Every now and again, the UMC or some group within it, such as the Council of Bishops, engages in a service of repentance. Although I don’t have a list of such services in front of me, it seems that most of these services relate to matters of race and culture. From a Christian perspective, repentance is the appropriate response to both personal and social sin. If we identify something for which we need to repent, then by all means let’s do so. Failure to repent keeps us from being in proper relationship to God.
There is, however, the problem of identifying the actions that properly constitute our sins and therefore warrant a service of repentance. Mark Tooley has written a rather scathing article on the recent service of repentance by the Council of Bishops for historical misdeeds committed against Native Americans. According to Tooley, “[The] Gospel primarily demands repentance from each for his or her own sins, not ideological denunciation of long dead ancestors more premised on smug superiority than spiritual remorse.” Many people will of course take exception to Tooley’s characterization of this service of repentance. One might counter, for example, that for a group such as the Council of Bishops to express remorse regarding the atrocities committed against Native Americans, and for its members to recommit themselves to actions and attitudes that will help to prevent acts of racism and cultural imperialism in the future, could be very meaningful for Native American people living in the generational aftermath of those atrocities. Yet Tooley’s point, I think, is that it is much more difficult to repent of sins we are committing in the here and now, and to dedicate ourselves to specific actions in the here and now, than it is to repent of actions that people we may or may not have any relation to committed centuries ago.
Whether you agree with Tooley or not, one could not levy the same criticism toward a service of repentance for our mistreatment of people with disabilities. Disability is very much a here-and-now issue. We can do something in the present tense about the lives of people with disabilities. In fact, we could do a great deal, if we really were committed to doing so. A service of repentance along these lines would publicly commit us to real, on-the-ground action. Alternatively, failing to act after such a service would demonstrate that we in fact have no strong denominational commitments toward improving the lives of people with disabilities. If the latter turns out to the case, in 500 years of so, when many of the issues confronting people with disabilities have been resolved, we can have a service of repentance for all the things we didn’t do.
We do, you know, have a lot of repenting to do along these lines. We could repent for the untold numbers of children with disabilities throughout history who have been exposed or otherwise left to die. We could repent for thousands and thousands of children in the U.S., even in the 20th century, who were essentially warehoused because they had intellectual disabilities. Their parents were told that they could not learn, would not speak, could never be trained to use the toilet–claims that we know today are in most cases wrong. We could repent of prenatal testing that results in high pregnancy termination rates for children with Down syndrome. We could repent for failing properly to attend to issues of mental health. Heaven knows we could repent for the countless church buildings that have been inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. Churches, you know, don’t have to be ADA compliant. For that matter, we should include failing to provide assistive-listening devices or signers in our churches. And how about congregations that refuse to receive a pastor who uses a wheelchair, or will not attempt to provide Christian education to kids on the autism spectrum? While we’re at it, we could ask ourselves how often we elect people with disabilities to jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Maybe we could also repent of all the bad theology that has resulted in people attributing disabilities to divine punishment. I mean… wow… we might need to take a week or so to get all this repenting done.
Think about it…. If we really, earnestly, and publicly repented for mistreatment of people with disabilities–both within and outside of the church–we would have to begin to give this matter much more time and attention as we, say, select curricula, make building decisions, and select candidates for ordained ministry. It would come to bear on the way in which we select insurance policies. It would affect our worship practices. It might affect which legislation actually makes it to the floor of General Conference. We might have to tighten up the social principles and clearly, unequivocally reject termination of pregnancies on the basis of detection of disabilities. Just think about the changes this could bring about! Heck, even Rachel Held Evans might start tweeting about this! Think about the attitudes we would have to change, the practices we would have to put in place, the money we would have to spend!!!
Okay, I’m holding my breath! How about you?