Awareness and Appropriation

On October 25, 2016, The Gospel Coalition’s Christian Living blog, entitled “Befriend Those with Disabilities and Special Needs.” The author, Scott Sauls, a protégé of Tim Keller, is not (to my knowledge) some abusive man looking to uphold his own elitist status by intentionally disenfranchising other persons.  He has not been directly caught up in abuse scandals.  He regularly speaks out about abuse in its various forms.  And yet, the basic premise of Sauls’ article shows that even persons who mean well can perpetuate systems of injustice,  creating theology which dehumanizes persons considered “other”.

In my opinion, the specific wording Sauls chooses to describe persons with Down syndrome, betray several common ways that theology can be used to perpetuate the exploitation and dehumanization of persons with disabilities.[1]

Objectification

First, Sauls depicts persons with Down syndrome as existing for the benefit of enabled persons, using the words: “I firmly believe the greatest beneficiaries of this relationship aren’t the people among us who have special needs, but those of us who get to be in their company.”

When I read these words, my heart dropped.  This framing, creates a specific paradigm through which the narratives that follow are read, as each story is punctuated by reference to how Sauls personally benefited from his ministry to persons with disabilities.

This rhetoric encourages the reader reader to work with disabled persons as a utility to personal “blessings.” There is no admonition to develop a theology which recognizes their intrinsic human value.  No attention is paid to reminding the audience that persons with disabilities are not somehow less human, but are made fully in the image of God. Not does he provide any practical knowledge, equipping his audience to advocate for and empower persons with disabilities. 

The reality is, reducing persons with disabilities to objects of utility diminishes their value as persons in the image of God. According to Matthew 25, the way we treat our marginalized is directly reflective of the god our theology portrays.

Appropriation

Further, Sauls minimizes the actual obstacles that persons with Down syndrome face when he declares “We are all disabled. And we all have special needs.”  

This is an especially offensive turn of phrase because “We are all disabled.” evokes the language Original Sin.  Per Neo-Calvinist theology, Original Sin is a sickness that each person is born into, and that we can only be saved from by the grace of Christ.  Even the youngest baby is thus guilty of sin and in need of grace.  This theological commitment leads Sauls to reduce the very real, life circumstances that persons with Down syndrome face to a metaphor for the corporate and individual sins of both the author and the reader. 

This is compounded by his use of the phrase “beautifully broken”. In using the word “broken” he “other”izes their abilities, rendering their existence in wording that inherently indicates that they are somehow “less.”  By adding the word “beautifully” he serves to do little more than patronize them.  The implication is that they are “less than” enabled person, as their existence – in Sauls’ theology – is predicated on the “brokenness” of a sinful world.

Perhaps Sauls is unaware that persons with Down syndrome often live with a host of health issues as well.  Maybe he is unaware that they have a drastically increased risk of dementia, endocrine disorders, and spinal development issues.  Maybe he doesn’t understand that the parents and caregivers of persons with Down syndrome face a great deal of stigma due to the myths and stereotypes that circulate regarding their disability.

Whatever his rationale, this theology is nothing short of appropriative.  Regardless of how one understands sin, it is nothing short of offensive to equate the very real obstacles that persons with Down syndrome face with the general tendency of human beings to abuse, exploit, and degrade God’s creation.  

I would argue that metaphorically equating Down Syndrome with sin is, in a sad twist of irony, participating in the abuse and exploitation of the disabled community.

Dehumanization

Finally, it is important to consider how this posts functioned specifically to raise awareness, given its publication in October, Down Syndrome Awareness Month. It seems to me that this post might have achieved something commendable if Sauls had sought to overcome stigma and prejudice against the Down syndrome community by telling stories which serve to humanize them and portray the unique and oft overlooked gifts and abilities they possess.  Unfortunately, he instead, chose to pair the characterization of them as “the happiest people in the world” with the assertion that they are “beautifully broken.”

This sort of language perpetuates the myth that persons with Down syndrome do not possess a full spectrum of emotion, that in some way their ability to relate to the struggles and joys of everyday life is diminished by their disability.  This, combined with the claim that those who work with persons with cognitive disabilities are actually the ones receiving the “greatest benefit,” gives the distinct impression that persons with Down syndrome are somehow incapable of engaging in meaningful relationships in the same way as persons without disabilities.

In this way, then, they are treated as little more than a metaphor.  That is, by saying invoking the language of Original Sin with his claim that “We are all disabled. We all have special needs.” Sauls is functionally arguing that, just as he believes that sin diminishes the functional humanity of the sinner – by separating them from their created purpose of glorifying God in word and deed – the disabilities that persons with Down syndrome live with daily also serve to somehow diminish their human worth.

A theology which denies the basic humanity of other persons can only ever be a theology which perpetuates the injust systems which oppress them.

