Rejecting Social Darwinism
There are few things that make me more proud to be the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville than Christ Pres’s unique emphasis on children with special needs. Once a year, our children’s staff has an amazing “vacation Bible school” for kids with special needs and their siblings. There is also a monthly expression of this called “Special Saturdays” which does several things. Weekly, a team of men, women, and students serve as “buddies” to kids with special needs, accompanying them all morning long to support their parents in freeing them to worship and interact with others.
At a recent benefit for Joni and Friends, a global ministry to people with disabilities and special needs founded by a friend and personal hero of mine, Joni Eareckson Tada, I shared at length why the special needs community is such a significant part of my journey as a follower of Christ and as a human being (That audio is available here if you would like). Some of the reasons I also share here…
First, an emphasis on people with special needs pulls a community together to participate in something that Jesus is pleased with. After all, Jesus, always gave special attention to the weak, the underdog, and the disadvantaged.
Second, it affirms that every person has dignity or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘there are no gradations in the image of God.’
Third, it reminds us that, sometimes to our surprise, people with special needs have more to teach us about the kingdom of God than we have to teach them.
King David understood this. After his best friend Jonathan died in battle, his first order to his staff was to tell him if there was anyone to whom he could show favor for Jonathan’s sake.
Enters Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s orphaned son who is crippled in both feet.
Rather than saying, ‘On second thought…’ or assuming a retail approach to relationships (a retail approach runs from sacrifice and prioritizes being relationship with people who are more useful than they are costly), David assures Mephibosheth that his future will be bright. David promises to restore the entire fortune of his predecessor King Saul, also Mephibosheth’s grandfather, to the young man. Second, David adopts him as his own son, assuring him that he will always have a seat at the king’s table. You can read the full story in 2 Samuel 9.
In this instance, David demonstrates what a heart that’s been transformed by the gospel is capable of—an extreme other-orientation. His first order to his staff as king sends a message. ‘My kingliness will not be marked by domineering. It will be marked by love and sacrifice.’ David starts his reign by actively looking for an opportunity to lay down his life for someone who needs him to do this. He is actively looking, in other words, to limit his own options, to shut his own freedoms down, in order to strengthen an orphan who is weak.
Eugene Peterson said that hesed love—the word used to describe the love that David has for Jonathan and Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan—sees behind or beneath whatever society designates a person to be (disabled, option limiting, costly, etc.) and instead acts to affirm a God-created identity in the person. In other words, Peterson is saying that to be human is to carry intrinsic value and dignity.
My friend Gabe Lyons wrote a beautiful essay about his son Cade, who has Down Syndrome. In the essay Gabe points out that over 92% of children in utero with Down Syndrome are aborted. Gabe offers a refreshing, counter-culture perspective from the parents of the other 8%. His essay is a celebration of Cade’s dignity, as well as the remarkable contribution Cade makes in the lives of people around him. He demonstrates an uncanny ability to live in the moment, a remarkable empathy for others, a refreshing boldness, and a commitment to complete honesty.
Gabe, along with the many parents who grace our church with the presence of their children who have special needs, are simply practicing good theology. Because the neighbor love part of the Kingdom of God is, at its core, a resistance movement against social Darwinism. Social Darwinism—‘survival of the fittest’ in the human community—tells us that it is those who are powerful, privileged, handsome, rich and wise who command our special attention, while those who are weak, physically or mentally challenged, and poor are ignorable at best, and disposable at worst
But nobody is ignorable. And nobody is disposable. Every person, whether an expert or a child with special needs, is a carrier of an everlasting soul.
There are no gradations in the image of God.
In terms of gifting, resources, and opportunity, everyone is different. In terms of dignity and value, everyone is the same. As Francis Schaeffer once said, ‘There are no little people.’
How do we know this? Because of how Jesus chose to take on his humanity. He, the Creator of everything that is, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega, the Seed who crushed the serpent’s head, the Beginning and the End, became weak, disabled, and disposed of.
There was nothing about him that caused us to desire him…he was despised and rejected by men. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.
He chose that.
Jesus became poor so we could become rich in God. He was orphaned so we could become daughters and sons of God. He was brutally executed so we could live abundantly in his Kingdom. He was made invisible so we could be seen. He became weak so we could become strong. He became crippled in both feet…and in both hands also…so we could walk and not grow weary, so we could run and not grow faint.
If this isn’t enough to convince you that every person matters…