~ Wati Longchar
In God’s Image
3When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
4what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
5Yet you made them only a little lower than God
6You gave them charge of everything you made,
putting all things under their authority—
7the flocks and the herds
and all the wild animals,
8the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,
and everything that swims the ocean currents.(Ps. 8:3-8 – NLT)
The Bible affirms that human beings are created in God’s image, “God created humankind in his own image” (Gen. 1:26-27). It means all human beings – both abled and disabled persons – are bearers of God’s image. All human beings are equal though bestowed with different gifts. All human persons are unique and must be respected. Creation in the image of God entails rights to every aspect of life such as sociality, rationality, independence, freedom, interdependence, and mutuality. As a fallen sinful human race, all human beings are recipients of God’s grace of forgiveness and new life. God also demands holiness, righteousness, and justice from all people.
Wrong Interpretations about the `Image of God’
People in the past thought that only the King inherited/created the ‘image of God’. Ordinary men, women, disabled persons do not reflect the full image of God. Since the King alone is created in ‘Image of God’, he is not accountable to his subjects. He has the absolute authority to rule over the subjects and have dominion over the other segments of God’s creation. People should worship the King as he is the representative and visible image of God on earth. Disobeying the King is disobeying God, or someone claiming to be the King, or speaking against or cursing the King is blasphemy and such a person must be stoned to death or crucified as it brings God’s wrath upon the nation.
The Whole World Reflect God’s Image
In the biblical understanding, the “Image of God” is not limited to human creatures alone. The WCC-CWME document, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscape, affirms that “God created the whole oikumene (inhabited earth) in God’s image and constantly works in the world to affirm and safeguard life.” The whole creation is God’s work and they reflect the image of God. Prophet Isaiah also affirmed that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isa. 6:1-3). The Psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps. 19:1). We cannot reduce God’s creation to a mere object to be exploited and abused because the whole created world reflects God’s image. Human creation in the ‘Image of God’ implies the capacity to have dominion over the earth. `Dominion’ does not mean unmindful exploitation of God’s creation, but responsible stewardship and care.
Ableism and Exclusion
Ableism is an exclusive and discriminatory ideology. When we construct a theology only from the experience and perspective of abled people is called ‘ableism’. Influenced by the Greek thought, ableism advocates God-world-relationship in terms of hierarchical pattern: God rules over the world; the soul controls the body; men are masters over women, children, and slaves; human beings have the right to dominate animals and the other creatures. Human beings, as images of God, resemble God in the exercise of power and dominion over the other creatures. In this hierarchical structure, disabled people were seen as imperfect beings and excluded from the power structure.
Churches have never acknowledged that persons with disabilities are created in the image of God for centuries. Ableism taught ‘the image of God’ in terms of ‘perfection’ – perfection which was understood in terms of physical and mental endowment. There is no beauty in the disabled. Any form of disability makes a person less than human – they are not created in the image of God. While some understood this in terms of ‘rationality’, the other focused on the exercise of power. A person who cannot articulate does not represent God’s image; a person who cannot exercise power and have dominion over the rest of creation does not reflect the image of God. Some thinkers interpreted the image of God in relation to the human capacity for creativity and freedom. Since persons with disabilities cannot exercise creativity and freedom fully, they cannot be counted as full ‘being’; they are imperfect images of God. All those theologies are able people’s interpretations and they do not respect life especially of those who live a healthy life despite physical impairments. History shows that ableism justified the extermination of people born with physical impairments on the reason that disabled people do not reflect the image of God. A person with a disability represents a distorted image of God and so they are sub-human and thus a person does not commit a crime by killing a disabled person. Affirming perfectionist ideology and society, Persons with disabilities have been considered as a dependent, inferior, sinner, and cursed by God. Luther and Calvin also held persons with disabilities in contempt and justified their removal from society by death as “an act well-pleasing to God.” Ableism thus denies the diversity of human creation; it is a denial of God’s purpose of creation of human beings.
We can affirmatively say that ableism is one of the root causes of exclusion of persons with disabilities; it perpetuates inequalities and discriminations. It treats persons with disabilities as second-class citizens, objects-of-charity, or even abandoned. They experience prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory acts from the able-bodied majority. We can say that persons with disabilities are today one of the most marginalized social groups in society. They do not exercise and enjoy the same basic rights as their non-disabled counterparts both in the church and society. In the context of economic competition, the persons with disabilities experience more discrimination in employment opportunities because the employers in both the public and private sectors regard persons with disabilities as weak, helpless, and incompetent to perform work. Market capitalism is further making the situation of the disabled very vulnerable. The economic growth-oriented approach to development, privatization, competition, and the emphasis on standardization of labor further marginalize disabled persons. The preference given to smartness, efficiency, swiftness, beauty, etc. do greater damage to the life and work of persons with disabilities They are usually the first to be discharged, but the last to be hired in any form of employment. This is the reason why many of them are abandoned and on the street begging without hope.
