Bernard of Clairvaux once mentioned an old man who, upon hearing about any professing Christian who fell into sin, would say to himself: “He fell today; I may fall tomorrow.” The apostle Paul commended the same mindset when he wrote, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). There is great wisdom in not trusting our own ability to stand. When I was a boy, my father would often say, “The person I trust least of all is myself.” It should shock us to hear a professing Christian say, “I would never do that,” or, “How could anyone do that?” The Scriptures record great sins of unbelievers and believers alike to instruct us in diverse ways. The former teach the unregenerate their need for the new birth. The latter teach the saints their need to distrust themselves. It is one thing to understand the sinful actions of unbelievers in Scripture; it is quite another to understand the sins of the saints.
Consider the following: If an innocent man could choose a piece of fruit over the infinitely valuable God (Gen. 3:6); if the most righteous man of his day could get so drunk that he passed out naked before his sons in his tent (9:21); if the most faithful man of his day could father a child with his wife’s handmaiden (16:1–4) and twice hand his wife over to other men (12:11–15; 20:1–2); if the mother of promise could laugh at the words of the God of promise and then lie to Him about doing so (18:9–15); if “righteous Lot” could greedily pick the most materialistic and sexually depraved place for himself and his family to live (13:8–13), and could hand his daughters over to the sexually perverse men of the city (19:4–8); if the son of promise could show partiality to his oldest son because he liked his hunting skills (25:28), and he, too, could hand his wife over to another man (26:6–11); and if the namesake of Israel could swindle his brother for a birthright (25:29–34), then so could I.
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The Mystery of Being Human in a Dehumanizing WorldBy Joshua Heavin — 12 months ago
Christ told us where we would encounter him in this world, whether to our credit or shame, among the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31–46); he declares, that “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:20).
In the summer of 2021 I began driving an ice cream truck. My small contribution to Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, an ice cream shop that deliberately employs workers with intellectual, emotional, and/or physical disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, was to simply provide transportation for catered events so that Howdy Homemade’s workers were not only included but actively contributing their gifts in service for others to receive. At catered events in public parks, office buildings, private birthday parties, churches, soup kitchens, and more, young and old formed queues for ice cream that at times reminded me of the diverse crowd that processes to receive the Eucharist. The recent “Hiring Chain” advertisement by CoorDown well depicts my own aspiration, that some of these customers might observe Howdy Homemade’s workers in these different contexts and consider how they might create similar jobs in their places of employment, especially since so few good jobs with adequate pay and health insurance exist for people with significant disabilities.
There is probably a more technically efficient way to run an ice cream store than Howdy Homemade’s mode of operation. As John Swinton well describes in Becoming Friends of Time, people with disabilities tend to relate to time differently than those of us who have become habituated by modern life to following a clock, functioning more like machines than humans. But the reason Howdy Homemade narrowly survived the economic challenges of the pandemic is because the broader community of which the store is a part valued the humanizing goods HH contributes to the broader public, such as joy and hospitality, which derive from its founder’s self-consciously Christian aims and disposition.
Sadly, Howdy Homemade is an extraordinary exception to how people with Down Syndrome and other physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities are regarded in the world today. Remembering how Christians throughout the centuries have understood humanity to have been created in the image of God is a continual need in order for us to rightly discern our time and place in this world of wonders and perils. Not only can such a vision clarify our obligations towards our fellow human beings. It must also unsettle and re-make how we imagine what it means to be a human being.
Down Syndrome and Inhospitality
In her December 2020 piece in The Atlantic, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome,” Sarah Zhang interviewed persons with Down Syndrome and families around the world who care for children with a range of more and less severe physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities related to Down Syndrome. Alongside her nuanced and intimate depiction of their plight, Zhang’s analysis raises a disturbing prospect, that we might have a future altogether without human beings who have Down Syndrome:
Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.
