A response to the ABC’s news article “Disability advocates worried religious discrimination bill will lead to more discrimination in Australia, not less”

By Rev. Jason Forbes

On 30th November  2021, a news article appeared on the ABC website capturing the concern by disability advocates that the religious discrimination bill currently being debated in our Federal Parliament will lead to more discrimination against people with disabilities, not less.[1]

 

This article raises a lot of important points. When it comes to disability, parts of the church’s theological understanding of disability and is pastoral response is sadly lacking. It can even be damaging. Unfortunately, what the article does not do well is properly define all the issues involved. There are two main issues that need to be distinguished here: the abilities and limitations of legislation, and the pastoral response by the church towards people with disabilities.

 

Firstly, the abilities and limitations of legislation. The article assumes that legislation can change people’s attitudes. It cannot. Legislation can regulate poor attitudes, but it cannot regulate good attitudes. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in America’s civil rights movement, stated, “while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me.” So, if people with disabilities are going to be welcomed members of our society, we need something much more in our society than just legislation.

The fact that we even need legislation to guard against any discrimination demonstrates just how broken our society really is.

Secondly, the pastoral response by the Church towards people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the extent of our society’s brokenness shows itself by attitudes in parts of the Church towards people with disabilities, as recounted in the article.

As a person who follows Jesus and lives with cerebral palsy, I have had people approach me and equate my disability as “something special” or “a result of sin” or even a “demon”. Such perceptions are demeaning, insulting, and above all unloving. The fact that a person is “well-meaning” does not change this! My last encounter was on my regular walk which I do to keep my dysfunctional body functioning. I was approached by a woman who proceeded to tell me I needed to “pray to Jesus so he can heal me”. Despite me dropping hints that I knew a thing or two about the Bible, it never occurred to this woman that I might already be a Christian. Never mind my story about being an ordained minister with a Master’s in Theology. The only thing that mattered that I was “God’s appointment” for her that day.

 

Where do these perceptions come from? They don’t come from the Bible! I firmly believe such perceptions come from our wider culture, and they seep into the church through lazy teachers who don’t think critically about our cultural values. God, for these people, is little more than a “fairy godfather” in the sky who helps us obtain what our wider culture values. Our culture values ability, success, beauty, and wealth. It has become acceptable in our society to kill the unborn because they have a disability, and now there’s a push to do the same to those who are past their “best before” date through voluntary assisted suicide.

When the same cultural values that result in abortions and euthanasia seep into the church, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that people with disabilities don't have a place in the church any more than they do in wider society.

The more I read the Bible, the more I am persuaded that the God of that Bible isn’t concerned about a person’s ability, success, beauty, or wealth. Instead, I find a God who is most concerned about a person’s character – their compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. It’s a character that puts the other person first and their needs. It’s a character that is willing to hear the other person’s story, and not simply impose a story on to them. It’s a character that seeks what God values and not what our culture values.

 

It seems to me that instead of curtailing religious freedom, we need more of it so we can know what God is really concerned about from his Bible, and not what we would like him to be concerned about. Perhaps then, those in the church would refrain from making such demeaning, insulting and unloving comments concerning people with disabilities, and set an example for the wider society that excludes those who cannot conform to its cultural values.

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