Ableism and the Church (2) The Words we use

I was used to being called names like speccy four eyes at school and mocked and bullied because of my sight issues and asthma.  I didn’t expect those attitudes attending a comedy gig in our hall of residence at university.  Students tend to consider themselves right-on when it comes to prejudice yet there was the comedian majoring for a significant part of his gig on a torent of cruel and not particularly funny jokes about asthmatics.  Yet, everyone stayed sat, laughing and applauding including the Christians. All apart from me, I’d had enough and walked out.

The words we use, the language we use matters. However, I have seen people push further on this.  Much of our spiritual language uses metaphors around healing for disabilities. In our songs we talk about how we used to be blind, we ask God to open the eyes of our hearts. We talk about people being spiritually deaf and blind.  I know a number of people who see this as ableist language and belittling to people with sight and hearing loss. Now, as mentioned above, the language we use does matters. Also, I found it very helpful to talk with someone who is blind recently who observed that when the Bible uses the motifs of blindness and deafness, it really has in mind those who are wilfully closing their eyes and putting their fingers in their ears.

However, speaking as someone who has lived with significant sight issues for many years, I am happy to keep using the language -and here is why.  At the extreme, some people are pushing to get us to escape the language of disability altogether.  We should not see even the disability as a problem or hindrance but rather as a gift. We should be alert to and resistant to those who seek to pray for healing. Now, whilst I’m sceptical of much of the modern healing movement and know of crass and insensitive examples of how these ministries are being handled, I would still beg to differ. My sight problems and my asthma are not “gifts” they are hindrances and they have at times caused a level of suffering I would rather have not had to go through. To be sure, God has worked in my life through those things but that doesn’t make the health problems themselves good. I wish that I did have 2020 vision (in the pre-coronavirus positive sense of the word), I wish that I didn’t have to take inhalers each morning and could run the marathon without getting out of breath. I look forward to the day when my breathing will be perfect and my sight restored when I am with Christ. 

I think the point is this. I can distinguish between saying that the disability is a bad thing and saying that the person themselves is in someway inadequate and not fully human.  I can recognise that these things are “thorns in the flesh” that are not good and I can long for the day when the thorns will be gone. I can therefore see how the Bible uses the imagery of these things we suffer physically to point to the promise of spiritual healing. I would not wish physical sight loss on anyone and I would long to be healed. So even more, I would not want anyone to be spiritually blind and I long to see their spiritual eyes opened.

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