The complexities of abortion in the contemporary world are manifold; writing in Plough, Kirsten Sanders describes the decision making process of women considering an abortion as wrestling with ghosts. But the arrangement of our common life, encompassing vast healthcare systems and individual decisions, prevent most – and in some places, nearly all – people with Down Syndrome from ever being welcomed into this world. Routinely, pro-choice or pro-abortion advocates will criticize conservatives for trying to make abortion illegal while also advocating for austerity with respect to the welfare state, and rightly so. The conservative preference for an informal but strong network of local support from churches, family members, and friends is theoretically desirable. But in our increasingly fragmented and isolated modern world, where bonds that traditionally wove communities together are increasingly frayed, these networks are harder to form and maintain, such that policies of economic austerity can foster child poverty. Consequently, pro-life advocates are routinely stereotyped as valuing human dignity within the womb but not outside of it, not least when it comes to matters of poverty and justice in other arenas of political and socio-economical life.
However, a serious problem with that line of criticism is that countries with the very best social safety nets and the very best public health insurance in the world – the Nordic countries – have a slightly higher abortion rate than the United States. According to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, “Some 57,000 induced abortions were performed in Finland, Sweden and Norway in 2019, that is, 12.4 abortions per thousand women of childbearing age (15–49 years).” According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States “in 2018, a total of 614,820 abortions were reported, the abortion rate was 11.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years, and the abortion ratio was 189 abortions per 1,000 live births.” So, while it is worthwhile to undertake whatever costs are needed to so support families in their material needs, to the benefit of parents concerned about their financial ability to care for children with intellectual and physical disabilities, it is not the case that public healthcare would necessarily solve this problem. In Iceland, the abortion rate is virtually one hundred percent where pre-natal screening indicates the child has Down Syndrome; in Denmark it is ninety-eight percent. As Zhang notes, there can be peer pressure not to end these pregnancies. Even if we regard universal public healthcare as a good worth pursuing, it not only does not reduce abortion rates but can actually increase them. According to a March 2022 report for the United States Senate Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, while medical advances have vastly expanded the life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome, up from 10 years of age in the 1960s to around 52 years of age in 2020, selective abortion means that in the last ten years about 67 percent of Down Syndrome pregnancies were aborted.
What’s So Great About Theological Anthropology in Pluralistic Societies?
In response to such trends, some point to the wonderful things people with Down Syndrome can do, accomplish, or enjoy. These truly significant accomplishments are indeed worth celebrating. Yet, as Justin Hawkins delicately warns, human worth and dignity are not determined by our perceived usefulness to others. People with Down Syndrome are not reducible to their achievements or capacity to enjoy things, nor is their existence reducible to inspirational examples for the ambition of others. But as wonderful as it is to find examples of people with intellectual and physical disabilities still accomplishing truly wonderful achievements despite all adversity, there are a great many parents of children with significant disabilities who may not ever accomplishment an athletic feat, hold a job, or speak – yet, even so, such people are no less human than you or I.
Our perceived utility to others, however great or small, might prove to be little more than the extent to which we can be exploited by dehumanizing forces and soon discarded, not least in the throwaway culture of land, animals, and human beings in the age of globalization. Rather than envisioning the systems and tools of society as serving the good of humanity, instead conditions can emerge where human beings serve the ends of the systems and tools of society in a vicious, deleterious cycle. Historically, humanity has shown ourselves more than capable of confusing real virtues such as compassion and mercy with violence and brutality, taking it upon ourselves to put people deemed worthless out of their misery, as Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life. The marginalization and disposal of the lonely elderly, ethnic minorities, the supposedly unproductive, and especially those human beings with physical or intellectual disabilities is not only tolerated but becomes celebrated and championed as humane and dignified. We not only forget, but actively avoid realizing, that even the most fortunate, affluent, and privileged among us, in time, will become utterly useless to our own selves and depend upon the compassion of others as our mortal bodies decay. We are taken from dust, and to dust we shall return, despite all presumption, accomplishment, distraction, or protestation to the contrary.
Cultivating a self-consciously theological account of human dignity might seem like a non-starter to cure the ills of our common life, a confusion of categories as sectarian private values are imposed upon the so-called neutral liberal order of our pluralist societies. The rhetorical moves possible within public reason tend to create a neat distinction between public goods, such as individual liberty, and private values, such as one’s religious preferences. A metaphysical account of what human beings are, particularly one that explicitly draws upon the discourse of Christian theology, indeed breaks the rules of the liberal game for acceptable public discourse.
