by David Morstad
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“One another.” Three times in one quote. Jesus seems intensely interested in our relationships with one another. And that’s only one example. “Feed my lambs,” he said. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said.
When it comes to people with disabilities, our culture has followed a familiar albeit dubious pattern – relationships have been institutionalized. Agencies provide services, faith communities engineer outreach programs, and governments provide funding. It’s all very organized. Hans Reinders suggests, “We provide services in order to plug the hole that the lack of friendship has left behind.”
Make no mistake, I’m not criticizing. Good things – many good things – are accomplished in the process. People need essentials like food, transportation, education, housing and employment. When it comes to relationships, though, I can’t help but think that Jesus had something a little deeper in mind. I love my family, but I wouldn’t characterize the relationship as “providing services”. It’s a little more complicated than that.
Historically, service providers, e.g., churches, professional agencies, the government, all have charity at their roots. That makes sense because charity is easier to define, implement and regulate than, say, friendship. Mercy is easier than mutuality, and that makes for a smoother bureaucracy. In the process, though, there is tension. Advocates without disabilities work hard to foster independence, dignity and a relationship of equals, but we also use words like “care” and “compassion”, which, as people with disabilities have pointed out, create a very different social framework.
Our American culture was built on values like self-sufficiency and rugged individualism; still, charity has always been valued. We like how it feels and how it looks. In fact, it seems that every time celebrities get in trouble, they use charity work to improve their personal image. Mercy and charity are profoundly human, but they can create a relationship in which the giver is positioned as having greater status than the receiver. Paternalism is something the disability community knows all about.
We all – people with and without disabilities – seem to want the same things – at least on the surface. Relationships, though, are not always viewed the same by the people who are in them. They’re funny that way. We want to do what’s right, but it’s complicated.
So, where do we turn? C.S. Lewis once described friendship as two people standing side-by-side facing one thing that stands before them and saying, “I see what you see the way you see it.” Frankly, I’m not sure that’s ever the case. I’ve known too many people who see things in a way I never will. Yet, I still believe the image represents an ideal worth striving for. Complicated? I hope so. I’ve noticed that the best relationships often are.