Conclusion

It is incredibly easy to point the finger at Neo-Calvinists and claim the issues lie only on that side of the proverbial aisle. I admit I am tempted to merely gloat in the repeated ideological failures of their patriarchal theology.  However, as tends to happen, the speck in my neighbor’s eye often exposes the plank in my own.

As I have rightly critiqued Sauls’ post, I have also been convicted of the ways in which I fail to advocate for my disabled neighbor. I recognize the need to be more intentional in my advocacy for the disabled community.  I must examine the ingrained prejudices and unexamined privileges – the words I speak, the actions I take, the products I invest in, and the narrative spaces I occupy – and deconstruct the ways in which I perpetuate system which oppress and stigmatize persons with disabilities.

I am reminded that, as followers of Christ, we cannot become complacent, convincing ourselves that pursuing justice for one group excuses us from the injustices we commit against another. Ableism is a form of prejudice just as real as any racial bias or gender stereotype, and it is just as dehumanizing and insidious when we perpetuate ableist systems. There is no place for any prejudice, any system of injustice, within the Gospel of Christ.

 

 

 

 

[1] The specific use of language surrounding disabled persons can often be confusing and difficult to navigate.  For the purposes of this post, I will be using the style guide provided by the National Center on Disability and Journalism.  I recognize there is significant debate of person-first and identity-first language and apologize to any person offended by my style choices. The NCDJ style guide is available here.

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8 thoughts on “Awareness and Appropriation

  1. That’s helpful. I’m particularly helped by the distinction you make between being honoured by being in someone’s presence (which uplifts that person) and receiving benefit from that person.

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  2. I think there is something in the idea that a person who serves an outcast receives blessing and honour in doing so. I found myself shifting uncomfortably when I read some of your endictments of what Sauls was saying, because I’ve stood up in public and said some things that are very similar.

    That said, when I framed my statement it was to say that it is an honour for us be with such people in those circumstances – not an honour for them (though of course the world sees it that way). Moreover, we are not called to serve the marginalised because of what we might get out of it, but because it’s what Jesus does.

    My point then, is that I think what I said is qualitatively different to what you report Sauls as saying. However, there is enough surface similarity that people will confuse the two. That is a problem.

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    1. A couple of thoughts:

      Honor and benefit aren’t synonyms. Sauls specifically uses the terminology of benefit, which has deeply capitalist roots. Also, in the US “you’ll get the greatest benefit” is a common statement made to people going on short-term missions. In that context it becomes poverty porn, the point isn’t to help the people or establish comraderie/solidarity, but to occupy their space as a consumable commodity that produces a benefit for the consumer. Sails language directly invoked this ideology, which is deeply colonialist (In entitled to your space and narrative as I see fit).
      When I say “I’m honored to have served you.” I am, ironically, not uplifting myself. I am noting a place of servanthood, and addressing the person I’m serving as a superior. The concept is derived from how people address royalty. Perhaps you mean something different than I by “honor” but I would say (in my mind) that it is distinctly different.
      The issue is that disabled persons ought not be considered outcasts at all. The point of working with marginalized groups can never be to center one’s self or those who do not share their disadvantage. With the language of benefit, the worker is centered in the story of the marginalized/disadvantaged person.

      In a post meant to bring awareness to the Down syndrome community, Sauls instead chooses to center himself and his readers repeatedly with the language of benefit and ending with the notion of “we’re all disabled.” It actually serves to displace the disabled persons, rather than recognizing them as fully human, they are seen as broken.

      I may have been kinder to the benefit language had the context been different, but the mentality going into any ministry – especially to the marginalized – should never be “what will I get out of this.” and that is the mentality promoted when we tell people “I promise, you’ll get the greatest benefit.”

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  3. Thanks for the great post Nate, and continuing to expose and correct TGC. As you humbly close with challenging yourself in how you relate to those with disabilities, there is a resource I’ve found very helpful in my journey. The book is Vulnerable Communion, A Theology of Disability and Hospitality by Thomas Reynolds. It is kind of an obscure book but it is excellent!
    I leave you with some excerpts:
    Quote on guarding against a reductionistic theology of disability as an ordained suffering: “Not only does this sanitize impairment by explaining it away in terms of the potential good it produces, it also baptizes the status quo, sanctioning the cult of normalcy.”
    Quote regarding loving one another: “The basic question of human existence is whether there is welcome at the heart of things, whether we can find a home with others who recognize us, value us, and empower us to become ourselves.”… “Fundamentally, love involves welcoming another into a space of mutual vulnerability. Yet this is not something I do for someone…. Rather love is the nature of a certain correlation between myself and someone else, a certain way we belong together.”

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Thanks for taking the time to read and engage. I look forward to your feedback, I welcome any criticism. However, as my goal here is mutualy respectful, beneficial conversation, I only ask that we keep civility in mind with our words. Grace and Peace.

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