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Disabling the Idolatry of Ableism

ableism

Disabling the Idolatry of Ableism

During times of profound providential pressures, the Lord blesses his church with severe mercies. One of those hard-to-receive gifts is the exposition of our insidious, indigenous idols. False, territorial gods are seldom evicted from our souls without a spiritually gory fight. Cleansing cultural idols from the true temple, God’s people, is practically an exorcism. While the power of the risen Christ compels us toward freedom, we add horror to that holy struggle by holding on hard to the biblically unfaithful ideas and affections which come costumed as piety and increasingly possess our thoughts and actions. When the people of the true and living God double down on idolatry during the times of personal and social pressure which expose it, the results are truly fearful for the witness of the church and for the people already pained by our unholy allegiances.

In these trying days, it’s not only been unnerving, it’s been terrifying, to see how we Christians try to sanctify unholy thoughts, words, and actions; how we praise ungodly people who personally defy the Lord but who publicly bless us with their political power; and how we hold in snide derision those within the church, and outside of it, who call us out for compromised faith and false worship. It’s frighteningly tempting to fancy ourselves the strong, the unfearful, the uncompromising. We creationists employ what we’d otherwise call a savage Darwinian social ethic as we mock or condescendingly tolerate people whom we consider emotionally or spiritually weak. And there are similar, more subtle discriminations among us, all the more cruel for their quiet evolution during our cultural crisis. The victims are not (usually) actively mocked, but they are subjected by physically stronger Christians to a passively expressed, personally insulting indifference which manifests as the latter vie for religious liberty. Pandemic pressures are exposing among us an idol called ableism.

If we’ve grown weary in keeping track of the multiplying ‘isms in our culture, we could simply call “ableism” by a Scriptural cognate term translated “favoritism” (Jude 16), and apply it appropriately. Ableism is ungodly preferential treatment which exalts the able-bodied and dehumanizes the physically less capable. These past many months, our culture’s attention has been drawn to those who’ve lingered long on the shadowy fringe of our collective concerns and priorities. Thank the Lord that sinful discriminations are increasingly called out and that verbal and physical abuse, including what’s occurred and been covered up in the church, is being exposed as courageous victims step forward. Sadly, the church has in many ways been dependent upon “the world” to spotlight such dehumanization. Sadder still, we believers have spent so much of our time of late criticizing the whistleblowers for their tactics and operational philosophies rather than directly addressing the injustices they’re bringing to public light. Without throwing shade at any person or group of people suddenly brought to the fore of our nation’s convulsion of social conscience, we’ll focus here on people who in our ever-shifting nomenclature have been labeled as the handicapped, disabled, physically, and/or developmentally challenged, as well as the aged who lack their life’s former physical strength and vitality. In a horribly ironic and painfully instructive way, recent ostensibly Christian struggles for religious freedom have pushed such people (further?) into the periphery of popular Christian concerns. In the process, a self-righteousness has been revealed among us which, until pandemic pressures hit, had masked itself quite comfortably as conventional Christian thought and behavior.

In the midst of sometimes maddening, often multiplying government mandates, how many of us have found ourselves morally outraged at having to live temporarily in conditions which comprise permanent life situations for others? I don’t mean business shutdowns or their torturous like, but rather our personal ability to move about as we wish, wearing what we want, free to assemble when and how we choose, whether for the big game at the stadium or for weekly worship in the church building. It seems that our efforts to regain such freedoms have been infected by an idol-revealing, unrecognized antipathy toward those who’ve never experienced them, or who, for whatever reason beyond their control, have regularly been denied them.

For example, consider the increasingly popular (but utterly unbiblical) claim that gathering for worship in a particular building is of the essence of the Christian faith. Notwithstanding legitimate discussions and debates about government authority, notice how this maxim immediately marginalizes those who physically cannot get to the building, as well as those for whom the building’s features are impossible to physically navigate. Are such saints missing out on the essence of the Christian life? Has their disability disqualified them from full participation in the worship of their Savior? God forbid!

If our theological answer to these questions is “no,” then we have to face several idol-exposing questions related to our practical ministry.  Much like the monetary thieves who set up their den in the Temple’s “Court of the Gentiles” (John 2), have we so arranged the locality and logistics of worship that we have in effect excluded some of God’s people from experiencing it in full? Have we made access to the public, holy assembly of worship dependent upon the physical capabilities of the worshiper? Have we thus become essentially materialistic in our practical doctrine of spiritual worship (John 4)?  And the uncomfortable questions continue . . .

