“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Christian social constructions

Are we a reflection of what social constructions say we are? At times we may desire to be a reflection of social constructions, at other times, not. For the Christian, we have been givein this archetype construction of who a person should be in the form of Jesus. Any Christian worth his salt will say that his greatest aspiration is to be like Jesus. The social construction of a "follower of Jesus" is something that was new at the time of Jesus, but has developed over time as Christians continue to grow in their understanding of who Jesus was and is. Douglas (1970) states that social construction theory explains a process whereby a reality is developed through the creation of knowledge. To the Christian, the reality is being a "Christ follower" which is built upon the knowledge which comes from revelation, wisdom and faith. If we truly understand this knowledge, we are able to look upon an individual and have some notion of how that individual lines up with the plumb line of "Christ follower."

There are those who would say that people are much more than a reflection of social constructions, whatever they may be, but for the Christian, the desire is to reflect the social construction in significant ways. For example, Jesus modeled ways in which a person would love his neighbor, love his enemy, and love and worship God. Christians themselves might mimic the ways in which Jesus prayed, by repeating the Lord's Prayer, making it their own. Christians might mimic Jesus' dedication by devoting daily time for prayer, Bible reading and reflection. Christians might also look at specific behaviors and language that Jesus used in reference to a particular life issue he confronted. For example, one might study Jesus' interactions with persons with disability in order to reflect the language and behaviors Jesus used in reference to persons with disability. The example of this interaction provides a knowledge set basic to a social construction of who persons with disability are, what disability is, and what the responsibilities of persons in the world toward both disability and those who have "disabilities." Jesus' life and teachings might be said to be the basis for a Christian social construction of disability.

For Christians, the degree to which they represent this social construction of disability, reflects the degree to which they emulate Jesus in this particular area of life. If they do not represent this social construction in this particular area, they do not represent Jesus. The Christian social construction is prescriptive in a slightly different way than the typical social constructions.
As we are socialized as people, we come to believe particular things about how the world works. Some notions are ingrained in our psyche. Every American child knows to "look both ways before crossing the street" or "don't pet a strange dog." But also built into that psyche deliberately or otherwise are "there but for the grace of God go I" or "don't stare" or "they can't help the way they are" or "they are God's special angels" or "they have a poor quality of life." These perceptions are communicated just as clearly as others although not perhaps as consciously.

For Christians, a whole series of behavioral social constructions are built into members of succeeding generations biologically and spiritually. Much of this "knowledge based reality" is indeed knowledge based. However, much of it is not and when examined shocks the person who had carried such a misperception all of his life.

I once went backpacking with some so-called friends. One of the group put a large rock in my backpack just before our decent down the mountain. Imagine my surprise to find that I had been carrying that rock for 8 miles. Upon recognizing that I had the rock in my pack, I promptly removed it and tossed it aside. We shouldn't press this metaphor too far, however, I was surprised because I had examined the things which found their way into the pack. I was surprised because something had gotten by my observation. In a life immersed in culture, we should not be surprised what notions, what ideas about reality, what social constructions fill our minds. It is only when we sit down and open our packs, when we engage in reflection in the light of what we know about our faith, that we see the incongruity of the rock in the backpack. But to recognize that a rock doesn't belong in a backpack, I need to know what does belong in a backpack. I don't throw out my dry socks, or my matches, but I definitely throw out the rock.

Over the centuries, Christians haven't been examining the contents of their backpacks, as least as they relate to persons with disability. If they had, they would have found that not only were they carrying rocks, they had neglected to pack dry socks and matches. How do we know this? It is because of the prescriptive nature of the Christian social construction of disability which points us to the knowledge which can be gained from studying the revelation of the life of Jesus, the wisdom which can be gained from life among people with "disability" and the understanding of one's own faith, who is invited to faith, and what the requirements of faith are.

Douglas, J.D. (1970). Understanding everyday life. In J.D. Douglas (Ed.), Understanding everyday life: Toward the resonstruciton of sociological knowledge (pp. 3-43). Chicago: Aldine.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

More on "disabled" by design

I appreciated the thoughtful comments posted in reference to the last blog. It is interesting and I also think important to ask whether differences which our society has categorized as "disability" are examples of human variation or the result of "the fall." I will freely admit that I do not entirely understand what the answer is to that question. Observations I have made include those in the previous blog as well as others made at other times in months past in the blog. For example, is aging, and the degradation of the body the result of the fall? Are accidents like the one that caused me to blow out my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) resulting in the bad knee I continue to have the result of the fall, or was there the possibility that someone could injure themselves to the point of having a bad knee pre fall?

