People who do not fit

David Watson raises a point that gets right to the heart of one of my big questions. The paragraph below comes from his response to a panel on disability and theology including Stanley Hauerwas and Hans Reinders.

Hauerwas and Reinders in particular have raised important questions about the ways in which we view human beings in a liberal society. By “liberal,” I’m not referring to a political position. I mean a society that presupposes autonomy, individuality, and agency on the part of its members. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are liberal, as are most forms of Protestantism. If our society places a high premium on autonomy, individuality, and agency, then people who are impaired with regard to their decision-making capacity occupy a very strange space, They are ostensibly people, though without full command of the capacities that define personhood and serve as ports of entry into the social world. They are outliers, and that is a dangerous way to live.

Watson nails a sticking point for me. Traditional Protestant soteriology — including Wesleyan — is mute in the face of persons who do not have the kind autonomy, agency, and cognitive competencies that Humanism and the Enlightenment take as their starting point. Our story about salvation is nonsense in the context of less mild forms of autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.

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Are we ready for Sean?

David Watson presses the church to consider the implications of widening pre-natal genetic testing for Down syndrome.

[T]here’s a word for this kind of thing: eugenics. What we’re talking about here is the elimination of a people group. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about this matter because it relates to topic of abortion. Yet regardless of how we may feel about abortion, can we not say that the selective termination of pregnancies based upon genetic characteristics is unethical and unacceptable? If we think, moreover, that we can limit this kind of thing to Down Syndrome, we’re fooling ourselves. As genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, will we act in the same way toward children with other forms of cognitive impairment? Children with autism? Children who are blind, deaf, or missing limbs? We can imagine a host of other traits that could be considered “undesirable.”

It is the logic of our world that says children such as Watson’s son, Sean, should never have been born. It is that logic that likely would extend to my son, Luc, if people had the ability to test for autism.

I know that if there were a cure of autism, I would want Luc to have it. Some advocates for neuro-diversity would resist that. But I would not. Luc works hard enough to cope with the world the rest of us have created. If I could make his life less of a struggle, I would. That said, I would never suggest that the “cure” includes denying him life.

We in the church talk about life. We talk about hospitality. We talk about the last being first. We talk about serving selflessly.

Sean Watson and our brothers and sisters like him are giving us a chance to mean what we say. Are we ready, church, for that? Will we let him teach us how to be who we say we are?

Luc and the mute spirit #LukeActs2014

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. (Luke 11:14, NIV)

My son, Luc, is on the autism spectrum. His mother and I are also convinced he has a condition called apraxia of speech. Basically, his brain and the muscles that produce speech do not connect in the way they do for most of us. In Jesus’ day, he would have been called mute.

In Luke, the word here that is translated “mute” is used in two other places.

The angel Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute in Luke 1 because he does not believe the good news of the impending birth of his son. In Luke 7, Jesus tells John’s disciples to report what they see of Jesus’ healing as testimony to who Jesus is. In this second example the word is translated “deaf” rather than “mute,” reminding me that in the Bible there are a whole collection of words that have overlapping meanings and the careful distinctions we make in our medical language were not important.

For these and other reasons, contemporary theology advises us not to connect medical problems with spirits or demons. As a child of the 20th century, I am inclined to go along with that advice.

But I’d be lying to say I do not feel at times that my son is under attack from an evil spirit that robs him of his voice. And what I am struck with in those times is how remarkably resilient he is. As I’ve said to many people, if I had to cope with the challenges he does, I’d be angry all the time. He is a model of contentment, peace, and joy nearly all the time.

I confess to not know what to make of Scripture passages such as the one above or how they relate to my son. I am conscious, though, of the impulse to read past them. In 2014, in America, we often want to ignore talk of spirit and demons and devils — especially when they are connected to matters our medical science explains. But Luc keeps me from doing that. Indeed, he makes those verses stand out in sharp relief. He forces me to see what I would not otherwise see, even if I do not yet understand.