A reflection by Sarah
Difference. It’s a word that’s being used more and more these days. It is a loaded term. I’m not sure I can count the number of times when I’ve witnessed someone using the word “difference” and someone else reacting with suspicion or outright hostility. Cut the politically correct bullshit. Ten years ago, no one felt shamed when dyslexia was called a “learning disability” rather than a “learning difference.” There is no difference between gay people and everyone else — gay people just want special rights. Celibacy is not a “different” calling — clearly, it shows that a person is uncomfortable with thinking about sex. As we’ve been blogging for the past year, I have noticed that a large number of people find the language of “difference” problematic. Some see it as a sign that the person using this word believes in coddling or extending unneeded additional privileges to someone who is “different.” Others see it as a denial of obvious realities — for example, glossing over hard topics like disability or sexual orientation in attempt to cater to a person or group’s oversensitivity. These folks often see themselves as acknowledging objective reality for what it is while the rest of the world is too concerned with sparing people’s feelings.
Important as I think it is to call a duck a duck, I’m skeptical of these claims more often than not. Decrying use of the word “difference” because of its supposed political correctness usually involves appealing to some objective reality that may or may not actually be objective. It seems to me that the problem becomes even more complicated when folks insist upon language that implies value judgment — gayness means that something is “wrong” regardless of the person’s level of sexual activity because it is contrary to God’s plan for marriage. Physical disability means that something is “wrong” with a person’s body part because body parts have obvious natural functions intended by God. Celibacy means that something is mentally or emotionally “wrong” with the celibate person because this way of life contradicts God’s commandment that we should be fruitful and multiply.
I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandfather when I was about to enter the 10th grade — what Americans refer to as the “sophomore” year of high school. He asked me if I knew what that word — sophomore — meant. Based on its roots, I had a sense that its meaning was related to both wisdom and foolishness. Grandpa, a brilliant man who had spent his younger years in the U.S. Navy and then worked as a professor of electricity, informed me that the word does indeed mean “wise fool.” I remember the conversation as though it was yesterday. “Sarah,” he told me, “A foolish man will spend his life gathering knowledge and priding himself on how much he thinks he knows. A wise man will spend his life learning how very little he knows, and the world will see his wisdom as foolish.” I always loved and respected Grandpa, but as the average high school sophomore likely would, I dismissed his words as the ramblings of a very old man with severe dementia. Now, what I wouldn’t give to sit down with him and have this discussion all over again…
So much of my life as an adult has been influenced by that conversation. Not that I consider myself particularly wise, but it has helped me to keep in mind that the human ability to know things is extremely limited. No matter how strong my opinion may be on a particular issue, it’s unreasonable to insist that I can know certain things about myself, other people, the world, and God if I actually can’t. When it comes to what God did or did not intend regarding human diversity, I don’t buy the western theological notion that almost everything can be categorized into natural or unnatural, ordered or disordered, good or bad, and right or wrong. To be totally clear, I’m not promoting a moral relativist position. I do believe that objective good and bad, right and wrong exist, and that from a Christian perspective actions and behaviors almost always fit one or more of these descriptors. However, it does not make sense to me that we can know without a doubt how (or if) every aspect of the incarnate human experience can be placed into one of these categories. Yes, I know, our readers who are fans of Aristotle and Aquinas are about to explode upon reading that. In case I haven’t already made it clear in other posts, I don’t always find detailed systematic explanations of theological or practical matters very convincing. Some experiences of life strike me as amoral. They cannot be rightly categorized because categorization drains these human experiences of their mysteriousness. It makes sense to me that discussing many aspects of life in terms of “difference” is a helpful way of appreciating that our minds are finite and we cannot put the mystery of God into a box.
Recently, the most common conversations I’ve engaged in regarding issues of difference have involved disability. These conversations have taken place over several weeks with many different people, and amongst all of them I’ve heard it stated that: 1) Disability is a result of the fall of humanity; 2) Disability means that something is wrong with a person on an ontological level; 3) Disability means that something is wrong, not on an ontological level, but on the level of “x body part isn’t working correctly”; 4) Because Jesus healed people of disabilities in the Gospels, it is obvious that people will be healed of all their disabilities in the Eschaton; 5) The claim that a certain disability is simply a “difference” carries with it the implication that disability is bad, difference is good, and people who don’t use difference language for describing their own disabilities ought to be shamed. Clearly, there is not enough space within one blog post to unpack all of these, but I think it’s important to address the general attitudes behind them. As I see it, many of these bear similarities to the continuous language policing that politically far-right straight Christians engage in with regard to LGBTQ issues.
