What constitutes dignity?

human-dignity
Photo:Trounce/Wikimedia Commons

When I was teaching the topic euphemistically referred to as “end of life issues” with my RE classes in school, I sometimes used to show them the Channel 4 documentary about the fight of Diane Pretty, a woman in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease, to be allowed to have her life ended by her husband without him having to fear prosecution.  The case went all the way up through the British legal system and finally to the European Court of Human Rights.  At every stage the judges upheld the status quo, refusing to legitimise euthanasia, and affirming that the right to self-determination does not extend to the right to choose when and how to end one’s life.

The problem with the documentary was that it made no attempt to be unbiased, but was unashamed propaganda for Diane Pretty’s point of view.  It was quite obvious that this distressed, depressed and vulnerable woman’s situation had been hijacked by a pro-euthanasia organisation which found her a handy promotional tool for its own agenda, and I tried to make that point to the students and get them to consider other points of view also.  When someone so despairs that she wants her life to end, she is not suffering from disability, she is suffering from depression, and the solution is not to confirm her despair but to treat her depression.

In particular, the documentary showed a scene of Mrs Pretty’s soiled incontinence pad being changed by a carer who came to the house especially for the purpose, and it cited this as evidence of a total loss of dignity.  I used to point out to students that I care for a disabled person who has to have carers come in every day to help with exactly this personal care task, and whose cheerful good spirits and sense of humour enable her to retain her dignity and humanity even while such intimate help is being given.  Loss of dignity is an attitude of mind, not an objective fact.

Now I am watching elderly relatives of mine also reaching a point where they are unable to carry out intimate personal care tasks for themselves, and having to rely on paid carers to assist them.  I think this takes far more mental adjustment for them than for someone who has been disabled all her life and has never known what it is not to be reliant on others for this kind of care.  Along with this goes a need to depend on others to provide meals, and the restriction of no longer being able to go out and socialise in the way that they used to.  One of them in particular was always ready, well into her eighties, to serve others by giving lifts in her car and I know that she feels it very keenly that she can not only no longer give other people lifts to meetings, but cannot get to those meetings herself.  And I believe that when our older generation reach this stage of life, it is absolutely vital that we do not present this to them as a loss of their dignity.

I think this is an error which even the church unwittingly falls into.  Ministry has traditionally been seen as a function of the physically able and intellectually gifted.  I recently came across an online forum where a young man was asking for help regarding a vocation to the Catholic priesthood.  It was clear from what he wrote that his spiritual journey had been leading him to this point for some time and he was longing to seek ordination, but was worried as to how his calling would be seen by the Church, since he was blind.  I was very saddened to read the responses – telling him, firstly on a practical level that he would be unable to celebrate and administer the Eucharist, and so would not be able to carry out the duties of a priest, and secondly, and more disturbingly, on a theological level that the priest represents Christ vicariously to the people, and so an imperfection such as blindness would incorrectly caricature Christ as imperfect and for this reason he could not consider a priestly vocation.  (I should point out that these were the opinions of the forum respondents, not an official position from the Church).

It is hard to enumerate the many levels on which this is both heresy and nonsense. Firstly, where is the priest who is devoid of imperfections and therefore represents Christ adequately?  I dearly loved my philosophy tutor when I was a student, an elderly Jesuit priest who was bent nearly double and in constant pain from ankylosing spondylitis and who had a penchant for risqué jokes.  Coming as I did from an ultra-conservative evangelical background, he did more than anyone else for my spiritual formation in my late teens and early twenties, opening my eyes to profound ways of relating to God in contemplation and silence and to the wideness and encompassing nature of the love and mercy of God.  The idea that any minister of God has no physical, psychological or spiritual imperfections and can therefore adequately reflect the perfect nature of Christ is nonsense.

Secondly, there are no duties that a blind priest could not be enabled to carry out with the right reasonable adjustments – the Bible and prayer book in Braille, a fellow-priest or altar server to show him where to stand, even a guide dog to lead him along the altar rail, why not?

Thirdly, a priest who has himself overcome more difficulties in life than many of his congregation, who has learned to depend on God in the hard times, and who has faced head-on the hard questions about human suffering and the sovereignty of God and has emerged with his faith strengthened, has a wealth of spiritual riches to offer his congregation.

Fourthly, who says that Christ was devoid of imperfections, or at least of vulnerabilities?  During His years in the carpenters’ shop, do you think He never slipped and gashed His arm with a chisel, or hit His thumb with a hammer?  We are told that He was tested in all points as we are, yet was without sin.  So in all likelihood he did hit His thumb, but didn’t let rip with a volley of expletives!

