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!)

      • This is a post about disability. You have attempted to co-opt it for purposes you feel are more important, as is your normal practice. I did not open a door. You kicked it open. It is of course appropriate to talk about LGBT people and the church. I think you should write to your heart’s content about that very issue. But to change the subject from the object of my post to something you care more about is not something that I will allow. If you continue this practice, I will block you from this blog.

        And, by the way, it is extremely presumptuous of you to suggest that I have no compassion for the children of others. I assume you mean LGBT children. You have no idea of my inner life. Your accusation is particularly ironic given your tendency to focus on one issue, and one alone.

        If you want to raise awareness of LGBT issues, start your own blog. Stop using mine and others’ as your bullhorn.

      • I in fact have a child with a disability (Asperger’s). The response of the Church (in general) and of the UMC in particular to disability may be inadequate, but it is not hostile. The same cannot be said for what you seem to regard as “extraneous” persons.

      • I agree with what you are writing here, wholeheartedly. And if not John, it would have been me raising his question. however, I would not try ti change the important subject. Regarding your point made about this repentance affecting worship practices and other church policies, I am with you on that. It was good for me to attend a seminar several years ago led by a member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries network and leaned ways we could make a welcoming difference in our liturgies — something as simple as saying ‘God, receive our prayers,” rather than God, hear our prayers.” Locally, we made changes to our liturgical phrases and try to be mindful. Clearly, it is good to turn from outdated and unhelpful practices and traditions as time goes on, and travel in new directions.

  1. The Church is not a one-agenda institution, unless that agenda is the “go into all the world.” Each of these other points add to our overall issue, especially in Protestantism, of the lack of a theology of personhood or human flourishing.

    The matter of inclusion is not the one topic we need to address before we move on to others. Indeed, we many still consider the sexual act of the LGBT person a sin while a great and vast majority of Christians no longer consider a person with a disability either a sin, an abomination, or a product of sinning parents. Yet, we continue to mistreat, abuse, and great hostile environments to them.

    One, the topic of inclusion is at this moment a matter of theology. The other, because a near total of Christians agree people with disability are not sins (the theology is finally right), etc…, is a matter of practice. By practice, even those who support inclusion for LGBT still can be found to support hostile environments for people with disability, even going so far as to support abortion on demand for “failed” prenatal test results.

    To continue to focus on one issue to the hostile exclusion of other issues harming people creates a very public display of hypocrisy.

    I am biased to this post, perhaps because while I am abled, I have seen the damage done to those who are not – the damage done by well meaning Christians who in theology support personhood by in practice do not.

    We need to really focus on a Protestant view of the Person, a theology of the Person.

    This is a realistic and poignant post, reminding us that while our theology in this area is better than it has ever been, our practice is lacking.

  2. Among the things you mention, I’d like to add on to one: when I was growing up, schools assumed that a physical disability meant also having an intellectual disability. I was constantly shuffled off for testing when my parents insisted that I be put in a regular classroom. Much to the school board’s distaste, they kept finding that I was above my grade level. But they still tried to put me in the special education school, which, as you imply, wasn’t a school at all. Several Texas schools were still doing this when I lived there in 2005.

  3. Thank you, David, for your post. As a parent of a child with a disability and an ordained UCC minister, I have seen this issue first hand. The marginalization and exclusion of persons with disabilities from full (non-paternalistic) participation in the life of the church is long overdue, as is the need for repentance.

    And the path of advocacy is long and tiring. Although I continue to teach congregations (when sporadically invited), even the work and voice of our own national setting of disabilities ministry is hardly heard.

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