There is No Them

Our gifts, our wounds, and our disabilities

by Susan Palwick

Mainstream American culture values autonomy, independence, and power. We tell ourselves that we can do whatever we set our minds to: lift ourselves by our bootstraps, become president, put a man on the moon. We crave success, and success—gauged primarily by fame and fortune—is the yardstick by which we measure both ourselves and others.

The church is called to be countercultural. We find the ground of our being not in our own autonomy, but in God’s will. We recognize ourselves as interdependent with all of creation, and we seek to recognize and serve God’s power, not our own. We crave communion with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors, and we judge our success by how well and deeply we have loved. All of this requires us to be vulnerable, to admit our wounds and weaknesses.

We are all wounded, all partial, all disabled, just as we are all loved, forgiven, and gifted, called to use our God-given abilities to be beacons of welcome.

Little surprise, then, that our heroes don’t look much like the action figures so beloved of Hollywood. Noah built the ark, but he also had a drinking problem. Moses led the tribes of Israel to freedom, but he also had a speech impediment. Jacob walked with a limp after wrestling with an angel. Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the risen Christ, was probably in recovery from mental illness—those seven demons Jesus cast out of her—and Paul endured a three-day episode of blindness. All of them, in other words, suffered from what, today, we would call disabilities.

Faith communities often talk about disability issues as if they’re something Out There, an aspect of diversity we seek to invite into our congregations by making our buildings wheelchair accessible, adding sign language interpreters, or educating ourselves about addiction and mental illness. As important as such accommodations are, I find this attitude offensive. It assumes that the people already in the pews are completely able, graciously inviting the blind, the deaf, and the lame to join them. It frames sensitivity to disabilities as an act of generosity.

I don’t believe that anyone sitting in a church pew isn’t somehow disabled. I don’t believe that anyone sitting anywhere isn’t somehow disabled. I don’t mean to minimize the fact that some people face more significant barriers than others, and that all of us must work to lower them. But one of the steepest barriers anyone with any disability faces is the us-them divide that American culture has tried to erect between the disabled and the able, the partial and the perfect, the wounded and the whole.

We are all wounded, all partial, all disabled, just as we are all loved, forgiven, and gifted, called to use our God-given abilities to be beacons of welcome. However gifted we are, we all need God’s healing. That’s why many of us came to church in the first place. Jesus went into the countryside seeking people to heal, and those in need of healing sought him out, too. But what of the Twelve, his closest companions? Surely he had healed them somehow, too, if only of the invisible disabilities of fear and despair. I wish our Scriptures told us more about their struggles. If it did, those of us who follow Jesus now might be less inclined to draw us-them lines between ourselves and the lepers of the world. As a priest I know puts it, “There is no them.”
The best thing each of us can do to make the church more welcoming to wounded people is to name and acknowledge our own wounds. Our sensitivity to disabilities needs to be an act not of generosity, but of self-recognition.

My name’s Susan. I have long-standing depression and anxiety and an arthritic knee that sometimes makes me limp. My eyes are bad, and my hearing’s gradually getting worse. Those are my disabilities. What are yours?

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