As I said, I really am unsure, however, I am beginning to move in the direction of understanding differences called disabilities as a part of simple variations in the human race. When God says that his creation was "very good" does that mean that all of the human members of the creation were entirely equal in every way? At the very least, we know there were differences between men and women. At what point does a difference become a "disability?" History tells us that the number of persons labeled as disabled increased dramatically with the industrial revolution. That is, people who were within the "normal" range when all they had to do was have a strong back were now thought of as disabled in light of the demands of urban society. So one might ask, to what extent is "disability" a characteristic of an individual and to what extent is "disabilty" a reflection of the environment.

I recently saw the movie Ray about the life of Ray Charles. As I look at that movie, as I consider all that Mr. Charles achieved, I wonder at his "disability." In the range of visual ability, he was on the dark end of the scale, having lost his vision. So he had a severely diminished ability to perceive light. It is also true that he relied on persons in his environment to assist him throughout his life (as do I). But I kind of agree with his mother (as portrayed in the film) when she says something to the effect that "you cannot see, but don't become a cripple." Is the limited ability to see the result of the fall? I would think becoming a "cripple" is definately a result of the fall as it appears to reflect a lack of reliance on God, on oneself, and people. A person who is a "cripple" in the way that Ray Charles' mother implied is reflecting a negativity, a buying of the notion that one is less than created in the image of God. This notion is taught to a person, is pounded into a person by society and is society at its worst.

It has always struck me as ironic that people like me, who are largely within the normal range of ability levels, can look at our sin scarred selves with all the foibles and proclaim that we are created in God's image.

It also haunts me to come back to God's comment "who makes the dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing, or the blind." Does God purposely create "imperfection" or do I need to change my definitions?"

. . . don't know, still working through it.


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

"Disabled" by design

And Jehovah said to him, Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes the
dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Is it not I Jehovah?
(Leviticus 4:11)

Moses tells God that he didn't do the greatest job on his mouth. He says he is "heavy of mouth" and "heavy of tongue." Good description. However, in spite of his qualms, God doesn't relent. God responds with a kind of a rhetorical question put down. God knows Moses' mouth. The reply, however, is much broader when it says "who made man's mouth." To me the implication is that God knows about mouths (being the inventor) not just Moses' mouth, and also knows about the variations within and between mouths. "Who makes the dumb" God goes on to say, implying 1) that he knows of the variation between mouths, and 2) that he made the variations between mouths. That is, God even made the mouths of the dumb, those who cannot speak for whatever reason.

These observations on God's part are not restricted to the mouth, however. He goes on to say, "or the deaf" (i.e. variations in the ear) or the "seeing or the blind" (i.e. variations in the eye). Once again, the implication is that God created the variations we see in human beings, down to what are called disabilities; being unable to speak, unable to hear, or unable to see. One would assume that these variations could also include other types of "disability" including physical and mental differences. After all, sensorineural deafness and blindness imply nerve tissue insults or changes which would include mental retardation.

Taking this type of thinking to its final conclusion, these individuals we call persons with disability, are in reality part of the normal variation within human functioning. To think that God created a person who is unable to speak as a person who is unable to speak changes 1) the way I think about that person, 2) the language I choose to describe the abilities of that person, 3) the notion of who God is.

We will revisit these ideas.


Friday, February 11, 2005

An Epiphany?

Epiphany: A spiritual event in which the essence of a given object of
manifestation appears to be the subject, as in a sudden flash of recognition
(The American Heritage Dictionary).

Epiphany? Maybe not. However, I did come to realize something the other day. One would think that the church would represent the comunity in which it finds itself. the church taken as a whole, say all the churches in the City of Redlands, California where I live, should reflect the entire community, but individual churches may not represent the community at all. That is, sadly we have churches which are overwhelmingly white, black, Hispanic or Asian in the ethnicity of the members. We even have churches which separate themselves within the groups. So if I go to a church that is predominatly black, I assume that white people worship somewhere else. If I go to a church that is predominantly Asian, I assume that the Hispanic people worship someplace else. I am used to attending churches which do not represent the community in and of themselves. Why would Christians choose or even want such an option? To me it is disturbing that we as Christians cannot even worship with people of a different ethnicity than ourselves. There is truth to the axiom, that Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most segregated hour of the week. The church will have some explaining to do when it meets its Husband.

However, I guess I assume that there are not very many African American people who attend my church because they go to a different church comprised of mostly African American people. In the same way, the Hispanics attend the Hispanic church, and I guess, the disabled people attend the disabled people church. Perhaps I have the same lack of concern in that I don't worry (or care) about those of a different ethnicity who don't attend my church, as I don't worry about the disabled people.

There are two problems with this assumption. One is that most people with disability do not represent a different culture. They are the same as the rest of us. The other is that there is not a separate church for persons with disability (nor should there be, I believe), so the only option is to include them in the existing churches. I would argue that you should assume that if persons with disability are not in your church, chances are that they aren't anywhere, aren't in any church. Why would your church be any different than any other in this regard?

