The birth of our daughter in November 1993 threw us into the unknown land of disabilities.1 Our daughter Karis was born with cerebral palsy. Simple tasks were impossible. Eating, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, or using the toilet were out of the question. Karis never walked or sat up by herself. She lived her life strapped to a wheelchair or some other therapy apparatus.
She never talked. Communication was limited to crying and smiling. We never knew her favorite food, her likes or dislikes, or her dreams or feelings. Hundreds of doctors' and therapist visits punctuated her seven years of life.
Taking a Good Look at Ethics and Society
Slowly, we realized this was wide-open territory. Where was it before? Why had we not seen it? Certainly there were people with disabilities around. What did society do with such people and their families? After visiting three countries, we realized many of these individuals were ignored, institutionalized, or abandoned to public charity. This led us to evaluate our ethics of life and society.
Horrified, we noticed many influential philosophers proposed that these individuals were not even persons and did not have the same rights as “normal people.” Having created the concept of “Quality of Life,” they applied it to people with special needs. The quality of life of these individuals did not reach their criteria, hence, lives could (and even should) be terminated. This included children, elderly, quadriplegics, and fetuses with health or mental problems. Furthermore, ethicists redefined personhood, adding the category of “non-human persons” (basically primates) with the same rights that “human persons” have. Therefore, such “non-human persons” have, according to this philosophy, more right to life than our daughter had.2
Inside the Christian Community
We thought we would find compassion, understanding, empathy, help, and respite in the Christian community; instead, we found the same utilitarian ethics in place as in the secular world. For most believers, there were two options: either God heals the person or God takes the person away. They asked, “What sense does it make to live like that? Isn’t it better that God calls the person home?” Although these seem like innocent questions, behind them rests the same argument secular scholars propose.
These questions reveal the urgent need to seriously evaluate our ethics. The Church, where supposedly the ethics of the Kingdom of God are proposed and practiced, has (consciously or unconsciously) bought into the secular ethics of the day. The Church should be the voice for the voiceless, eyes for the blind, hands for those who cannot produce, and feet for the immobile.
Rather, people with special needs are conspicuously absent from congregations because they cannot contribute, or bring a monetary offering, nor can they help with numerical growth. Some pastors even go as far as telling parents that they are welcomed in church, but without their children.
Think for a moment: how many congregations do you know of with an intentional ministry to special-needs people and their families? How many include simultaneous translation for the deaf? How many Sunday schools include Down syndrome kids? Are there only able-bodied people involved in the leadership of the church? This reality should make us feel somewhat embarrassed. This shows the need for believers to consider ethics seriously.
When Ethics Become Personal
Such an ethical void, or ethical adaptation, became even more acute when our daughter died in January 2001. The death of a child is unnatural; parents are not supposed to bury their children. As believers, death makes us cry out loud, “Let your kingdom come!” Death is our enemy. But, in our case, for most of the believers who came to “comfort” us, our daughter’s death was the best thing that could have happened. She was better off dead. The message was clear: “She is better off now; there is no more suffering and pain.”
Yes, Karis lived with much pain and suffering, but how much better is it to search for ways to alleviate the pain than celebrate death. Is not our God pro-life? Are we not supposed to promote life? So then, why did they keep telling us it was better that our daughter died?
The Church has let the world convince her that the criterion to define life worth living is utility—the capacity to produce. If anyone cannot produce, his or her life is meaningless, worthless. The Church has adopted an ethic in which utilitarian criteria are predominant. According to J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, utilitarianism is defined as the bilief that “the rightness or wrongness of an act or moral rule is solely a matter of the non-moral good produced directly or indirectly in the consequences of that act or rule.”3
For utilitarian ethics, the moral task is to reach the highest happiness and the lowest pain, even if that implies induced death for a terminal patient, or aborted fetuses with genetic or other malformations. Indeed, isn’t life with limitations unhappy?
The same utilitarian ethics can also be found in the Church’s mission strategies and theories. Most Christian mission today is about reaching the highest numbers, in the shortest time, with the lowest costs and the best profits. Such a definition of mission leaves out the weak, the disabled, the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the displaced, because they bring only problems and meager offerings. We need to rediscover:
- The doctrine of creation. God is the creator of everything, including people with special needs. He is the sustainer of the whole universe and is involved in all aspects of his creation. He does not abandon us.
- The doctrine of God’s providence and sovereignty. God has always had control of the universe. He presents himself as compassionate, merciful, just, holy, eternal, and loving. He is the redeemer; he takes the initiative to reach us. His mission is to restore his rebellious creation through his transformed people—the Church.
God created humans as his image-bearers independently of how much they produce. After sin entered the world, death infected all areas of human life. The effects of death are evident in the oppression of the poor, economical inequality, kidnapping, unjust laws, political corruption, and violence.
We experienced the effects of death not only when our daughter passed away, but in the uncomfortable rejection of many, including believers. Those who grieve are left alone. We have forgotten the biblical text: “Mourn with those who mourn.”
We constantly grieve the death of our dreams: our daughter will never play sports, graduate, get married, or reach any other milestone in the process of life. Death punched us every time someone told us she was better off in heaven. Even though our daughter could not produce, nor invest anything in the economy, she was a bearer of God’s image and that was more than enough reason to have lived. Why has the Church accepted so much utilitarianism without even thinking twice about it? We need to return to Jesus’ model of life.
Jesus and Ethics
Jesus’ importance goes beyond soteriology. He is God’s personal revelation in human form. Jesus came to show us how to accomplish God’s mission. He was God incarnate, dwelling among us. Serving, he came to give his life for many. He constantly departed from the orthodoxy of his time:
- He let children come to him.
- Women were included among his disciples.
- Ceremonial contamination was not a concern when touching the dead body of a widow’s only son.
- Dignity was restored to a chronically-unclean, ill woman who had touched him.
- He stopped a successful meeting to heal a paralytic who came through the ceiling.
- He confronted the religious leaders who wanted to kill him for doing good on the Sabbath.
- He promoted life, and, paradoxically, it was through his death on the cross that he conquered death to give us life eternal.
Jesus is the savior of the world, and the incarnate one par excellence.
The Church Following in Jesus’ Example
So what can we do to turn around the Church’s assimilation of utilitarian ethics? Our praxis must follow Jesus’ model, promoting life. We need to learn and practice ethics that stem from the Kingdom of God.
The Church must be compassionate toward those in need. It must include the poorest of the poor, disabled, orphans, widows, and those who suffer the results of death daily. We must reject any and all systems that promote death. The Church is called to respect the dignity of human life, because we are the bearers of God’s image. We are to become the advocate of those whose basic rights are denied.
The Church needs to say “no” to being seduced by big numbers and big investments, and return to defending and promoting life in its fullness.
One practical suggestion is to look for a family with a child with disabilities and adopt them into your world and let your heart be transformed. Remember, if we are currently “able-bodied,” we are only a heartbeat or a step away from the possibility of being “dis-abled,” so we all need a special dose of God’s grace.
1. We use the more common term disabilities, understanding the terms physical limitations and physically challenged are more correct.
2. See Cavalieri, Paola and Peter Singer, eds. 1996. The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin; Fletcher, Joseph. 1979. Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics. Buffalo: Prometheus Books; Kuhse, Helga, ed. 2002. Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell; and Singer, Peter. 1994. Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
3. 2003. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 433.