Disability, discrimination and New Creation

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Yesterday on my twitter timeline, a tweet came up from someone who seemed deeply angry and offended. They took exception to evangelical theology of renewed and restored bodies, especially when suggested that those with disabilities would receive them.  Their anger arose from having a relative with Downs Syndrome. They couldn’t imagine them without Downs Syndrome because this was integral to their personality.

I asked them a couple of questions trying to understand where they were coming from starting with “Is your issue with things like Downs Syndrome etc being treated as a disabilities or the idea of restoration/new creation itself?” They indicated that it was the latter, that suggesting that someone might need a new body and their disability taken away showed a belief that their disability was caused by sin and so was dehumanizing.  So, I asked two follow up questions, first I asked them whether they meant the idea that a person’s situation was caused directly by their own sin or that that disabilities were a consequence of living in a fallen world.  I don’t think I got an answer to that question.  The other question was about how their own views might touch on the lives of people with other conditions, examples of other disabilities and those with chronic illnesses.  I named the two that directly affect me, asthma and visual impairment.

I would say that it didn’t feel like a great conversation from the off but my mentioning other examples definitely did not help the conversation.  The feeling I got was that my mentioning of those things somehow trivialised the conversation, they only really wanted to talk about Downs Syndrome despite referring to disability in general and it seemed that they considered my examples somehow trivial.

It is therefore worth noting that neither example I gave is trivial.  I come off lightly personally in both cases but in different ways both have resulted in restrictions for me. In the case of asthma, it’s meant one or two quite frightening moments in my life requiring quick medical intervention. In the case of my eyesight, it means that I am not able to drive and that has affected a number of things including decisions about job opportunities.  Others however have experienced far more serious, life altering disability arising from those examples.  Yet, in my experience, unlike with other conditions and disabilities, it seems that these two conditions are considered fair game for unpleasant humour, discrimination and bullying. 

Anyway, the particular conversation went no further but I thought it was worth saying a little more here and perhaps setting out in a bit more detail the response I would like to give to their opinion. It’s a response that comes with a great deal of sympathy for where I think they were coming from, arising out of personal circumstances.

My original question is crucial, and I was surprised a little by their answer.  They seemed willing to label things under the umbrella of disability with all of its negative implications for suffering and loss, yet didn’t accept that it might then be a good thing if there was a cure or solution for such suffering and loss that might benefit the sufferers. That’s in fact why I asked them if they understood what their own theology said to people like me suffering from specific health conditions.  You see, the attitude seemed to be that if we wanted to envision a world where we didn’t suffer, that was all well and good for us as long as we kept our dreams private.  Yet that in effect told me that all I could do was dream, to give me a bit of a fairy tale comfort, such a world was not really possible in the next life and nor now.  Indeed, by telling me that I must not make it part of my theology, they seemed to be telling me that a world where I could be free from suffering was not good.  Was I therefore expected to embrace asthma and visual impairment as part of my identity and “live with it.”  What implications them for those working to treat and cure such conditions.

But it is important to realise that there are people with a range of conditions who prefer not to view themselves or be viewed as having a disability.  There are two parts to this. The first is that it really isn’t a great thing when we talk about a person as “disabled” or “a disabled person” because that in effect does dehumanize them, it treats the condition as not only significant to their personality but pretty much as the sum total of their identity.  For what it is worth, I agree strongly with that. 

The second goes further.  There has been a strong reaction to discrimination with many insisting that they are not disabled because they do not have a disability. From this perspective autism, Downs Syndrome etc are to be seen as examples of diversity and so they have different abilities that those without their condition do not have.  This is true to some extent for other physical conditions, perhaps most strongly in the deaf community where the creation of a language and culture strengthens that identity. 

So, it is important that we are aware of that thinking and the reasons behind it when we talk about eschatology and disability (which is really what we are doing right now).  It is particularly pertinent right now concerning Downs Syndrome as the strength of feeling relates to a significant degree to the discrimination that people with Downs Syndrome experience and particularly the attempts of society to eradicate not just the condition but those with it.  I would encourage readers to check out the brilliant Heidi Crowter’s campaigning on this. 

With that in mind, I think it is important to make a few further comments.  First, I want to insist that it is true that people seen to have disabilities in one area often display greater qualities in other aspects of life.  Indeed, with severe sight loss, I would say that it’s not so much about the loss of that sense being compensated for by other senses like hearing increasing but rather a keener spiritual eye, a greater level of intuition.  It is also true that, we have seen the growth and deepening of community for many.

However, I still think we need to be aware to the suffering and loss that come too.  It’s those things that are in focus when we talk about the renewal of our bodies.  Are there aspects of my character and personality that have been significantly positively shaped by having a visual impairment? I would like to hope so, indeed I trust God to work through my circumstances for my good, the good of others and his glory.  Will I lose those good things when I receive my resurrection body?  My theology, my understanding of God’s Word says no. 

However, at the same time, I look forward to a day when the limitations I experience are gone and when there isn’t suffering.  I don’t think that it is selfish to ask “is it possible in the new creation to enjoy the benefits that have come from loss and suffering in one area whilst also enjoying the benefits that the loss denied?”  Perfection, or completion then, is not about a subtraction from who I am but the removing of the things that have become joined to me but were never truly part of me and the adding of more of who I’m meant to be as made in the image of God.

Coming back to Downs Syndrome, what does that mean? Does it mean that the believer will have their number of chromosomes changed?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that because it may or may not be simply an example of diversity in creation.  I would suggest though that things like physical characteristics and positive aspects of their personality will not change and indeed some of those things may well be deepened or heightened.  I think that we will see on one level an increase in and sharpening of diversity in the New Creation, our greater unity will enable that.

However, in so far as the condition causes suffering, restriction and loss for the person, I believe that Scripture shows that those things will be gone.  That someone with Downs Syndrome will not have to worry when they get to glory about those health factors that debilitate and reduce life expectancy.  It also means that none of us will be restricted in our capacity to know, understand and feel. My last statement there is crucial, “none of us ….”  You see, at times it may seem that the theology is about people who consider themselves already pretty much perfect saying to those they consider not that one day we will become like them. However, that’s not what the Bible says.  The reality is that each one of us is affected by the Fall in all aspects of our life.  We will all need to be clothed in new bodies. We will all need new minds. 

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