Hello again, readers,
You may have noticed that my recent posts have a lot to do with the church, God, the church’s relationship to people with disabilities, and so forth. That’s partially because it’s Easter and Passover month, but it’s also because these are just topics that have been on my mind for awhile or have come to me as I’ve gone about my daily business. This next topic might be a bit complicated, but I do want to explore it, if for no other reason than nobody else has so far. Plus, you guys are kind of giving me a practice run for a writing project I have simmering in my brain.
I got the idea for this post while surfing around on the Web and Facebook. On Facebook, I’m a semi-frequent visitor of pages like Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid, Handicap This, and the Asperger’s Women’s Association. The latter of these recently posted a meme that said (paraphrased), What many people consider normal or brush off, a person with Asperger’s may dwell on for days. I thought about that, and some other things came to mind.
First of all, I’m a dweller, too. It’s one of those melancholic occupational hazard things. Maybe that’s why, even after forgiving the people who perpetrated it, thinking about the discrimination of my teaching internship still hurts. It’s not that I want to dwell or stay stuck; it’s just that for me, and for many others, I bet, people and things that cause deep emotions have a way of sticking around. So I get the fact that Asperger’s, and maybe other disabilities, might make one predisposed to dwelling.
But two, society, and especially the church, considers dwelling on anything a harmful behavior. It’s even in the Old Testament: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” Paul echoes this in the New Testament when he discusses not looking back at his past, but looking forward and “[running] the race marked out before [him].” And I’m not saying he was wrong. Certainly God was not. And if anybody had a reason to forget his past, it was Paul. I mean, the guy mercilessly killed Christians for a living and thought he was doing God’s work. He made most Spanish Inquisitors look like sissies. You don’t even have to be a Christian to get that dwelling is unhealthy. Just turn on Dr. Phil or Oprah or any of those folks (and no, I am not making a statement about what religion I think they are) and you’ll see where dwelling can get you. The problem is that, in trying to avoid that behavior, I think people–even and especially the Christian church–may inadvertently minimize pain. In some cases, they may also end up penalizing an individual with a disability for something that is natural for them to do.
Dwelling is not the only characteristic common to Asperger’s, autism, and other disabilities that may come under fire. What about the fact that some people with Asperger’s and autism have highly specialized interests? By “highly specialized,” I mean, at times, to the point that the interest is all they talk about. To the point that the interest is all-consuming. Now again, on its own, that’s not necessarily a healthy thing to do. It’s why loved ones (not necessarily therapists and “experts”) should help the PWD learn to step back from certain interests or topics and focus more on other people and what they like. But does that also mean that the PWD’s interests should be ignored or penalized? Some people would say yes. In fact, some people in the church might accuse the PWD with a specialized interest of idolatry, claiming that he or she places the interest before God.
So, in these two examples, you can see what I think is going on here. I think the church is doing its best, but I also think that, if we’re not careful, the Judeo-Christian worldview could end up accusing people with certain disabilities of sins or unhealthy behavior where none exist. We could also end up accusing people who don’t understand fully what our accusations mean. Honestly, can you tell me that a five-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome is going to understand why a well-meaning, but misguided Sunday school teacher uses his obsession with dinosaurs as an example of idolatry? Are you going to tell me that even the most high-functioning adult with a disability where the brain naturally hyper-focuses is going to “understand” when a well-meaning but misguided pastor or church member says, “You need to forgive that person and quit using your disability as an excuse?”
I hear what you’re saying: “I don’t know anybody who does that.” Well, if that’s true, then you’re blessed, as am I. But I wrote this post for two reasons. One, anybody can twist a religious worldview and its teachings around to say whatever suits that person, and it’s happened to Christianity over and over. That’s the reason why some people still believe that disability is a curse or punishment–so it’s not far-fetched to say that people might also believe PWDs are predisposed to certain sins and thus irredeemable in those areas. You and I know that’s a lie, but those people don’t. Two, faiths of all kinds are filled with judgmental people, whether they’re vocal about it or not. Now of course, we all, yours truly included, have days when we’re judgmental jerks. I myself get so mad at people who are judgmental that I have to repent for being judgmental of the judgmental! How whacked out is that? But see, some people are like that 24-7, and people with disabilities can be among their favorite targets.
So, now you know the problem. The question is, what can we do about it? Well, this one’s tricky, especially when you’re dealing with a Christian worldview. The world has become so tolerant of actual sin that it’s easy to say, “Don’t give those folks an out because they have disabilities. If you want them treated like everybody else, call their sin, sin, and expect them to deal with it.” I understand, but I don’t agree. I say two things to that:
1. Make Sure the Sin You’re Calling Out is a Real Sin. That is, I don’t believe people with disabilities, who have highly specialized interests, are always out to commit idolatry. Now, yes, that can happen. I myself have a highly specialized interest in books, so I have to watch myself to be sure it doesn’t turn into an obsession or something that could hurt me financially, emotionally, or spiritually. And a lot of people with high-functioning disabilities are in the same situation. That is, they can understand when you say, “This is unhealthy and even sinful,” and they can get to the point, with compassionate counsel, where they can deal with those issues. But some PWDs either don’t fully understand that concept, or they’re not sinning in the first place. That is, they’re not looking at a specialized interest or a tendency to over-think things and going, “I’m gonna do this and who cares what God thinks.” They may just be doing what is natural for them to do. (And no, I am NOT FOR ONE SECOND saying this argument would work for an ax-murderer or a rapist, so don’t even start). I’m just saying, be careful what you call a sin.
2. Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment. If you do have to tell a PWD that he or she is engaging in sinful behavior, remember what James said. Also, don’t assume, “Yes, of course he or she is going to sin in X way because they have this disability.” We’ve talked about this before and we know what it leads to. Just don’t do it.
3. Handle with Grace. Okay, so let’s do a “road test” on this. Say you have an individual with a disability wherein the brain naturally hyper-focuses on stuff. This could be autism, Asperger’s, or any number of other conditions. The object of the hyper-focus could be anything from why your tie isn’t straight to why we allowed vanilla Coke. But right now, the individual is focused on the fact that they’ve been hurt. They know they should forgive the person who did it, and they want to, because it’s what they’re taught they should do as a Christian, or a Jew, or whatever. But they can’t. Now, can this be blamed on the disability? Not entirely–that’s where overcoming comes in, at least in most cases. (There are some cases where a mental or psychological disability is so severe or entrenched that the answer may be different). But should that person be told, “You are openly rebelling against God?” No, I don’t think so. It would be better to ask questions like, “What can I do to help you get through this pain?” It would also be helpful to say that you recognize forgiveness is a process, and that you will support that person as they go through it, however long that takes.
I think that at its core, the Christian church and other faiths have good intentions when it comes to persons with disabilities. But too often, we look with the eyes in our heads and see the pictures we’re most comfortable with, like sacrificial lambs, or people that are predisposed to sin and will rebel openly and unrepentantly no matter what you do. I think the eyes of our hearts could tell a better story, even when dealing with characteristics of disabilities that are “unhealthy” or sinful. So let’s refocus, shall we?