The world can be a pretty inhospitable place for those who are considered to be different. In a world that seems to be trapped in stereotypical perceptions of beauty, vitality, intelligence, youth and action, to be perceived as lacking in any of these things is not only a ‘handicap’, it is often perceived as a blemish on one’s very humanity. In a hypercognitive culture which values intellect, reason, speed and competitiveness, to be viewed as different can easily slip into being perceived as less than human. But to think in such ways is theologically mistaken.
The church is called to look at the world quite differently. As Jean Vanier puts it, “The church is not called to do extraordinary things; it is called to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” The church’s vocation is not to become a community of homogenised beautiful, fast people who can rule the world through power, might and cleverness. Rather it is called to become a community of radical diversity that reveals extraordinary love. Such a sentiment may sound foolish and perhaps even naïve. But, on reflection, radical inclusivity and doing ordinary things with extraordinary love is precisely the heart of the gospel. Indeed, doing things and thinking things that look foolish to the world is central to the reframing power of Jesus; it’s the heart of discipleship. As the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” There is power in small things.
But noticing the power of small things requires that we take a particular stance towards the world; it insists that we learn to look at the world differently; more hospitably. When we look at the world hospitably, everything changes.
One of the extraordinary things about Jesus’ ministry is the way in which he worked out his practice of hospitality. Sometimes Jesus was a guest in people’s houses; sometimes he was a host. The constant movement from guesting to hosting is a primary mark of the hospitable work of the incarnation. This observation is crucial for understanding the nature of the church’s life with people whom society has chosen to label “disabled.” To be truly hospitable, we need to learn how to be a guest in the house of the “stranger.” Rather than assuming that our task is to host people with disabilities; somehow to seek to find ways of “looking after them” because “they can’t look after themselves,” what might it look like if we were to become truly hospitable and begin to think of ourselves (able-bodied and disabled) both in terms of guest and host. What might it be like to perceive of one’s self as a guest in the presence of a person with advanced dementia? What can be learned about being human from being a guest in their presence? What might it look like to be a guest in the house of the visually impaired? To learn what it is like to be in the world without sight and to have it revealed to you that seeing the world is not the only, or perhaps even the best, way to come to an understanding of God’s creation? What might it be like to be a guest in the house of a person with profound intellectual disabilities? How can we learn what it means to love and to worship God without words? What might it look like if churches were to consider themselves guests in the stories of the lives of those who have different experiences? The stories told by society about disability are not the only stories in town! It is in the small stories of friendship, hospitality, love, listening and acceptance, all of which are modelled clearly in the life of Jesus, that we find the context and the seedbed for extraordinary love. Here we encounter healing – even if cure is not an option. The task of the church is not world transformation but signalling the Kingdom through small gestures. Look after the small things and the big things will fall into place.
John Swinton is professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the School of Divinity, Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. He has a background in mental health nursing and healthcare chaplaincy and also serves as an honorary professor and researcher at Aberdeen’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing. John has researched and published extensively within the areas of practical theology, mental health, spirituality and human well-being and the theology of disability. Professor John Swinton is undoubtedly one of the most eminent practical theologians in the world today. Professor Swinton’s most recent publications include: Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader (2012; with B. Brock); Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (2012); Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (2008) and Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (2007).