A friend in Zambia wants to know why Christians in his country haven't led the way in caring for people with disabilities. He related abuses by religious and political forces. As recently as the 1990s, the disabled were considered tormented and demon possessed. The ruling political party herded the blind and handicapped off the streets and into remote rural areas where they had to compete with monkeys for food.
Nsomekela Daniel, of Disability Integration Initiatives for Africa, says, "We believe and acknowledge the impact the clergy has on our communities and if they deliberately turn a blind eye to issues of disability then how will the disabled be integrated in the mainstream society? Today, there are many churches that have AIDS/HIV programs and some have even prison ministries but none has ministries for the disabled. Why? . . . How are they going to live?"
Sadly, this isn't just a Zambian or African problem. In Attitudes Toward People with Disabilities, I trace historical perspectives from northern European folk legends to social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazi Germany. It's not a pretty picture.
The account of the man born blind in John 9 is indicative of attitudes toward people with disabilities in Jesus’ day. The disciples supposed that blindness was a punishment for sin, either the man’s or his parents’. This idea flowed from an Old Testament explanation of blessing for obedience and curses for unconfessed sin, as found in Deuteronomy 28.
As the book of Job makes clear, however, there’s not always a one-for-one relationship between sin and its consequences. Jesus corrected the disciples by saying that sometimes a person has a disability in order to show the glory of God. This is exactly what happened when Jesus healed the paralytic (Luke 5:25-26).
Jesus encountered many people with disabilities during his sojourn on earth. One notable instance was when he healed Bartimaeus, a blind man (Mark 10:46-52). Points to ponder:
- Society hadn't figured out how to help a blind man, other than letting him beg by the side of the road.
- This blind man was capable of greater insight than most sighted people. He knew who Jesus was!
- Jesus called Bartimaeus to Himself. He truly does fill His banquet hall with "the crippled and blind and lame" (Luke 14:21).
The early church adopted a gracious and sacrificial response toward people with disabilities, literally rescuing them from the trash heaps of the Roman Empire. How do you think we're doing today?