The term “disability” is not scriptural. It is a human construction based upon what the able-bodied majority sees as normal or deviating from normal. People who have disabilities understand those disabilities in a wide variety of ways. Some view their disabilities primarily as distressing realities that interfere with their pursuits of fulfillment in life. Others view disabilities as nothing more than different ways of being — ways of life that need not be thought of as limited, but can be discussed in terms of advantages or even increase in other kids of ability (e.g. some hearing people who are blind have keener auditory abilities than hearing people who are sighted). There are also people with disabilities who see those disabilities as more of a mixed bag. Some prefer the language of disability while others prefer to use the phrase different ability.
I’m not suggesting that there is a right or wrong way for people to understand their own disabilities, but I do find it problematic when Christians suggest that due to theological, biological, or other truths, the most correct way of understanding disability (or difference in general) is through a lens of “Humanity is fallen and broken, and this brokenness will be redeemed.” For the record, I agree that humanity lives with the consequences of sin’s entry into the world, though I (in accordance with the teachings of my tradition) do not believe that we inherit original sin. I also agree that all of us are broken in one way or another, and that the Eschaton will bring about a restoration of all things to Christ. But the problem is, none of us know exactly what that means, and it isn’t possible for us to know. How do we know that disabilities will be “healed” in the Eschaton? Or that gay people will no longer be gay? How do we know that a disabled/differently-abled person who actually finds joy in that disability/different ability will not be permitted to maintain that aspect of incarnate identity for all eternity?
The purpose of the miracle stories in the Christian scriptures is to show us something about the kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and those who have been exiled will be welcomed to a place at the table. It seems to me that welcoming those who have been exiled and restoring a person’s place in community would require different interventions for different people. It makes sense to me that Christ healed blind Bartimaeus of his blindness because the society of the time made it nearly impossible for blind people to experience any form of human connection. However, it does not make sense to me that one must interpret this scriptural story as evidence that blindness is necessarily a form of brokenness that must be cured in the Eschaton. What if in the Eschaton, some blind people are given a physical sense of sight and others are not? What if at that time, there is no such thing as a “physical” sense of sight at all? Why must a restoration of all things necessarily mean that every glorified body will be “able-bodied” in the sense that we define this term in our earthly lives? There are blind people who would not want to be sighted and deaf people who would not want to be hearing even if there was a magic pill that could make it so. Are we seriously anticipating that on the resurrection day, God will sit down with these folks and say, “You did the best you could with the abilities you had in earthly life. But seeing and hearing are better than not seeing or not hearing, so here you go!”
I probably need to stop writing before I give myself nightmares. The image of God at the end of my previous paragraph strikes me as frightening and cruel. My own reasons for taking a disability-positive approach to my hearing loss are deeply connected to acceptance of myself as a lesbian and as a celibate. If given the opportunity, I wouldn’t want to be straight. I would not want to live a non-celibate way of life. And to my great surprise as I’ve come to accept the change in my hearing status, I’m discovering that I don’t want to be a hearing person again. Other people feel differently about their own experiences of the same circumstances, and I’m not about to deny them their feelings. But when we try to tell other people that something about their ability level, sexual orientation, cultural identity, etc. is necessarily broken or indicates wrongness, we are making value judgments about human experiences that are deeply mysterious. We are being wise fools, claiming to know the full extent of how God intends to redeem humanity at the resurrection. In a sense, we are acting as though we are God. That’s a tendency I struggle with myself in some conversations, so I’m not claiming innocence here. But it is also a tendency that I pray we will see less and less of in churches, and the only method I know for combatting it is reminding myself that no matter how knowledgeable I think I am, I worship an infinitely mysterious God who alone knows the complex needs of each individual creation.
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