Christian Humility and Disability Studies
This spring I attended a talk by a visiting lecturer, Allison Hobgood, who led a discussion called “Being Smart: Disorientation, Access, and Resilience Strategies.” In a guided discussion, Hobgood proposed that our common ways of acknowledging intelligence are embedded within troubling ableist assumptions. Ableism is a form of prejudice that devalues and discriminates against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. Her concern was that intelligence is often used to convey value. We become defensive when people imply we are of limited intelligence, and we will adamantly defend that we are in fact highly mentally capable. We do not argue that limited intelligence would not affect our value. Every time we defend our value by asserting our intelligence, we implicitly agree that people with less intelligence, or an intellectual disability, have less value. Hobgood expressed concern that this is especially harmful in our society, because we correlate cognitive abilities to personhood.
As a scholar, and hopefully someday a college professor, this is an issue of special concern for me. Academia is a field based on valuing and rewarding cognitive abilities. This creates a high potential for ableism against people with cognitive disabilities. As I sat in Hobgood’s discussion, I was troubled by a question, “How can the academy, or an individual person for that matter, value and promote intelligence without implying a lack of value in people with cognitive disabilities?”
On a practical level, there’s much people and institutions can do to create a more equitable work and learning environment. From better building access to online textbooks that have multiple settings for sight-impaired students, there’s a lot of worthwhile hands-on change for which to advocate. As we advocate for practical changes, however, I believe it’s also important to address ableism on the spiritual level. We are most passionate as advocates when a cause becomes embedded within our understanding of what is necessary for a good and just world. I replace my initial question with a new one, “What does Christianity teach us about how to value people and their abilities?” The answer I found was one that called for a change first and foremost in how I, an able-bodied person, view myself.
In an interview addressing issues of race, author Toni Morison once referred to racism in the United States as a “white people” problem. She said racism was about the way white people view black people to make themselves feel superior. It’s a weakness in the white community. It had nothing to do with her or her community. I propose that ableism functions on the same logic. It allows able-bodied people to feel better about themselves for merely being born sighted, or with the use of their legs, or without any developmental issues. If we want to address ableism, we, able-bodied people, need to start asking what weaknesses in us compel us to view others as inferior.
It is the absence of humility. In a passage in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, a character addresses how God wants humans to handle the gifts with which they have been individually blessed. The example of a beautiful woman is used. The passage explains how humankind struggles to express humility and often imagines it must take the form of someone degrading their gifts. In the human mind, the beautiful woman must claim she is ugly in order to be humble. That is an absurd way of approaching humility. It makes a virtue a punishment and assumes God does not delight in the woman’s beauty or in the expression of any person’s gifts, despite God being the source of those gifts.
In truth, God doesn’t wish for the beautiful woman to think she is ugly. That isn’t humility. God wants for us to enjoy our gifts as part of his generosity and to give glory to him in response. That is Christian humility. It doesn't ask us to think less of our gifts. In fact, gratitude depends on us valuing what we are given. The more we value something the more grateful we are for it. Christian humility, however, has us turn that gratitude toward God, not ourselves. In this way, we may find joy in our gift without making us arrogant and subsequently, separating us from others. Pride poisons our connection to other people by demanding that we see ourselves as someone apart from others. It puts us in competition with each other. Only in humility can a gift be fearlessly and recklessly celebrated.
People confident in their own abilities and value do not need to feast upon the insecurities or the diminishment of others. If we see ourselves as generously blessed by God, does not God’s generosity prompt our own? If I believe I am made in the image of God, am I not moved to love as he does? When our posture drops from a defensive one, a need to assert our own value and intelligence, we open ourselves up to recognizing value in others. There is a lot of important writing in Christian circles on how we are all sinners and how we are all broken people. Romans Chapter 3 tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Saint Paul writes to remind us that we must not judge ourselves as above others. The practice of Christianity asks us to hold these two truths within us: 1) that we all fall short of perfection and 2) we are all also made in the image of our God. Everyone we meet is then a mirror of our God’s face. And if I believe that, how much more fondly will I look on my God’s face when it sits across the table from me.
I am made in the image of God. You are made in the image of God. They are made in the image of God. We cannot allow systems of power to divide us into camps: the abled and disabled. Ableist rhetoric tries to convince us that there is a fundamental difference in the humanity of people with disabilities and those without. It tells me that I must protect my intelligence by separating myself from people whose cognitive abilities do not mirror my own, or else, I risk having my gifts go unnoticed. As if the people in power had the right, or even the ability, to judge the extent of the gifts God has given any of us. When I advocate for the rights and humanity of other people, I am not advocating for strangers. I am advocating for my God, for the people in whom he has come to dwell. It is my honor to serve the Lord, so it is my privilege to serve them. I cannot ignore the value of a dwelling place of my Lord without also ignoring the value he gives me by dwelling within me. It is not their liberation we fight for; there is no they. It is ours, and it always has been. One body in Christ.