(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Ancient stories from world religions are often dismissed as charming but simplistic. Addressing the issue of discrimination against persons who are physically or mentally other-abled, three ancient stories from the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian traditions are remarkable for their sensitivity to persons who are other-abled.
One story found in the New Testament is a parable supposedly told by Jesus. Offended by the sanctimonious hypocrisy of religious elites, Jesus told the story of a wealthy man who wished to spread goodwill and kindness to as many people as possible. The man instructed his servant to go and invite total strangers to a lavish feast he would hold – free of charge. The servant asked many, but all said they were too hard heart d, too important or too devout to attend. Banquets, in the ancient Jewish culture, were often perceived as sinful events with drunkenness and debauchery.
When the servant reported that nobody he invited accepted, the wealthy man was angry. Go out into the city, he told his servant, and invite the poor, the blind, the lame and the diseased – all who live on the margins of life. Such people were not welcome in many places because, according to Jewish beliefs of the time, the other-abled and the poor were deserving of their condition. Either they, or their parents, had sinned and thus caused their condition.
The servant did as he was told and soon hundreds of the poor, blind and lame came to the feast which was a gesture of love and celebration. The lesson from Jesus’ parable is one he repeated a lot. It is the weak, marginalized and hurting people who are humble, open minded and generous in the love they give and receive. They are people familiar with life challenges. People who are rich, arrogant or pious often shut themselves off from what is truly valuable.
A second story, one told by the Hindu saint Ammachi, offers much the same message. A young boy learns that his neighbor’s dog will soon give birth. The boy excitedly asks the neighbor if he can buy one of them. The neighbor gladly agrees, so the boy then anxiously awaits the birth.
One by one the puppies are born. As each comes into the world, they let out loud yelps and begin to jostle for the best position with their mother. They’re large and healthy. When the mother begins to birth the last of her litter, she struggles. It takes much longer for the final puppy to be born. After it emerges, the puppy is small and barely moves. But the boy immediately tells his neighbor he wants that one. The neighbor is astonished and tries to persuade the boy to choose one of the first born – the strong ones. The boy refuses.
Soon, the final puppy does begin to move but it’s clear one of its legs is shorter and misshapen. It cannot walk like the others.
The boy all the more eagerly declares his desire for that puppy. The neighbor again tries to persuade him otherwise but finally says he’ll give away the puppy for free. But the boy is adamant. He will pay full price.
“Why,” asks the neighbor, “do you want a puppy who cannot run and play as other dogs do?”
The boy sits down, pulls up one of his pants legs and reveals a wooden leg. “Because,” says the boy, “I too have lost a leg. I’ll be able to love this puppy and he will love me. I’ll understand its challenges and he will understand mine.”
The lesson, according to the Hindu saint Ammachi, is that through challenges, we learn empathy, love and joy.
And that truth is one the Buddha understood at an early age. My third story has him born to a noble family. He enjoyed a privileged but sheltered life that made him unaware of suffering. The Buddha’s seclusion, his elders thought, would make him a stronger leader. But as a young adult, he began taking long walks to meditate. The elders made sure, however, to clear the streets of people – to shelter him from unpleasant realities.
One day that did not happen. The Gautma encountered a very old man who could barely walk. He then came across someone who was visibly diseased. Finally, he came across a dead body lying by the road.
At first, the Gautma was revolted by these sights. They were alien to his sheltered life. But after mediating and meeting with a monk, it’s said the Buddha had his first of several epiphanies. To be enlightened, he realized, is to understand that suffering in life is real and everyone experiences it. The way to break the chain of suffering is with kindness and compassion to all.
These three stories, and their similar lessons, remind me of our Unitarian Universalist belief that there is one ultimate truth in the universe – be that God, the power of love, or a scientific unifying theory. Every religion or form of spirituality (including Atheism) teaches different ways to find that one truth. No spiritual path to discover that truth is better or worse than another since they all reach the same conclusion. All offer wisdom and so each must be respected.
My January message series theme is “Often Overlooked Discriminations”, and my topic today is “Ableism.” That is defined as discrimination in favor of those who are considered “able bodied.” But the three stories I shared point out the fallacy of that definition and our society’s often discriminatory actions toward persons who are other-abled. And I use that phrase – “persons who are other-abled“- with consideration. None of us is 100% able bodied. Each of us are imperfect not only in body, but with our minds too. I have hearing loss. I also have an deficiency to think in mathematical ways. I’m clearly not “able bodied” or “able minded.” And yet society would likely say I am – or at least appear to be.
