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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.