Cultural Beliefs and Disability
Among many societies, there is a strong belief that nothing just happens but those bad things or unfortunate events are caused by the evil spirits and good things are the result of the blessings from the good spirits. If something happens in one’s life e.g. serious suffering, death, accident, disability, even death of an animal or a poor harvest, people always considered this as a consequence of bad action, e.g. the killing animals while one’s wife is pregnant, giving false witness on land matters, killing of an innocent person, telling lies, violation of religious observance, violation of restricted days, taboos, etc. Some societies see disability as a result of children conceived out of incest or wedlock, an expectant woman doing certain practices that are taboo (e.g. eating certain fish or eating the meat of cat, tiger, etc), having sex outside of marriage; killing animals, and laughing at a person with a disability. The others believe that failure to respect and appease one’s ancestors results in disability. ‘Blindness’, ‘cripple’, ‘stillborn’, ‘mental imbalance’, ‘demon possession’, etc. are associated with those evil practices. If such a person is given a place in the community, the whole village community is affected. Thus, society does not give any opportunity for disabled people to live a normal life even though they can. In some societies, persons with disabilities are not taken in political matters. They are not allowed to be involved in religious matters even today. In some societies, they are not even allowed to speak in public. Such views are all constructed by able people and such teachings undermine the potential of persons with disabilities.
Problem of Ableism
Ms.MapulaLemtur, a Pastor in Nagaland, shared about women’s ministry among persons with disabilities. She mentioned that due to lack of understanding and social stigma, sometimes family members become the stumbling block for disable children. She shared her experience working among persons with disabilities that “Persons with disabilities are stigmatized by their family members. They do not want they disable child/children to be made known in society, whenever asked to participate in the church. It is their parents, brothers, and sisters who restrict them to participate. Once I approached a disabled person to sing a song as he has a beautiful voice. He said yes, but was not allowed by the family members. One blind girl is talented in making baskets, and she agreed to demonstrate it in the church but was not permitted by the family members. Another eight years old who is a visually impaired girl was asked to read Bible verse. She was very glad, but her parents did not allow it. We share God’s word and give them small gifts to encourage them. We could win disabled children, but not the family members. There are many such stories. However, we are determined and committed to continue our ministry among persons with disabilities.”
In many families, persons with disabilities are not given due respect. Even if the person is the eldest, if he/she has a disability then he/she will not be allowed to be involved in the decision making processes of the family. This is linked to the belief that persons with disabilities are inadvertently mentally disabled and therefore they are not capable of making the right decisions. Some of the common discriminatory exclusions experienced by persons with disabilities are:
- Disabled persons cannot inherit properties of their parents or a disabled person would not be considered when a family gives a share of land to the children, especially the male members. In other words, the disabled person is not entitled to any immovable property rights.
- Disability connected to superstitions culminates in stigmatization. They are looked upon as inferior, sinners, or impure/imperfect beings.
- In some societies, children with disabilities are being killed because they are being possessed by the evil spirit and also to protect the family’s prestige/status.
- In some cases, children with disabilities are abandoned simply on the grounds of keeping away ‘the curse’, or stigma.
- Often as a means of hiding what is perceived to be a disgraceful aspect in the family, a disabled child is kept in seclusion from those who visit the family.
- Persons with disabilities are not given equal treatment in accessing the right to education. Able people have a notion that disabled children are not capable of articulating ideas.
- Due to lack or denial of adequate treatment many people with disabilities are left to die from the disease as a means of getting rid of the “disabled child” in the family.
- They are denied political, economic, and educational rights. Some churches have even denied the ordination of the disabled because a disabled minister may distract others whom he/she is supposed to serve.
Restoring God’s Image
All these practices are injustices. Wounding, hurting, depriving, oppressing, and denying the rights means denial of the image of God.
All people with or without disabilities are created in the image of God. God is the source of all life and that they are all precious and valuable. All are bestowed with different gifts. We need to affirm the diversity of the human body and gifts. It is an integral part of the structure of God’s creation. Society – from its most basic unit (the family) to its broader forms (the church and the community) – has to be a place where everyone, regardless of gifts and abilities, is genuinely welcomed, given every opportunity to participate meaningfully and nurtured toward fulfillment. We need to work together for an inclusive just society rigorously so that our common vision for the establishment of an inclusive and empowering global society may be realized. Let us strive to create a society and church where everyone, regardless of gifts and abilities, is genuinely included, or else our churches will remain themselves disabled communities without the inclusion of persons with disabilities.