition. It should be a love that looks past “us and them” and gives everyone a crucial part in the community because all share the value that Christ gives.
Each member of God’s community is different. We have different strengths and weaknesses. 1 Corinthians 12:20-26 states so beautifully the value of all humans, especially those who are weak:
As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it (RSV).
The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable to the Church. God does not ask of any of us to achieve great things and to succeed in life. He asks us to follow Him. Where does Christ lead us? He leads us all to brokenness and humility on the cross and He leads us to rejoice with all of humanity in the life He has given.
Reynolds, Thomas E. “Love Without Boundaries: Theological Reflections on Parenting a Child with Disabilities,” Theology Today (July 2005): 62/2.
Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. Toronto, ON, Canada: House of Anansi, 2008.