Sunday, May 6, 2012

Blessed are the Disabled

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, writing his autobiography at the age of 70, narrates his most painful experience as a teenager—his mother becoming mentally ill. Some days, his mother would go and stand on the roadside verandah of their house, doing all kinds of pranks and talking all kinds of nonsense particularly when the road was full of children going to school. They were his classmates and schoolmates, and he was filled with shame that they watched his mother in this condition.

Reading about this heartbreaking story, the one question that may surface in our mind is this: Why does an illness or a disability cause shame? Why does a disabled person feel inferior, and why do others look down upon them? Let us make an attempt to answer this question.

In the past weeks, the story of Jesus cleaning the temple at Jerusalem impressed my mind with a new insight. Jesus expected the temple to be a house of God, but he found it to be a den of robbers. Once he had the robbers out, the people who truly belonged there came in. Matthew tells us that the blind and the lame came into the temple to the presence of Jesus. When the robbers were inside they were outside. Once the robbers were out, they could come inside the House of God. (Matthew 21:12-15)

We see two different approaches and attitudes toward disabilities in this story. The blind and the lame were marginalized in that society, and Jesus brought them to the mainstream. All the disabled people were social outcasts in Jesus’ world. It was believed that they were cursed of God because of the sins committed by their forefathers.   They were seen as good-for-nothing people. They were considered less human than others.  They were haunted by shame, which was strong enough to make them take their own life. Jesus’ view of disability was radically different from the popular view. The popular view of disability was very negative, dishonest, naïve, and unhealthy, and in the place of that, Jesus developed a view which is positive, honest, informed, and healthy. This situation is very similar to our world today.

We have a market economy in our world. Only those who keep on buying and selling have a place in our world. The disabled ones are looked down upon as a burden to the earth. In place of this market-like world we need a home-like world. Let us make an attempt to distinguish between these views under four questions: what, who, why, and how.

What is a disability?
Blindness and lameness are accepted as disabilities. Chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes also are accepted as disabilities. In addition to such physical disabilities, there are mental disabilities, and economic disability. Those with economic disability are usually called poor, and they have a lack or shortage of the basic necessities of life-- food, clothing, and shelter. Some of these disabilities are very much visible, but there are many more that are not that visible. Mental disabilities are not as visible as the physical ones. Most of our disabilities are mental. We all know that a human being is made of body and mind, which are like the hardware and software of computer. The software is the real stuff of a computer. The hardware serves as a body to the software by making it accessible to our senses. This is true about the human mind and body too. The body is simply an expression of the mind. To use another metaphor, the body is a vehicle for the mind just like we use a car. The mind, which is invisible, becomes visible through the body. The disabilities of the body are easy to detect and identify, but the disabilities of the mind are not so easy to detect or identify. A human mind has so many different parts and departments. Mental abilities may be broadly classified into the abilities to think, remember, imagine, feel, will, be aware, and pay attention. A mental disability may refer to the disability of any one of those parts. In short, in addition to the apparent disabilities, there are many more that are not so apparent.

Who are disabled?
It is often believed that most of the people in the world are not disabled, and only a small percentage of people are disabled. If only a few are disabled, they feel shame about their disability, and they will be looked down upon by others. In place of this view, Jesus developed a view that all people in the world are disabled. All people are disabled because God alone is perfect and free from all infirmities and disabilities. Christianity affirms that God alone is omnipotent, which means God alone has all the abilities. No human being can claim to have all the possible abilities.

Every human being has one or more disabilities, which include physical, mental, and economic. If all people are disabled, no one needs to feel shame about his/her disability, and no one will be looked down upon for the disabilities.

What causes disability?
It was commonly believed in Jesus’ world that disability is a curse, and it is caused by sins. Jesus acknowledged the connection between sin and disability, but contrary to the popular notion, Jesus held that all people are sinners, and God alone is without any sins. If it is human to err, it is human to be disabled as well. In a conversation with his disciples in the context of healing a blind person, Jesus acknowledged that his blindness was not caused specifically by the sin of anyone in particular. Because all are sinners and all are disabled, disability is not the result of any curse. Jesus would even say that disability is a blessing.

How can a disability be overcome?
Once we realize that all people are disabled, we can be fully honest about our disabilities. We don’t need to hide our disabilities or feel shame about them. No one will look down upon other for their disabilities.

Once we realize that all are disabled, we can stand together as communities so that we can help each other with our disabilities. There is a well-known story of a blind man and a lame man living together. The blind man carries the lame man around. The eyes of one become useful for both and the legs of one become useful for both.

A positive, honest, and healthy approach to disability will have the following elements: 
  • Realize that every human being is disabled in one way or other. No one is 100% perfect.
  • Each person needs to become aware of his/her own disability and try to identify what exactly the disability is so that he/she can be very careful in situations that involve this disability.
  • Each person needs to become aware of his/her own abilities and identify them so that he/she can make the maximum use of them to serve others.
  • Be in a community of disabled people who are willing to support each other.
Disabilities give us added reason to stand together and strive for better and higher ways to overcome them. In spite of all the inconvenience and sufferings due to our disabilities, they give us the opportunity to reach higher and evolve further. In this sense, disabilities are not a curse but a blessing. It is up to us to make them curse or blessing.

A family was the model of an ideal community for Jesus. In a family no one is marginalized; everyone supports each other. In a den of robbers, some people are marginalized in the name of their disabilities. But in the house of God, all people are valued.

A human body was the model of an ideal community for Paul. Each organ in the body has its abilities and disabilities. The eyes can see, but cannot do anything else. The ears have the ability to hear, but are disabled in every other way. We all have our abilities and disabilities. If we stand together as a community, as organs of a body, we can move on successfully supporting each other.

Christianity began as a community of disabled people supporting one another. Eventually it became otherworldly and failed to provide any meaningful guidance to our life in the present world. Christianity needs to regain its original meaning and create a new meaningful foundation for a new civilization. The meaning of the affirmation “Holy are thou almighty” needs to be regained as no human being is holy or almighty, and all human beings are sinners and disabled. Our world with its market economy is currently a den of robbers, where a lot of people are marginalized. It needs to become the house of God, in which we all support and take care of each other.

When people live together as a family supporting one another, it is the kingdom of God.  It is often disabilities that make people living together. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes that proclaim blessings for the disabled. The poor and those who mourn are blessed. The meek and merciful are willing to support each other. They have a pure heart and they hunger for righteousness. They are blessed, and the kingdom of God is theirs.

1 comment:

susan said...

Dear John
Most of our disabilities are in the nature of stunted or deformed or diseased spirit and mind. It is not that we are bad,but our scripts get distorted and we become dysfunctional with warped perceptions like the hunch backed woman who could not see Jesus but was seen by Him.

I know some of my own problems but even before I realize it, I jump to defensive action, positioning my guns on wrong perceptions.

God Bless all of us.
Susan Eapen