So all you white, black, Hispanic and Asian churches, if their aren't white, black, Hispanic or Asian persons with disability attending your church, where do you think they are? Chances are they aren't attending any church. Do you care? Even if you do have some persons with disability at your church, do they represent the numbers you might expect in the community? Do you know?

"I tell you the truly, whatever you did not do for one of the least of
these, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:45)

If you are not doing anything, why would you assume that someone else is?


Monday, February 07, 2005

The Phantom of the Opera

This past weekend, my daughter Amy and I went to see "The Phantom of the Opera." We both loved it. I recognize that it is just a story, but there were many aspect of the story which made me think.

The loving character of Christine, the Phantom's love interest, toward him is really interesting. At one point she speaks of how his exterior is not what alarms her, but rather the way his soul has become. We learn from the movie that his soul is what it is largely because of the treatment he received as a child, being put on display and abused. On one level, he is able to overcome the abuse he faced and develops a relationship with her, originally as her "angel of music" and later he attempts to become her lover. She has fallen in love with someone else, and at a critical point in the movie, the Phantom tells her he will kill her love interest if she doesn't abandon him and love him (the Phantom) instead. She chooses to go with the Phantom to save her lover, but prays that God will give her the ability to love him (the Phantom) if she makes the committment to him. After a kiss from her, the Phantom realizes that he loves her, and releases her from the bargain so that she can go with the man she loves. In a remarkable show of love toward the Phantom, she goes back to him and places a ring in his hand, given to her by the man she loves.

This interaction between Christine and the Phantom was a wonderful example of understanding someone who has been devastated by the cruelty of society over a disability. Through her kindness, his love for her grows although he must ultimately let her go. With that in mind, the final scene is particularly poignant.

I have run across persons with disability in my life, who literally hated the church because of the interactions they have had with Christians. Sometimes the church can be even more hurtful than the world, particularly toward those who have a desire to belong to the church. But true love on the part of the church toward those with disability can at times heal the pain of the past. Like the Phantom stewed as he observed the interactions at the opera house, there are those with disability, or family or friends of persons with disability who stew as they stand on the outside. The Phantom wanted to be involved, wanted to be a part of the opera. Ultimately he wrote his own opera, which was a ploy on his part to not only become a part of the opera itself, but to become close to someone on the inside who captured his heart.

I want to be one who captures the heart of persons with disability and causes them to want to come back to the church, or come to it for the first time. I want to be the one who shows the love that softens the heart of the aggrieved; those who have actually experienced cruelty from people like me, Christian or otherwise.


March 5, 2005 NACSPED Conference

The National Association of Christians in Special Education (NACSPED) is hosting their first national conference on March 5, 2005 at California Baptist University in Riverside California. This new organization was founded last year, and hopes to
  • Bring Christian special educators together
  • provide encouragement to Christian special educators
  • provide professional development in a Christian context
  • work to help the Church and its agents become more open to and accepting of persons with various disabilities
The conference is also be one of the many "That all may worship" conferences held across the country, begun by the National Organization on Disability.

For more information, go to


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Remembering Amar, the man with down syndrome used by suicide bombers

"Down syndrome youth used as suicide bomber" is what the headline said. Apparently this young man, Amar, was a 19 year old Iraqui who was kidnapped rigged with bombs and sent to an area where people were being frisked before entering to vote. One report said he was to go to the checkpoint area, but went half way and then began to walk back toward the terrorists when they detonated the explosives. Another report says that he was "crossing open ground." A relative said, "They must have kidnapped him. He was like a baby. He had nothing to do with the resistance and there was nothing in the house for him to make a bomb. He was a Shiite. Why bomb his own people? He was mindless, but he was mostly happy, laughing and playing with the children in the street. Now his father is inconsolable; his mother cries all the time" (from The Age).

So now the terrorists have reached a new low in using cognitively impaired individuals like Amar to further their murderous agenda. It is one thing for a person to hold to a particular political agenda to the point of sacrificing his life for that agenda. It is another to take the lives of random others in one's self destruction. However, it is the depth of evil to take the life of someone who is oblivious to political maneuverings, oblivious about much of what is going on around him in the world even and sacrifice his life and those of random others.

It is my hope that the Muslim Arab world will see this murder of a man, a man innocent of political affiliation, at the hands of those who speak and act for "god" as the final proof positive that a political movement which would use blameless, naive persons with cognitive disability as the vehicle for murder needs to be removed from the face of the Earth.

I would like to think that Amar somehow figured out what was happening to him, and refused to be used in that manner. Many people like Amar that I have known would have acted with such courage.