Yet, it is no secret that everyone who participates in the procedures of public reason does so not only despite, but often precisely because of, their sincerely held private values. One might argue in public for sincerely held, private values on moral and social questions, but must find seemingly neutral ways to argue for this vision in public, perhaps advancing a technocratic argument about how a political ruling on a moral and social question would affect the gross domestic product. But the political organization of our common life inevitably involves some understanding or another of what human beings are, which necessarily exceeds the constraints and limits of supposedly value-free, public neutrality. We might conclude, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” but this raises significant questions about what the rights and liberties for those who due to intellectual disabilities are scarcely capable of conceptualizing existence.
Liberty in personal preferences, commitment to one’s local community, and consumer choices have their place. But purportedly value-free claims to neutrality are ill-suited tools for understanding and criticizing the market forces and organization of our common life which degrade the earth and deem some human beings as unworthy of life itself. For some problems, comprehensive doctrines and value claims are inescapable, not least on the question of which kinds of human beings should be welcomed and loved on the earth as our common home, or why persons who have Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities increasingly are unwelcome in this world.
The Threshold of ForgivenessBy Stan Gale — 1 year ago
Forgiveness gives grace but it also requires grace. We need to be open and honest with our Lord, admitting to Him when we don’t want to forgive someone. We argue our case with God, pouring out our rationale for why we should not forgive them. But in the end, He will point us to Jesus and remind us that on Him our sins were laid, not in part but the whole. The guilt of our transgressions was removed from us, as far as the east is from the west.
…bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do (Col. 3:13, NKJV)
Just about everyone is willing to forgive, until they’re not. In principle, forgiveness is a proper thing, part of the DNA of the Christian faith. But when the stark reality of actually granting someone forgiveness sets in on us, the prospect becomes a different story.
A wife will say, “I could forgive him anything else but not that.” Years after they left a church, people continue to hold tightly to a grudge against their former pastor. In their new congregation they sing of forgiveness and mouth the Lord’s Prayer, but it amounts to little more than lip service. The act of forgiveness is supposed to lance the boil of bitterness but we recoil at the pain and leave it to fester.
If we’re honest with ourselves, where do we draw the line? To what extent are we willing to go? What is the threshold of too great an offense to forgive?
It’s actually much lower than we might think. People will forgive only if the hurt caused by the other’s offense if not too deep or the wrong not too egregious. Sometimes we forgive only if we discern an acceptable measure of what we deem “repentance.” Or we may forgive but not really let the person off the hook. Like the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35) we place the one in our debt in debtors’ prison, exacting the penalty they deserve. We may temper our forgiveness with a “yes, but” of qualifications, conditions, and consequences.
Isn’t Christianity Just An Oppressive Set of Rules?By Simon van Bruchem — 9 months ago
Christians often give the impression to the watching world that the rules matter the most. We give the impression everyone else should also follow the rules we do, even though they don’t trust in Jesus. That doesn’t make sense and turns people off Christianity. If all outsiders see is restrictions, where is the attraction in that? We need to explain the wonder of being saved and the security from being in God’s family as the primary thing; how we respond to that comes second.
Whenever I ask someone with no experience of church what they think a Christian is, they usually tell me that they think a Christian is someone who tries to be good. Someone who follows a complex set of rules to try and obey their God. It is easy to see why people get that impression. After all, Christians do tend to avoid getting drunk and they do tend to go to church and read their Bibles. There are things Christians do that others do not and things Christians avoid that others think are fine.
Many kids who grow up in church circles might have a similar view to this! After all, their parents are always telling them things they shouldn’t do that their friends are happy to do.
Yet that idea of Christianity as following a set of rules misunderstands things completely. Like most half-truths, it ends up being a whole lie. A Christian is someone who trusts in Jesus as the One who saved them from disaster and rules their life. A Christian is someone who belongs in God’s family, and because of that is secure and blessed. It’s not to do with rules at all.
So why do Christians live differently to those who don’t believe? Well, that is a response to what Jesus has done for us. That sounds kind of abstract, so let me explain it using an important part of Biblical history and an analogy.
At the start of the book of Exodus, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt.