On Modernism & Mental Disability

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Half of the people shot and killed every year by police have one thing in common. In the current social climate, police violence and the abuse of minorities has had no end of press. Surely, the public would want to know if some common thread ran through so many tragedies.

The common thread is not, however, race or economic status, regardless of the public outcry surrounding recent high-profile police shootings in Ferguson and New York. Neither is it gender or sexuality, despite constant furor being raised by all sides on these topics.

According to the National Sheriffs’ Association and the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, at least half the people shot and killed by police each year have a mental health disorder.

Half.

Much like race related issues in Ferguson and New York, recent months have featured notable shootings of victims with mental illnesses in Dallas, Albuquerque, and Milwaukee. However, they have not garnered the national spotlight or political attention of their racially charged counterparts. #blacklivesmatter, a twitter hashtag proclaims, but who speaks for those who continue to fall beneath even the hypersensitized radar of the modern media?

A moral people must never forget that a nation may fairly be judged by the treatment of its least powerful citizens. Israel of old was weighed and found wanting in just this way. The book of Judges contains a narrative of moral decay and social fraying that extended into every part of Hebrew life. However, the story of this ethical collapse was not told through the lives of kings (“in those days there was no king in Israel”) but through the lives of increasingly marginalized women. Judges starts with the strong leadership of Joshua, and the text demonstrates the triumphant national mood through the vocal Achsah, standing, demanding, and being heard. The book ends with the Levite’s nameless concubine, fallen, raped, and silent. Deborah and Jael won a nation in the early part of the book, whereas Samson treated women as trophies to be won towards the book’s close. While secular history marks the works of kings and generals, moral history hears the oppressed and notices their pleas. It hears and casts judgment.

In America, the true indicator of the national moral status is likewise not in presidents or legislators. Nor is it most acutely told today through the plight of women, racial minorities, or sexual identity classes. After all, each of these groups have in our time powerful lobbying voices and political muscle, as the state of Indiana and the municipality of Ferguson have learned in prime time.

No, today, the underclass that measures the national ethic is the mentally ill, the developmentally impaired, and the differently abled. Their treatment reveals a troubling truth about American values which could and would be overlooked through any other lens. Secularism has found a way to maintain many of the human values borrowed from religious roots (yes, borrowed, and we will want them back, thank you). The new atheists have found a way, its moral shallowness veiled, to maintain a posture of equality on gender, sexuality, and race. However, when it comes to the truly weak and voiceless, the infirm of mind, modernism cannot even muster the appearance of concern or conscience.

“Abort it and try again.” That was Richard Dawkin’s infamous tweet concerning a fetus discovered to have Down syndrome. In the twisted morality of the age of atheistic secularization, it would be an evil to give birth to such a one as this. There is no room in raw Darwinism for weak genes. There is no quarter in the intellectualized anthropology of the Enlightenment for minds not fully whole. While it continues to be an indefensible social sin to treat any person as less than another, a special exception is made for the disabled. Even for physical impairments, the ADA calls for equality, but for the mentally infirm, no ramps to social acceptance are being constructed, no reserved parking in the civic square. Instead, as reported in the oft-cited work of Dr. Brian Skotko, 92% of women who learn that they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome choose to abort.

If the “at least half” statistic at the outset upsets, the 92% statistic should steal breath and silence caviling.

Christianity has the capacity to see in the disabled of every stripe what none other can recognize. Eugene Peterson writes, “Even a bare-bones human existence contains enough glory to stagger any one of us into bewildered awe.” The Judeo-Christian narrative sees in every human the image of God. Imago dei is neither an exclusive trait of the Übermensch nor an evolutionary description of the most economically useful gene. It is the spark of divinity shared in every human life.

America desperately needs to hear the voiceless, the truly voiceless, those whose minority status has no political muscle or media clout. We must hear them for their own sake, and we must hear them because of what their silent, juridical voices say about us. Our deaf ear judges us, and so does the Christ who taught us to care for the “least” above all (Matthew 25:31-46).

For the church, we should remember that while this is the predictable end of secularization, we on the other hand have no philosophical excuse.

And judgment begins at the house of God.

Works Consulted

  1. Peterson, Eugene H. Under the Unpredictable Plant. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
  2. “Richard Dawkins: ‘immoral’ not to abort if foetus has Down’s syndrome.” The Guardian (August 21, 2014). http://www.theguardian.com (accessed April 1, 2015).
  3. Skotko, Brian G. “With new prenatal testing, will babies with Down syndrome slowly disappear?” Arch Dis Child 94, no. 11 (2009): 823-826.
  4. Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
  5. Warren, David. “Police Shootings of Mentally Ill Reveal Gaps In Care.” Associated Press (March 19, 2015). http://hosted.ap.org (accessed April 1, 2015).
  6. Yee, Gale A. Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985.
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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