The UMC’s Upcoming Service of Repentance for the Mistreatment of People with Disabilities (Pack Your Bags!)

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?

19 thoughts on “The UMC’s Upcoming Service of Repentance for the Mistreatment of People with Disabilities (Pack Your Bags!)

  1. I saw the article on IRD and I agree that their is something disingenuous with asking for forgiveness for the sins of others in the past. I understand that one has to come to terms with these things so that they are dealt with and not repeated but why in the world would schedule something like this right now? I mean, we are right in the midst of a crisis in the UMC and this is what the council of bishops is spending their time on?

    On a positive note, I do want to say that I am grateful for what I have experienced among people in the local church (primarily UMC) in regards to people with disability. My uncle was born with sever cerebral palsy and our church did way more than just “accept” him. They loved on him, my grandparents, and did all that they could to help. When I moved away for college, the local UMC there has a parent’s night out that gives all sorts of help to parents with kids who have disabilities. In the Sunday school class I taught during that time, there were two young brothers there with Aspbergers and we did our best to teach them and stay in contact with their parents. I went back there about 4 years later to watch a musical (I had graduated and went on to serve as a local pastor in the next city) and I saw these young brothers grown up into young men. They sang beautifully in the musical and were great playing their parts. I later found out that that although they had challenges, they were fully involved in the life of the church. Good stuff.

    The council of bishops can keep on wasting their time with pointless meetings. Hardly anyone cares what they have to say anyways – they never say anything meaningful. If they want to have a service of repentance, maybe they should confess their sin of failing to lead since our denomination has been on the decline for decades and is now as dysfunctional as ever.

    • Pastor J, thanks for the positive account of the church’s work with people with disabilities. I realize that a lot of churches are doing amazing work, and I should highlight this more often. There are some wonderful saints and servants in our churches.

  2. “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.”

    So true, David.

    Just a couple of years ago, the General Board of Church and Society had a so-called statement of repentance for support of eugenics put in the Book of Resolution. I say so-called because the word repentance was not actually used, and there was no mention of any proposed fruits of repentance.

    They probably put forth this statement because around that time a number of states were giving apologies for forced sterilizations which were part of the eugenics movement, and one, NC, actually approved payment of reparations to some who were forcibly sterilized, mostly blacks.

    Apparently, the GBCS has realized that truly repenting of eugenics, particularly of PDG (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis), would mean speaking out against aborting for example all of those Down’s Syndrome babies you mentioned. (What they fail to realize, or just don’t care about, is that they would also be speaking out against aborting blacks and women: a disproportionately large number of aborted babies are black, and the majority of aborted babies are female.)

    This is not just a social issue to me, it is very personal. My brother was severely mentally and physically handicapped. Some of it was from being abused as an infant, but some of it was from birth. He would almost certainly been aborted had abortion been legal in 1958. Though I was only 2 years older than him, for much of my childhood taking care of him was primarily my responsibility. He died from mistreatment or at least neglect in a “mental institution” when we were both teenagers. He had way more love and compassion than most of the people I’ve known and I still miss him.

    If the Council of Bishops is going to have a service of repentance for mistreatment of people with disabilities, that will be a huge improvement to say the least over services and statements of repentance we have had over the years. And I do think it should involve “we”. It would be a good thing for TUMC to have a denomination-wide Sunday set aside for a “Service of Repentance for our Mistreatment of People with Disablities”. A service in which we all commit ourselves to specific acts of repentance, fruits in keeping of repentance, of the kind which you mentioned, David.

    Thanks for your post and drawing this to our attention.

    However, I’ll believe the repentance when I see the fruits of repentance in the way we treat all people who have or who might have disabilities, including those who are unborn and those who are locked away in institutions, as well as those who are more public and noticeable and make us look good when we serve them.

    In the meantime, I look forward to and will gladly participate in a service of repentance for our treatment of people with disabilities.

    • Victor, thanks for sharing some of your story…. What a tragedy that your brother died in that way…. It is heartbreaking. I want to live in a world where that kind of thing doesn’t happen. If the church is faithful in her witness, we can, but we have a long, long way to go.

  3. Years ago, when my wife and I were first married, we taught a Sunday School class for children with intellectual disabilities. Since then (now over 40 years), three UM churches and a brief detour into evangelical megachurchdom later, I can only remember one disabled child whose parents brought him to church. For sure, we have much to confess and repent.

    • Jim, first, thank you for your work with kids with intellectual disabilities. It makes a big difference. Your experience since then is not unique. Many parents of kids with disabilities simply quit trying to come to church. I know that we can do better. Thank you for this comment.

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