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

Friday, August 12, 2016

Favoring others over persons with disabilities

I grabbed my Bible yesterday morning just to do some reading and opened it up to James 2. It is a very powerful passage that I have blogged about in the past (see Favoritism Forbidden). I have been using the New Living Translation in my reading recently. Well the translation of verse 1 kinda slapped me in the face! It says,
"My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?"

I knew the passage addressed favoritism, in particular related to people in wealth or poverty, but the lessons are generally the same for favoring one group of people with a perceived positive characteristic over another with a characteristic thought to be less desirable. James goes on to indicate how this way of treating people is both wrong and actually somewhat foolish when it is unpacked. But I was struck by the power of the translation. You can't have faith in Jesus if you favor some people over others.

I am unsure of what this means for the faith of the Christian church generally because we do this all the time in reference to persons with disabilities. It goes back to a recent posting on this blog related to structural injustice. There is structural injustice and institutional favoritism of some people over others.

I received an email from a disability ministry leader whose name readers would know. She told me of how the criteria for being a deacon in a particular denomination basically would exclude people from that type of service because they couldn't meet the academic nature of the criteria. People who are excellent at service in myriad ways would be excluded from this leadership role because of structures established by the church. Now I can't say that the reason for these criteria was to exclude persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, however that is the result nonetheless. These structures actually teach exclusion, teach favoritism as the acceptable position of the church. Now I get it. I should not be your worship leader because I do not play the guitar very well. I get it. However, poor guitar playing should not keep me from being a deacon, a role that revolves around service. In the same way, theological expertise should also not keep me from being a leader in serving others.

I have told this story in this blog before, but I once attended a church where a man with intellectual disabilities had for many years been one of the people on the rotation to serve communion. When his week/month came up he joined the group who passed the juice cups and crackers to the congregation. However, when there was a change over in the elders of the church, one who was a psychologist said it was inappropriate for the man (who had been successfully serving communion without incident) to participate in this form of service because of what the psychologist described as his "mental age." As an aside, please don't talk about someone's mental age around me as I will confront you about what exactly that means. It is little more than an insult to speak of someone's mental age. So from that point forward that man was excluded from serving communion.

These are the types of things leaders teach congregations. If leaders don't understand they should not show favoritism then we need to teach them that they shouldn't show favoritism. You can cite the James 2:1 verse above. Also ask them about 1 Corinthians 12:21, The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you"  The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you.". You can also look at verses 22-23 of that same passage. Or even 1 John 4:20 which says, for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?

In the notes in the NLT regarding this chapter, it says the following (p 2771).
Showing favoritism. Why is it wrong to show favoritism to the wealthy?
1. It is inconsistent with Christ's teachings.
2. It results from evil thoughts.
3. It insults people made in God's image.
4. It is a by-product of selfish motives.
5. It goes against the biblical definition of love.
6. It shows a lack of mercy to those less fortunate.
7. It is hypocritical.
8. It is sin.

So be bold in pointing out favoritism when it excludes people for irrelevant characteristics. Although it won't make you popular, you will be representing the Heart of God.


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Structural injustice

As a college student, one of my roommates happened to be an African-American guy. I remember once asking him,

"People talk about institutional racism, but being a white guy who is involved in athletics, I don't see it. Do you experience it?"
He looked at me patiently and said, "Absolutely!"
"Will you help me to see it?" I asked in all sincerity.

Those semesters that we lived together were truly eye opening as he relayed daily experiences that I was totally unaware of. I began to see things that I had never seen before. Many of the things were stupid things that could have been easily stopped. But they persisted nonetheless. Although I didn't understand the term at that time, what I learned from my friend was what might be called structural injustice. Sure there are people who can be purposely discriminatory towards someone else. But what he helped me to see was something else. Some thing that was present but sometimes, not always, hidden in the structures.

In the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden talks about the combine. It is everywhere, in the walls and it controls everything, particularly in the ward where he lived. It was the negativity the control that he felt. He called the ward where he lived the factory of the combine. The point is that it was pervasive, institutionalized, within the structures which surrounded Bromden both physically and socially.

What are the structural injustices which live within the church as it relates to persons with disabilities? One must first ask if there are structural injustices? Although others might disagree, I have to say that I believe there is such structural injustice. Once again, they aren't always a deliberate act on someone's part to be an agent of injustice. But injustice is experienced nonetheless. I have often used this quote from Wolfensberger in this blog but I will cite him once more. He says, "Thus for many people to all work toward a bad thing requires no deliberate or conscious conspiracy...most citizens are not aware of how they themselves can be totally unconsciously acting out undeclared, large-scale, societal policies in their own daily lives (from "A leadership-oriented introductory social role valorization (SRV) workshop, February 27, 2007). We can find ourselves in an unreflective pattern of living that we have been taught or socialized into. To break out of that pattern requires something remarkable to happen in us; we need to see how we unconsciously "all work toward a bad thing."

In regards to persons with disabilities in the church, we can say that we just didn't know about the structural injustice which might actually be true. If we are brave, we can ask those with disabilities about whether and how they experience structural injustice. And, just as my roommate helped me to see, we can help others and be helped to see things which are actually somewhat obvious once we are made aware. A good starting point would be for me to take my life experience and just compare it to the life experience of someone else. Say for example, a person with intellectual disability or someone who uses a wheelchair. What can I do, what opportunities do I have that he can't do or doesn't have? Why is it that there are those differences? Are they in any way justifiable? If not, why do we allow them to continue? Are there actual structures socially and otherwise which should not be present?

The church should NOT be the agent of structural injustice. Lets look for it reflectively and root it out.


Thursday, August 04, 2016

Podcast of Jeff McNair interviewed by Pastor Nick In't Hout

I was honored to be interviewed by a pastor Nick In't Hout, Associate Pastor at The River CRC of Redlands, California a while back. The interview was fun and covers a variety of subjects.
It is entitled, "Ep. 012 - Dialogue 3: Disabled Christianity".
Here is the link if you are interested in listening.

God bless,