Exceptional Faith

by David Morstad

“It’s such a simple, childlike faith…”

“I wish we all had faith that strong…”

“Actually, we’re the ones with the disability…”

Driven by genuine love and a commitment to what is right, we abled people of faith feel a strong sense of advocacy when it comes to people with disabilities. We long to support them as part of the body of believers and speak out against a world that would marginalize them. What better way to do that than to proclaim that their disability, while perhaps limiting in many ways, has no such limits when it comes to their spiritual lives. So far, so good.

Sometimes, though, that doesn’t seem to be quite enough, so we take that next step. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Faith sketchThe life circumstances faced by people with disabilities seem truly unfair and we find ourselves powerless to change them. So, we turn to a narrative in which those who appear to be weak actually have a relationship to God that is simpler, purer, deeper, and stronger than ours. It is a sincere act of love and affirmation, isn’t it?

I’m not so sure.

There is an adage in the disability community that “elevation is still segregation”.  Obviously none of us set out to be purposely disrespectful; however, genuine affection and caring can often lead us to overcompensate for perceived disadvantage. We use words like “special people”, “children with special needs” and “exceptional abilities” to describe people unlike ourselves. Indeed, we are all special in God’s eyes – people do not become special when they have a disability. The “exceptional” euphemisms feel like a nice thing to do; yet, in the eyes of many with disabilities, all they really do is patronize and separate them from the rest of us.

Then, there’s the matter of scripture. We’ve heard the term enough in the faith and disability world that we may have come to believe that “childlike faith” is something found in the Bible. It’s not. There is a verse in which Jesus says that we must “become as children” (Matthew 18:2) but that was in response to his disciples’ question of who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The context of his answer appears to be more a lesson in humility than in faith.

Exaggerating the faith of people with disabilities, while loving and benevolent in its intention, is simply unnecessary. Elevating an individual with a disability to a level of special favor in God’s eyes is incongruous with a relationship of equals who aspire to live in community with one another and, some would say, theologically questionable. If “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3), and faith is therefore a gift we receive in an empty and open hand, then who are we to say that God gives more of this gift to one than to the other?

That doesn’t mean ignore difference.  In fact, there is much to celebrate in our disabled/non-disabled relationship.  We celebrate our common call to a common mission.  We celebrate the gifts of ability and perspective.  We celebrate diversity and community.  We celebrate grace.

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