From Mercy to Mutuality

by David Morstad

One of the themes I have tried to establish in the book, Whole Community, is the changing nature of the relationship between non-disabled people of faith and people with disabilities in our midst; specifically, a change from the context of mercy to a context of mutuality. People will challenge this notion from time to time with various versions of the question, “What’s wrong with mercy?”  Since the sacred writings of numerous faith traditions lift it up as significant, it’s a very good question.  The following excerpt from the book presents one man’s journey toward understanding.

Book CoverCharity as Oppression

In 1976 Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Dutch Reformed pastor, participated in a conference at the University of Potchefstroom in South Africa. Of that conference, he wrote, “There were quite a few Dutch scholars present . . . , a few of us from Canada and the U.S., both black and white from other parts of Africa, and Afrikaners (all white Afrikaans speaking people  from South Africa) along with blacks, the indigenous population of South Africa.”

He went on to report that the Dutch were angry with the Afrikaners over apartheid; and the Afrikaners, in turn, were angry with the Dutch for being angry about apartheid. Then the blacks began to speak up, more quietly than the Dutch and Afrikaners, about how they were daily humiliated and demeaned under apartheid.   Inexplicably, the Afrikaners did not disagree about the injustice, but rather argued that justice was not a relevant factor.  The relevant category, they insisted, was “love, charity, and benevolence.”  They spoke of the many ways they were benevolent to the blacks in the form of Christmas gifts and used clothing for the children, and the Afrikaners were hurt and offended that blacks so seldom expressed gratitude for that benevolence.  Here, in one short paragraph, is the heart of Wolterstorff’s article:

“Scales fell off my eyes. What I saw, as I had never seen before, was benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression. I felt called by God, in the classical Protestant sense of call, to speak up for these wronged and suffering people and to speak up for justice.”[i]

In disability services, we often confront attitudes and behavior that tend toward charity and patronizing, a view that our ethical calling as the non-disabled is to take care of people and see that they are happy. After all, why would they want anything more?

One of problems with mercy is that, left unexamined, it establishes an imbalance of power in a relationship—the have-nots ever dependent upon the haves.  Perhaps it is time to reframe our mercy as an invitation, a doorway to a rich, diverse, and interdependent relationship that carries the potential to improve us all.

[i] Wolterstorff, N. The way to justice. How My Mind Has Changed: Essays from the Christian Century (Wipf and Stock, 2011) pp 13