Last night i had the misfortune to wake up with the radio still on and Donald Trump’s address to Congress wafting through the darkness.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a time of prayer, penitence, and charity which prepares Christians for Easter. So our thoughts may be turned towards the gret events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.
Trump referred to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper No greater love has any man than this that he lay down his life for his friends’. He applied Jesus’ words to a slain Navy SEAL as he recognised that man’s widow.
Trump ignored–or was ignorant of–the contexts of Jesus’ words; friendship in that world meant equality of status, a radical cahange from the relationship of slaves and master–and Jesus characteristically used that image to portray the analogical distance and relationship of human and divine. Yet Trump’s speech tries to subsume this distance under the figure of the master-President.
Unfortunately it seems Congress and many media pundits went along with it.
To me this helps explain the raptuoprous applause and praise for Trump’s many promises–the rhetorical largesse was a counterfeit of the generosity of the source of reality, without the recognition of the difference between a political leader and athe ontological origin, a difference that should make us sit up and ask what this political generosity would cost, since its bounds are finite. But Trump could promise many benfits without cost because he was portraying teh counterfeit of divine bounty, grace.
The perspective of disability helps us confirm this interpretation. The social model of disability helps us see how societal power and organisation excludes people who do not conform to ideals of normalcy. We may recall Trump’s mockery of a disabled New York Times reporter during the eledcdtion campaign. His world-view could not or would not admit difference that is crucial to Jesus’ message.
To me this helps us understand the feedback loop of uproarious applause that echoed periodically throughout Trump’s speech: Congress was caught up an an immanentised counterfeit double of divine grace’s power. So it is all the more important to keep our eye on the distinctions between human adn divine and to take part in each for the service of friendship and justice.
It’s cold and wet. It’s half-term so children are underfoot. It’s easy to feel worn down. When you’re disabled or in pain or both, it can be all the more easy to feel not up to the job. Being disabled can feel like being unable. Impairments can easily feel like straightforward deficiencies.
I was struck this weekend by Jesus’ admonition to his followers about being wholehearted. He expresses this in stark language doubtless in the traditions of Hebrew rhetoric: If one of your eyes proves the source of wandering, it is better that you throw away your eye than that your whole body go to Hell.
On the face of it, this is a stark call to doing the right thing. And doing the right thing really does matter. Yet the image of having just one eye left made me see impairment in a new way.
Our identity is only really found in the ultimates of all reality–this life and whatever comes next. And the body matters. It does not matter in the sense of whether all its parts function fully on accordance with abstract norms. It matters in itself. it persists. We may say this is merely a quaint relic of pre-modern understanding. But to me it is a much fuller view of reality, one filled with significance at a time when we seem constantly to be revising what we know about the universe, overflowing with relevance at a time when questions of identity — sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, nationality, religious grouping–dominate politics of nation, transnational corporation, and Church.
What counts most is being actively open to divine otherness by loving wholeheartedly. We are bodies full of spirit called to love and celebrate the generosity of diversity and the inexhaustible love giving rise to it all.
Candlemas is approaching (2 Feb). This is the festival in the Church’s calendar when we commemorate the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple and so Jesus’ first entry into the temple. We also commemorate the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the ceremony by which Mary, like all Hebrew women, was re-admitted to the religious community after a period of exclusion following childbirth. Of course this is sexist and objectionable on a number of different levels.
But this year Candlemas may make us think harder and perhaps act more kindly. (‘Kindness’ after all etymologically points to ‘kindred’, to what unites, and however arbitrary words may be, their relationships can tell us a lot about culture.) Mary is an outcast– an unmarried teenage mother in a society where pregnancy before marriage was legitimate grounds for expulsion from society and even stoning–and a homeless refugee on the run from the power-crazed Herod who carried out mass murder of all baby boys in his domain in attempt to snuff out the infant king he had heard had been born.
Of course we have just heard of the tyrannical decree of President Trump selectively excluding refugees from Muslim majority countries where he happens not to have business interests from coming to the US. (It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, from which known terrorists have come, are not on the list of banned countries seemingly because Trump has commercial connections there.) We hear of newly-wed husbands and wives separated seemingly indefinitely, of the newly-knighted Olympic-medal-winning Sir Mo Farah fearing he may not be able to return to his family in the USA. But we hear of protesters at many major US airports voicing their concern. Now is a particularly timely moment for us all to remember the imperative of welcoming strangers. We may not know quite who they are–and in not knowing we may come to find we have played some part in the transformation of the world for the better.
With New Year’s upon us, our thoughts may turn to the passing of the year and to our own mortality. So too we may consider possible New Year’s resolutions and simultaneously feel a pang of regret or scepticism about the likelihood of keeping our resolutions.
It seems to me that scepticism is a kind of faith in the self. That is, we must trust the self even though it is really no-thing, defending it against all comers. The self is the focus of attention. The self must be preserved from vulnerability. So we doubt anything other than the self.