But more than that, vulnerability, weakness and what today’s society considers indignity was His intention and plan for His human existence.  When God first put in an appearance on the earth, He was not wearing a stitch of clothing, and had no control of His bladder and bowel, dependent on His parents to keep Him clean.  I once read that evangelicals, while affirming their belief in the dual (human and divine) nature of Jesus, are nonetheless guilty of a sort of unconscious Docetism that tries to gloss over the reality of His humanity, as if it were somehow irreverent to think of Him as really sharing all that human frailty entails.  But in the baby of Bethlehem we are confronted by God in a dirty nappy, crying for a feed.  And He ended His life in vulnerability, hanging exposed and naked before a mocking crowd, unable even to wipe away the blood and sweat that ran down His face.

If we as the Church are to be truly the Body of Christ then everything that His body did when He was on earth, we are to do, too.  Of course that means developing a disciplined prayer life, feeding the hungry, ministering and loving.  But it also means unashamedly accepting frailty, vulnerability and the need to receive the assistance of others to do things we would rather do ourselves.  We must not, at all costs, allow the elderly and disabled members of the Body to believe that their loss of ability and their growing dependence entails a loss of dignity, lessens their contribution or their value in the life of the Church or makes them less Christ-like.  The very reverse is true.  As we will be singing in a couple of weeks’ time, “He was little, weak helpless; tears and smiles like us He knew.”

Let’s affirm to our elderly members, our disabled members, our weaker and more vulnerable members, “In your patient acceptance of the frailty of your body, we see a reflection of Jesus.  In your need to turn to others for assistance, we see the humility of God.  In learning from you, we feel like those early disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn from Him.  And in serving you, we feel the privilege as deeply as if Christ Himself were in front of us, accepting our service.”

 

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A Master-class in disability inclusion

This was originally written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

“We had a problem at church on Sunday,” someone told me as we chatted at the Big Church Day Out. “A disabled lady in our church was disgruntled because she felt people were ignoring her.  But the thing is, we don’t always want to be swamping her with offers of help.  It’s difficult to get it right.”

I tried to make some suggestions as to how to strike the right balance, but I couldn’t help reflecting on her words after the event was over. On an earlier occasion, a lady had told me, “At church everyone just assumes that any time I ask for help or for prayer it must be something to do with my disability.  But one time I just wanted prayer because my mum had died, and no one gave me the opportunity to say so.”

So how do churches “get it right” for their disabled members? How do they give them enough assistance to participate fully, but not so much assistance that they feel singled out as Exhibit A?  How do they give them an opportunity to say what is really on their mind, and not just assume that it must be disability-related?  How do they enable disabled people to exercise their gifts fully for the blessing of the church?

In this, as in any area of church life, Jesus is the supreme role-model. In Mark 10. 46 – 52 we read,

As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

There are several things I notice in this story. Firstly, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside must have been quite noticeable, especially to Jesus whose mandate, according to Luke 4, was “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.”  Yet Jesus didn’t make a beeline for him, or draw attention to him in any way.

However, as soon as Bartimaeus learned that it was Jesus passing by, he immediately wanted to attract His attention, and began calling out to Him. And without hesitation, Jesus responded to his call.  We could learn much from this in churches – to treat disabled people just as we treat every other member, without drawing attention to any difference, yet ready at any moment to respond to a request from them.

Jesus did not respond by going to him, helping him to his feet and drawing very public attention to his disability. Instead, He allowed him the dignity of making his own way over, just as any other person would have done.  It would not have been necessary to give him that level of assistance since, as the story makes clear, he was capable of leaping to his feet, throwing off his cloak and making his own way to where he heard Jesus speaking.  We would do well to follow Jesus’ example of respecting people’s independence.

Once he was within speaking distance, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus’ mission was to heal, and yet He made no assumptions about what Bartimaeus wanted from Him.  Perhaps Bartimaeus might have perceived his own greatest need as loneliness, or financial hardship.  Jesus gave him the opportunity to articulate what he himself saw as his most pressing need.  Only when Bartimaeus replied, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight” did He heal him of his blindness.

And finally, Jesus continued to respect his autonomy after the healing. He didn’t direct him where to go, or tell him, “Now you have an amazing testimony, and it’s your duty to go around witnessing to what God has done.”  Instead, he left Bartimaeus to decide where to go and what to do.  Understandably, Bartimaeus’ decision was to follow Jesus.  Why wouldn’t he stay as close as possible to the one who had respected his dignity and given him the gift of healing?

In our churches, we can learn so much from this. We should be ready and available to help our disabled members, and we should create an atmosphere in which they feel able to reach out to us for whatever they need.  It’s not wrong to ask if help is needed, but it’s good first to give people the chance to decide whether to reach out for assistance.  We should give help where needed and respect independence where help is unnecessary.  We should not assume we know what the person needs, but give them the opportunity to express what it is they are looking for, and we should not assume what gifts they have and how they want to exercise them, but should give them the space and freedom to become all God wants them to be and to follow Jesus wherever He leads.