I have two children with autism. They’re great kids and I love them and my wife and I want nothing but the best for them. And so it’s difficult watching their struggles, because we want them to have a full and fulfilling life and yet the barriers keep coming down and sometimes we have to just put our foot down and smash through the roadblocks that are put in place by schools, by churches, by governments, by random people in the supermarket. We try to shield and insulate our kids from that as much as possible. It’s not an easy task, it leaves you battered and bruised, and even though we’re still standing, sometimes it feels less like a great sword-wielding victory and more like the last fight in Rocky.
So when Meryl Streep won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last night, and used her acceptable speech to attack the way in which political rhetoric legitimises bullying, particularly of people with disabilities, I’m with her all the way. Regardless of what you think of his platform, Donald Trump shouldn’t have mocked a disabled reporter last year.
Others aren’t quite so supportive. Many think she should have kept her mouth shut, not used the occasion to make what they see as a political point. Some of those people speaking out have been pastors.
But look, this isn’t about partisan politics; I’m British, I have a whole different bunch of uninspiring political choices to make. No, this is about normalising a level of discourse in which criticising the mockery of people with disabilities has suddenly become controversial. And while that may seem to be an academic issue in the rarefied atmosphere of Twitter or Hollywood, on the ground it just continues to poison a culture that already gives less of a damn about disabilities than it likes to think it does.
That’s why it’s difficult to watch the Church cave into this sort of thinking. It’s already a struggle for many people with disabilities, and their families, to be part of church communities for a whole range of issues, many of which I’ve blogged about here. This can be a failure to offer the necessary practical and emotional support that’s needed, or a failure to communicate effectively, or criticism and infantilising of those with learning difficulties. That’s within the church: outside the church, things aren’t pretty either. PWD face regular assaults on their dignity, their fundamental worth as human beings is underappreciated. Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski is part of that culture; yes, it’s horrifying to see this take place as part of a political rally, but let’s not kid ourselves, this happens every day.
So the Church needs to take a stand here, and as the public faces of our congregations, we need pastors to lead on this. Because it’s easy to dismiss Meryl Streep’s comments as the privileged voice of rich and successful Hollywood, but if you, as pastor, have a book deal and a megachurch and a regular invitation to the offices of political representatives, then you too are privileged, you too have a voice. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided the voice you use sounds like Jesus.
That’s the thing about the Church. It’s not here to sound like Democrats or Republicans, it’s not here to sound like Meryl Streep or Donald Trump. It’s here to sound like Jesus, it’s here to act like Jesus, and that means treating people with disabilities – and yes, everyone else – with compassion and grace. You want to discuss policy? Fine. You want to disagree? That’s okay. But don’t punch down, never punch down, never hold the coats while others are bullying, because that’s when our mission on Earth becomes fatally compromised. Normalise the indefensible and your church dies, even if the pews are still packed, even if the bank account’s still healthy. The Spirit moves somewhere else; the Glory departs the Temple; Jesus hangs out on the outside with the tax collectors and the disabled people.
Many people with disabilities find church difficult. It’s as simple with that. But if you have authority in a congregation, then you have the ability to do something about that. Your words can build up someone spiritual life and their inclusion in the wider Body of Christ, or they can just add to the impression that disabled people aren’t respected, aren’t valued, aren’t important. You have the ability to change and influence that culture. And I’m not asking you to agree with Meryl Streep’s politics, I’m asking you to hear her words about how people are treated, how people may feel, and think about how that impacts those under your pastoral care, or those who don’t come to your church because the light you give out doesn’t reach as far as people with disabilities.
Your choice. Your call. Go for it.