Have we ascribed sacramental significance to our physical structures? How much of our church budget has been poured into what only the able-bodied among us may fully enjoy? How much of that wealth could have been spent instead on the well-being of the infirm, of the housebound, or more broadly on those who lack daily necessities such as food and clothing?  Lest this interrogation seem to slight churches with beautiful, well-equipped buildings as inherently ungodly (especially when building projects are undertaken for the express purpose of providing access to as many people as possible), and lest it assume that monetarily strong churches are not active in ministering in the other ways listed, it’s important to note that the idol of ableism is no respecter of budgets. Do our churches for other reasons (tradition, geographical location, popular congregational vote, etc.) insist on meeting in buildings whose features prevent those with physical limitations from ever attending?  We may think we harbor no ill will toward those less physically capable than we are, but do our considerations and decisions as the church demonstrate that such people are in practical terms what our Lord declares them to be in ontological terms: Full members of equal value and dignity in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 1, 2)?

Throughout Scripture, and often through times of judgment, the Lord calls his church’s active attention to “the least of these” (Malachi 3; Matthew 25). Please note! “Least of these” is not a slight against the worth of any person; the phrase calls us to recognize those who are the least regarded among us. It also implicitly rebukes those of us possessed by self-righteous perceptions of others (Matthew 25:41ff). For us to love God and all of our neighbors well, our idols must be exposed and expelled. Thus, the pandemic pressures of our time become the perfect, albeit painful, conditions for us to recognize, repent of, and reject our unholy attitudes and alliances. These hard providences provide opportunity to prove our faith by working toward philosophical and practical conditions in church and society which ascribe to all people the honor and dignity they deserve as image-bearers of the true and living God. All of the deprivations we’re enduring provide an abundance of opportunity to identify with, serve, and learn from those different from us. May we never squander opportunities for empathy on prideful personal entitlement!

Our “exile” from church buildings can put into central focus those members of the church who can never, or hardly ever, participate in the onsite assembly we (rightly) miss so dearly.  We can recalibrate and figure out how to more regularly and fully bring the worship service to them. Current pressures provide opportunity to examine our practical doctrine of worship for the insidious presence of new (and old) covenant-defying idols which would direct our affection and attention to the place of worship rather than the worshipers themselves, where God’s heart is and always has been (Genesis 17; John 4; 1 Corinthians 3; Ephesians 2; Revelation 21). Are our hearts really aligned with our Savior’s when it comes to his worship? Our regard for others unable to live as freely as we do provides a true answer.

As church buildings reopen (or stay open), it is tempting for relatively able-bodied folks, eager to exercise our religious and civic freedom, to claim the best seats in the house. But what of those who are physically unable to enter the assembly, or who are hesitant because health precautions are being ignored or boastfully defied? Are we essentially, or actually, telling them to go sit elsewhere if they’re physically uncomfortable, to go and be with their own kind? In this worship modality, the best places are for the strongest bodies; those who are wealthy in their health are the honored attendees in the worship of God. Wouldn’t James go apoplectic at such seating arrangements (James 2)? And if so, then isn’t this mentality of ableism, manifest in our modality of worship, an utter affront to the heart and commands of the God whom we gather to worship?

How can a pure zeal for God’s worship materialize in the marginalization of less-favored members of Christ’s body? It can’t. As James warns us, self-deceit is a clear and ever-present danger for Christians, especially when we regard ourselves as the zealous practitioners of true religion (James 1).

When we look at life through the lens of God’s law, the scales of a self-seeking, materialistic, individualistic, perfectionist worldview begin to fall from our eyes. We see just how lowly we’ve regarded those who have less of our upward mobility, literally and metaphorically. We can repent and hold others in the high regard our Lord requires of us, particularly those who are used to being held in such low esteem. And when all of this incendiary self-righteousness is stoked by pandemic, socio-political pressures, grace-enabled vision shows us so very many opportunities for the personal and societal advance of Christ’s kingdom.

Because the Lord Jesus is active in making all things new (Revelation 21); because all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8); and because our heavenly Father has ordained and is orchestrating all of history toward its summation and consummation in Christ (Ephesians 1, Colossians 1); we know that every pressure we feel provides opportunity to be formed personally and corporately in Christlikeness. Christian liberty takes full advantage of government restrictions, finding new freedom to minister the tangible touch of the Lord’s love and mercy, especially to those from whom we’ve been withholding it.

As stresses mount in society, let us as God’s people truly humble ourselves before the Lord (James 4, 5); let us unconditionally and without excuse confess and abandon our idols as the God-defying, dehumanizing horrors that they are (Psalm 51; 2 Chronicles 7); let us love not only in word but in deed (1 John 3); let us fearlessly do good to all (Galatians 6); let us minister for and to Christ as he comes to us in the form of those whom our idolatries tell us to disregard (Matthew 25). May this time of crisis be, by God’s severe, saving mercy, a time of cleansing in God’s Temple.

This article originally appeared here.

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Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Geneva College. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, more coffee. Author of "God Breathed: Connecting Through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself" (Crown and Covenant, 2019). Find him at https://rutetheridge.com/