It’s a fear of not being supposedly normal, along with self-oriented thinking, that prompts people to stereotype and discriminate. People sub-consciously fear those who are not like them since they are a potential threat to their well-being. For our topic today, many people unconsciously fear those who are not what they consider physically or mentally ‘normal.’ People fear being reminded of weakness, illness, and deficiency that they know could happen to them. 67% of Americans confess to being very uncomfortable around the other-abled. Discrimination results.
Persons who are other-abled are often demeaned, shunned and isolated. They’re referred to by names like (forgive me for saying these words), “retarded”, “crazy”, “crippled”, and “invalid.” Many are denied opportunities to attend public schools with other children. They can’t find work with equal pay. Over 80% of other-abled Americans are unemployed even though most would like to work. Those who do work are usually employed in so-called training centers which are legally able to pay below minimum wages supposedly because persons who are other-abled are less productive. Access to many facilities is difficult for them – as is access to affordable transportation. They often do not have a say in they’re healthcare decisions or where they live. Persons who are other-abled are more likely to live in poverty, die at an early age, and face isolation, abandonment and physical abuse. Many persons who are other-abled lack access to reading and education resources such as books in braille, seeing-eye dogs, or home appliances designed for their use. Many insensitive, so-called ‘normal’ people, use facilities designated for persons who are other-abled, such as parking spaces, elevators and specially designed restrooms. Even worse, persons who are other-abled are subjected to benevolent discrimination. They’re pitied, spoken to as if they’re children, and not treated as if they do not have thoughts or feelings of their own.
Those who are mentally ill are equally discriminated against. Guilt and shame are heaped on them as if they are responsible for their illness. A few years ago, one church member confided to me their life-long battle with clinical depression and the hurt others caused by cruel suggestions. This person should just snap out of it and be happy, many said. This person felt deep shame for what has been shown to be a biological condition caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals – something they cannot help.
I’ve witnessed the same treatment of my mom who has Alzheimer’s. Strangers and even some family members have avoided her or yelled at her for delusions or failure to remember. One would never yell at a cancer patient for their illness, but for persons with mental illness – that somehow seems OK.
What is very clear is that persons who are other-abled in our society are often treated cruelly – as if they have no value and are unwanted. We are an ableist culture.
One astonishing thing about the uplifting stories from world religions that I told earlier is that they do not represent today’s beliefs by those faiths. Most religions are ableist and discriminatory in what they believe. Many Christians believe that everything god has created is good and thus anything that is supposedly not good or not ‘normal’, must have been created by the devil. Hindu and Buddhist beliefs in karma say that one’s condition in this life is a reflection of what one did in a previous life. If one is other-abled, he or she must have terribly sinned in a past life. Orthodox Jewish belief says that a rabbi or religious cannot in any way be blemished, lame or diseased. His body must be perfect in order to be god’s representative.
These kinds of beliefs heavily influence culture. Japanese people, for instance, are often very ableist due to their belief in karma. Those who appear normal and who prosper deserve their condition because of good things they have done. Those who are poor, sick, or other-abled deserve their condition because of bad things they’ve done. A version of that thinking is prevalent in the US. Successful people deserve their success. Those who struggle deserve their challenges since they are lazy or ignorant.
It is precisely that kind of elitist and self-focused thinking that Jesus and the Buddha condemned. They both implicitly note the imperfections in us all. Everybody, they believed, is a person who is other-abled The journey to enlightenment is therefore a journey into oneself – to see one’s own frailty, one’s own sins, one’s own differences. Such personal awareness builds humility and empathy. It fosters connection with others…..instead of separation. If I TOO am other-abled, why should I fear or discriminate against persons who are other-abled? If I too will age, or I too have African ancestors, or I too have so-called feminine characteristics, then what reason do I have to stereotype, discriminate and hate?
The heart of god, or the ultimate truth in the universe, does not demand perfection. Indeed, perfection of the body and mind is a lie our culture wrongly expects. The heart of god does not promote perfectionism nor a type individualism that fears those who are different. We were not made to be islands of selfishness. To think that way is a path to destruction. We were made to cooperate and be interconnected. That is a path to universal well-being.
It’s ironic, but from a seemingly weak position of acknowledged imperfection, we are instead powerful. When we confess our inner truth – our mental and physical challenges, we are strong. When we treat other people who are other-abled with acceptance and understanding, we are even stronger. Joined together in kindness and respect for the differences in us all, we will banish fear and prejudice from our hearts…..and then work together to build a better world.
I wish you all much peace and joy.