Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Perceptions of Limits

Paul, Disability, and the Environment

Today’s Forward Day by Day reflection on Philippians 1:12-30 is about Paul in prison. It talks about Paul’s faith being steadfast and fruitful despite his circumstances. The reflection ends making the sound point that no matter what our circumstances, we “have all been made alive”, created anew.

In the course of making this point, though, the writer says that some of us are “confined to wheelchairs”. This all too common phrase always strikes me as odd, since for someone who can’t walk, a wheelchair is far from something confining; in fact, it’s a way to go somewhere. While a wheelchair may look limiting to someone who can walk around easily, using a wheelchair is a way of accepting a limitation and getting on with living life; it’s a means towards flourishing.

This way of looking at physical limitations is similar to the way we sometimes perceive the limits that the laws of physics and chemistry and biology put on what we can do without making our air, water, or climate unsustainable. If we can’t accept those limits, if we see them as somehow imprisoning us and keeping us from living in accordance with some shallow idea of progress – such as accumulating more things – we will only end up harming ourselves and other living things. If we accept these limits, however, and get on with living, we can flourish. Living in harmony with the laws of nature is no more confining than using a wheelchair!

To check out my thoughts about the wheelchair analogy, I wrote to our son, Andrew Blake Bennett, a doctoral student at Syracuse University in Cultural Foundations of Education specializing in disability studies. Andrew did more than answer my question; he wrote his own reflection, asking some good questions that apply equally to the way we think about disabilities and the way we think about environmental stewardship. He points out ways the church has thought about disability, which parallels the way we have thought about nature and the perceived need to dominate or “tame” it. I thank Andrew for permission to use his reflection in its entirety.

The writer of today’s Forward Day by Day series impresses upon the reader that disability such as being “confined to a wheelchair” or “deafness, blindness, pain, etc.” and so forth is an “imprisonment”. Since the meditation is short, one cannot know what exactly the author meant by this, but certainly there is a long tradition, even sometimes within the Church, of equating disability to a limitation. This treats disability as something that is something horrible and limiting instead of as something that is a part of the human condition. The social model of disability, on the other hand, considers how society contributes to the idea of disability.

The term 'confinement', therefore, usually ends up having a very temporarily able bodied perspective. It is this way because the medical model, that is a model of seeing disability as a deficit, sees disability as being something that makes a person invalid. Simi Linton notes in Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity that this word comes from the Latin invalidus meaning “weak” and ties being a person with a disability to always being a patient, even in non-medical situations where this does not apply (Linton, 1998, pp. 28-29).

Much of this control stems from society wanting the person with a disability to be something else. Linton describes within her book Trembley’s (2006) description of Canadian World War II veterans. Staff wanted these individuals to be able to walk, even though it was much easier for them to propel themselves with wheelchairs. Linton wrote “It is that type of manipulation and control, along with architectural and attitudinal barriers that confine people. It is not wheelchairs” (Linton, 1998, pp. 27-28).

While I agree with the author of today’s reflection as to the main point in the passage, I think the reading would benefit from a closer reading of the text. Even as Paul says that living is in Christ and dying is gain, he also talks about the fruitfulness of the labor of “living in the flesh” (Philippians 1: 22-24). Paul also writes of the privilege of “not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have”. With Paul, of course, there were physical manifestations of struggle and suffering, but in a way, this sense of “suffering” can also mean “witnessing” for God even when concerns would appear to limit us.

Considering that we, as human beings, are all limited in some way or another, how might we “breakthrough” and witness to the things that God calls us to witness to, things like stewardship of the earth, poverty, and upholding the dignity of every human being in its most expansive sense even when we feel limited by practical constraints? The first thing that Christians are called to do is to listen to God. What does scripture tell us to do and how do we apply it to today’s world? What has tradition taught us? In what ways have traditional ways of doing things worked and not worked? Is the tradition reasonable for today’s world? Finally, we must examine how God is speaking in today’s world and consider that to follow where Christ calls us will require creativity and innovation, but also may require sacrifice and a tempering of an individual sense of entitlement for collective benefit. This can be far reaching, everything from how we are designing our cities, towns, and rural communities to how we experience and think about our societal institutions, and, especially, how we, as human beings, think about and experience our neighbor, whether our literal neighbors or far away. Later on, Paul spoke of God’s salvation “enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 13). If we allow God to work within us, to be innovative and creative, to speak within us, and to put away old ideas and attitudes, we are capable of more than we ever expected and allow others to also fulfill their potential. Thanks be to God!

Environmental stewardship is not something we do in isolation; it’s interconnected with all our other concerns. When Andrew says “we must examine how God is speaking in today’s world and consider that to follow where Christ calls us will require creativity and innovation, but also may require sacrifice and a tempering of an individual sense of entitlement for collective benefit”, that speaks to our relationships with the earth, water, air, and the earth’s plants and animals as well as our relationships with one another.