Seeking a Theology of Equality for Those with Intellectual Disabilities

January 8th, 2019
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

If I am to preach from the margins, I have to somehow genuinely be in solidarity with the marginalized. But how? The attempt to practice a real presence amongst those who are often overlooked and underserved is one good answer but not the best starting point. No matter how much we try to identify with the people, we simply cannot; when it comes to truly walking in another’s shoes, we are limited.

To the extent that we as gospel-proclaimers start with the mission of us entering in to help them, we are abrogating the deepest and truest solidarity between humans—a theological one. What happens when we don’t grant the “ministered-to” true theological solidarity? I am afraid this kind of ministry scarily reflects a colonialist mindset. Willie Jennings relates that “Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logics.”[1] When the mission minded colonialists arrived, they discerned “the guiding hand of God” in the providential way they entered the land, “while discerning no such divine involvement in the lives of native peoples.”[2]

Jennings’s principle of the colonialist inversion of hospitality extends past cultural logics like language and custom into the theological realm—theological cultural logics that apply in view of people with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD). What are the cultural logics of ableist proclamation theology that hinder our solidarity with such persons?

When it comes to ministry in the IDD community, we might include everyone in the name of Christ. We might say everyone belongs and everyone is welcome here, that all of us are unconditionally and equally loved children of God. We might even say everyone is created in the image of God. But we have still relegated our IDD friends to the status of second-class souls. Why? We have failed to give people their full humanity in Jesus Christ. How? Because we have maintained a premium on the cultural logics of ability. In other words, we unwittingly distance ourselves from those with intellectual disabilities because we perceive them to be in a different category of response to the gospel than us.

Because they cannot enter into our faith and response logics, we might change the logics for those with IDD into a proclamation that requires no response. This is paternalism. Responding to God’s love is part and parcel of being human. But wait, some are so severely challenged that they cannot respond, right? Isn’t it a kindness to “play down” response? In this depersonalizing logic, we have lost sight of who is personally responding to God for all of us by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus Christ, while always God, is also the high priest of our humanity, his representation of every human to God is what grace is all about. We are given to discover the intimacy of our distinctive response already enfolded in his person!

At the Reality Center, a place for teens and adults with and without developmental disabilities to experience belonging, kinship and life-changing Reality of Christ's love, we have a huge banner that proclaims, “I am for you.” Jesus Christ stands in for us in a way that accentuates and does not obscure our particularity and personhood. When we speak about giving everyone their humanity in Christ, we mean giving everyone their participation in Christ, subconsciously before consciously. We are thereby celebrating a theo-logic that is the same for every person, where we are all personally responding to the Father by the Holy Spirit. Under the sound of this good news, our joyful participation breaks out into multifarious verbal and nonverbal expressions.

Simply put, the gospel is Jesus Christ coming to us, dying for us, and living for us. Because we are all positively participants in Christ’s life, at Reality Ministries we are practicing what I call response-oriented evangelism. As you might imagine, the twist relates to Jesus Christ’s response, and then our response in his. Instead of the heaviness of ableist response often found in the church, we are thus provided with one theological anthropology for all people under an equal yoke. Up under Christ’s response, our burden is indeed light!

By locating every single person at the center of the text in Jesus Christ—as the apple of the Father’s eye in the love of the Holy Spirit—we are proclaiming that no one is on the margins to God. In fact, until we are firmly rooted in a gospel logic that absolves the margins, we cannot truly preach “from the margins.” This is because we must be driven back to the critical first step of listening to those who, before we ever preach to them, are preaching the gospel of God’s welcome to us. In an atmosphere where we give one another our humanity, the kinship and mutuality that exude provide a fertile seedbed where the proclamation of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is received from one another in transformative ways.

So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory (Rom 15:7 CEB).

[1] Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Jennings, 90.

 [MOU1]What is this? Can you add a clause describing that this is?

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