When we are disabled by society, this gets complicated. We routinely encounter vulnerability. We cannot tell the difference between a king and a bishop when playing chess with our six-year-old son. We get eye-strain headaches from the brilliant mobile phone and tablet computer screens that seem to flash at us everywhere. We feel cautious about our surroundings. We can’t quite trust we won’t get hurt. But we also have to trust, have to trust our children to help us play chess. We cannot afford to make the self the isolated and protected centre. It has to be permeable and to love as well as wounded by pain, open to love and help freely given. We cannot freeze the self. We have to let things happen. We have to let time pass.
We find ourselves in between. Disability, temporary as well as enduring, may afford more intensive experiences of being in the middle — in the middle of physical variety and societal conditions, but also between life now and what lies beyond:
‘…a lifetime of disappointment, of skepticism, of bitterness, of unbelief can dull the spontaneous surge of the love of eternity in us. It is so mysterious—as is our deepest self-love, and not only our deepest loves of others—that we come to find it hard to credit it. A life has clogged the more original porosity of living; we think we more truly live, but the artery bringing blood to the heart of the soul is laboring to allow the flow. There are no boundaries in the true flow of life, not even the boundaries between life and what is beyond life now…’
Desmond, William, The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics (Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture) (Kindle Locations 6585-6589). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
What is this “more original porosity of living”?
Desmond writes of “clogging.” This seems built in to being human in all its vaiety. We may feel pain because bits of us get tired or don’t work as we would like. We may feel pain realising the children are growing up or realising we won’t ever really get to play the guitar the way we once hoped we would. We may feel pain watching out parents get older.
But finding we cannot help but be open–we cannot wall the self in with scepticism–we may find ways to feel the passage of time more deliberately. Making adjustments, we may get to know the “more original porosity of living” — the more original connectedness of all things. Not seeing as well, we may touch more sensitively. We may feel and touch more intimately, and not try to hold on to time passing but sense the motion and the change, like body-boarding in Cornwall some sunny summer afternoon with that big swell swelling beneath us as we feel the pull of time. We may well sense a “more original” community than that we’ve come to expect. That original community is the primal gift of life: to be open to that is to be open to the gift itself.
So I will try to resolve to be open and not skeptical, to beliieve the wave is coming even as I know I may fall off.
This morning sipping tea and nibbling a mince pie, I reflect on the cliched trivia of the ‘festive season’. Long practices of monastic prayer help us see daily life’s spirituality. For me these days this takes the form of daily prayer with a podcast. I feel myself being returned to see the world afresh as filled with God’s glory. In the Christmas season full of family tensions and consumerist pressures this is a particular challenge with particular rewards.
Christmas Eve morning
full moon glowing steadily
into those empty bins
Independence is a big deal. When you are disabled, it can take on overtones that non-disabled people may not hear. Is ‘independence’ doing more with less money? (See the so-called Personal Independence Payment that replaced the more adequate Disability Living Allowance.) Does it mean doing it all on your own, for better or worse, whether things are arranged to allow you to or not? Or does it mean perhaps having the capacity to do things or not if you would like to?
Disability History Month happens to overlap the Christian season of Advent. In Advent we may pay particuclar attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She takes centre stage as we wait expectantly for the coming to Jesus at Christmas.
In the story of the Annunciation, when Mary is told by the archangel Gabriel that she will be the mother of God’s Son, Mary is portrayed as playing a pivotal role in that momentous event. She is described as ‘troubled–the Greek word is also used for deliberation, for weighing things up. Mary does not acquiesse unquestioningly. She weighs up the wager. Should she say yes to becoming pregnant before she is married, running the risk of being driven out of her town, perhaps even stoned to death for adultery?
This is a stark moment of independence for a disabled person. True Mary is not ‘disabled’ in our sense–and we may recall that ‘pregnancy’ is a ‘protected characteristic’ in the law alongside ‘disability’, and not included in ‘disability’. But she has been disabled by her society which discriminates stringently against unmarried pregnant women. She is certainly at a distinct disadvantage. I think Mary shows real independence, however. By taking the leap of imagination of believing the angel, she finds the strength to envision that she CAN take this strange event and run with it, or let it run away with her.
Mary is not ‘independent’ in the sense of being left on her own, exactly. She still has her relations–she goes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth who is among the first to acknowledge the momentous event: ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?’ She is not ‘independent’ in the sense of having to do more with less, a la the Personal Independence Payment. Mary is however ‘independent’ in that she stnds in a pivotal position. She holds the power to decide, to determine what happens. Perhaps disabled people here can find not just a sort of model but a special ally, someone we know stands with us because she has been there, and still is there, disadvantaged yet filled with prophetic insight and courage, made beautiful with God’s transforming beauty, pronouncing the topsy-turvy message of Christ, divinity recongising lowliness, making the last first.