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Boston, disability and apathy.

April 24, 2013

I subscribe to a news feed called ‘Disability Scoop’ which tracks the incidence of ‘disability’ related stories in the media.

Over the past decade as I have waded deeper into the theological discourse around  children and age and maturity, theology of (dis)ability has become a natural interest, provocateur and conversation partner. It seems that once we depart from the hegemonic mainstream of independent free-agent rationalist culpable anthropology, everyone gets lumped together as ‘the exception’.

So for example when orthodoxy speaks of  repentance and reconciliation with God,  the ‘norm’ assumes a rational, intentional, act of intellectual acquiescence of the will, or as our shorthands cast it, ‘making a decision for Christ’, ‘accepting the gospel’, ‘choosing to follow Jesus’.  Though they are framed in the regenerative initiative of the Spirit, the idea of ‘decision’ and especially in reformed theology, making one’s own decision (reverberating against historical practices of mediator priests) forms the key criterion of ‘conversion’ and ‘faith’. Where children, or those with (dis)abilities or mental illness are judged not to be of a constitution that might be held rationally accountable for their independent decisions, theology has typically shifted into exceptional or provisional mode.

The problem here is that the percentage of Australians who experience mental illness is between 40-50% depending on gender, 2% of the population have a diagnosed intellectual disability, children account for around 20% of the population and around 20% of Australians register in the bureau of statistics as having a disability. The ‘exceptional’ category here is bursting at the seams.

These categories do not all speak of impairment of judgement – far from it. But the theological fantasy of  a human able and accountable in intellect, body  and psyche to make free will decisions of eternal import leaves most of us out at least at some points in our chronology human existence.

Which is precisely the important contribution that (dis)ability theologies make. We are all both abled and disabled. The tiny embryo, the President of South Africa, the Octogenarian who is house-bound and the teenager with autism all have both great ability, as well as real limitations. Here we are offered the generous idea of humanness as intrinsically ‘ambiguous’, and  affirmation that the ambiguity is good. (If you are interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend Deborah Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities. (2010). It’s in the Dalton McCaughey Library for the Melbournites.(dis)Ability theology challenges the normativity of the rationalist free-willed human and the primary task of faith as believing certain things, which then are verified and expressed through consequent behaviours. Rather, the diversity and ambiguity of humanity articulated, and given voice in (dis)ability (and child) theologies calls us to re-examine the breadth and depth and multiformity of the gospel.

Across the past decade, exploring disability and child theology, raising my own children, wrestling with my own mental tectonic rumbles and workshopping an autism diagnosis in the family with a thoroughness that only the survival instinct inspires, the profile of disability and the ‘non-normative’ has become, well, normative.

So it was with interest that I saw that Disability Scoop channeled an article about the Boston Marathon bombing.
They reported –

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two alleged bombers, spent time volunteering with an organization that promotes social and employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities while he was in high school.

In a statement, Best Buddies International acknowledged that Tsarnaev participated in their program — which pairs students in one-on-one relationships with peers who have intellectual disabilities — during the 2010 academic year through a chapter at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Mass.

Bombing suspect had tie to special needs community

The article goes on to make it clear that Tsarnaev had no further connection with the Best Buddies program and to maintain a safe distance from his current reputation, one of violence and public outrage. I wonder what we think the significance of his former role is?

Are we surprised that a bomber was a buddy? Do we think this is a conflict of ethos, or demonstrate consistency in personal integrity.

Are we shocked at the history of compassion in one who has been revealed to us only through an act of violence? Are we being encouraged to construct a narrative that moves from one with compassion for others to one of heartless destruction?

Or, do we see the thread of concern linking a student who cares and engages with peers whose inclusion required active advocacy and countercultural mechanisms to catalyse connection, and the young man who intentionally risks his own safety in order to express resistance to  something yet to be identified and articulated.

We are perhaps trying to second guess what that resistance might be, and certainly early media insinuations solicit our imaginations to recreate a religious and politically fuelled motivation. We do well though to exercise our own little bit of (non-violent) resistance to these, as-yet, unsubstantiated hypotheses. The jury is not only, still out, it not yet in.

One thing stands though. The two vignettes I have of Tsarnaev’s life show me a man who cared about things beyond himself. This is a rare thing. I am not sanctifying or justifying his actions. But I note that for a person to live a life of both compassion and non-apathy, to take seriously the things that confront us is a difficult and probably disruptive life.

I admire and align myself with the anabaptist traditions of non-violence as a strategy for conflict resolution and as a way of living and being in the world. I can’t say I support the actions of Tsarnaev. But I recognise in him a person who cares, and acknowledge that his actions, though bloody and tragic both for him and others are perhaps not senseless, compassionless cold-heartedness. If we are stirred with grief on behalf of those who are mourning, or if we experience anger at the injustice of the damage, it seems we may share more with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev than we might first imagine.

Life on the fringes of the prophetic has taught me that to care deeply takes courage and will injure me – it is not a safe path. To disallow the tides of apathy to carry us out to drift on the ocean of overwhelmed impossibility, is to be disruptive in some way or another. If there was one thing that would entirely upset our world today- it would be an explosion of justice and peace. I tender that we would so barely survive, that we would need to be made wholly new, but let us pray and pursue it anyway.

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