Who Is My Neighbor? Thoughts on Affliction, Oppression, Love and Life

A common thread running through much of the tapestry of the Bible deals with the concept of responsibility.  The people of God are to be focused on others, not themselves.  This has been evident throughout the Old Testament in many statements that are quite direct.  In passages like the following, the erring children of Israel were called to return to the principles of selflessness that God requires.

Isa 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.

Jer 22:16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; Then it was well. Was not this knowing Me?” says the LORD.

Psa 82:3 Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy.  4 Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked.

Many may read these passages and think that they don’t apply to us today, that they were focused on specific conditions for the recipients of a specific message.  They were indeed meant for that.  However, the principle behind them is enduring, as first formalized in the Law as recorded in Leviticus:

Lev 19:17  “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.

18  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

The prophets repeatedly recalled the people to their duty to others.  Then Jesus, his apostles, and others reiterated this central concept of God’s expectation for his people.

Mat 19:19  “Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Mat 22:37  “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  38  This is the great and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Rom 13:8  “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  9  For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Gal 5:14  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jas 2:8  “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

One of the most pointed examples of the responsibility to defend the powerless is found in the exhortation to the young ruler in Proverbs 31, where the wise man records the words of the oracle of King Lemuel’s mother,

“8  Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.

9  Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

In all of these situations, the people who are in a position to help are required to do so to meet God’s approval.  It is incumbent on anyone who desires to be counted among God’s children to lay aside concerns for themselves and to aid those who are afflicted or oppressed.

“Oppression” is a term that frequently deals with the idea of one or more people seeking an advantage over another person or group.  This sort of thing was very evident in the slavery that was practiced in that long ago era, but it was not limited to it: employers may oppress employees, businesses may oppress their workers or their clients, governments may oppress their citizens, religious leaders may oppress their followers—in short, in any circumstance where people interact, one may seek advantage over another for selfish purposes.

“Affliction” is a term that is often used in the Bible, and refers to those who are in misery or distress for any of a number of reasons.  Sometimes, the distress is that of the spirit, as with those who may be poor and oppressed by forces that seek to keep them in subjection.  Affliction may come from economic woes, or from other worries.  We often equate affliction with sickness or some other health-related conditions.  It is this issue of affliction and the Christian’s responsibility to aid those who are afflicted that I wish to consider more fully.

First, anyone may fall under the shroud of affliction at any time.  The depth of affliction is not limited to the immediate effects of the triggering event or force.   Sickness, disease, or accident may rob anyone of their health and vitality, making them targets for economic loss, emotional distress, loss of relationships, loss of mental and emotional stability and security.  Birth defects and congenital conditions like cerebral palsy, forms of epilepsy, intellectual disabilities resulting from gross chromosomal issues like inversions or changes in numbers of chromosomes like Down’s Syndrome or Turner’s Syndrome represent just a few of the physical manifestations we may consider to be afflictions.  The tragedy of an illness striking a previously healthy, “normal” person is certainly appreciable.  The tragedy of being born with a condition that alters ability from before birth poses a very different reality, and a wholly different kind of affliction may arise: an affliction not resulting from the physical condition itself, but from the oppressive treatment that these individuals may experience at the hands of careless, unthinking people who stare, malign, mistreat and abuse not only the person who is different, but those who care for and love the people who are different.

I have seen this first hand, being the father of a child on the autism spectrum.  I have seen the way my son has been treated by thoughtless adults in various situations, how we as his parents have been insulted for not controlling our child, how people who are charged with helping children like him may look for ways to dodge their responsibilities.  This blurs the line between the affliction of bearing the condition that nature provided and the oppression of people who cannot see beyond their own narrow interests or comforts.

Kids with an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are unpredictable.  They are often emotionally volatile, and when they are over-stimulated by the sensory overload of public places, they may act out, or have a “melt-down.”  It is difficult to stand by and ignore a child who suddenly falls to the floor, maybe in full tantrum.  The first impression may be that the parents are poor disciplinarians, that they have in some way failed to control their child, and that they are lax in their responsibilities.  I heard this very sentiment while dealing with a melt-down in the DVD section of a Best Buy store in Nashville, when I was treated to an analysis by a person who really needed to keep his thoughts to himself.  On vacation, we were walking into the hotel’s breakfast dining room when comments were overheard about our son’s bad behavior.  An untrained, unqualified employee at one location took it upon herself to tell me where he would be better off.  Cashiers at Walmart have even offered their own diagnosis of his condition.

It’s not just our situation that bears comment.  In September of 2012, an autistic girl in Florida was forcibly kicked from her school bus and broke her ankle as a consequence.  In February 2013, a report surfaced of an Indiana girl with Down’s Syndrome who had her shoes duct taped to her feet at school because the school workers were tired of dealing with trying to keep them on her.  The internet is full of stories of families who have experienced these sorts of indignities and abuses.

But the physical abuse is certainly not the worst or most hurtful.  The derogatory comments made in the presence of these children are totally unconscionable.  For example, an educator referred to a student with Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) as a “retard,” near the student and his parents.  This kind of negativity and stereotyping would never be tolerated if it were racially charged.  Why are people with intellectual disabilities any less human than any other minority group?

The solution that many people would welcome in dealing with people who are differently abled is to hide them away so that we don’t have to deal with them.  They don’t belong.  They can’t contribute.  They hold us back.  I fully and whole-heartedly disagree.  And when I see these people being abused whether intentionally or thoughtlessly, I have resolved to act to stop it.  I want to see the “r” word stricken from the common vocabulary.  While it once denoted a medical diagnosis, it has come to be used as an insult.  It is wrong to use this language, and especially when referring to a person with an intellectual disability.

The other evening, I was privileged to hear a wonderful message from a preacher whose demeanor was quiet, calm, and caring.  His topic was taken from the title of an old hymn, “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be.”  In three very well supported points, he painted a picture of heaven based on what will not be there (sin, pain, suffering), on who will be there (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, loved ones), and the fact that it will be the true home for those who would be true and loyal citizens of that kingdom.  Among those he cited as being there will be people with intellectual disabilities, who by reason of their inability to perhaps even comprehend the concept of sin, would be welcome there, having lived a life of innocence here in the present.  He quoted from an article written by a special education teacher, who said she was looking forward to seeing in heaven all of the wonderful children (as she remembered them) that she had worked with over the years, happy and free of their earthly limitations.  I wept.  I made my way through the crowd to thank this man, and very nearly began to cry again.  I had never heard anyone speak of heaven so beautifully, and with words so reassuring to one who loves someone with special needs.  After dealing with insensitive people on so many fronts, after watching my wife fight so fiercely and well for our son’s right to an appropriate education, and fight with insurance companies to cover the therapies that he needs to try and overcome some of the problems that he may face for the rest of his life, here was a man who offered a glimpse of a future that we all aspire to—a place in God’s courts to rest.

As I reflect on the external issues that plague kids with intellectual disabilities, their organic problems pale in comparison to the darkened, blighted hearts of their detractors.  Tim Russert was fond of saying that the best exercise for the human heart is to reach down to pull another person up.  Maybe it’s time for these people to open their hearts to engage in some exercise, and stop tearing down these vulnerable children of God.  And maybe it’s time to hear the oracle of King Lemuel’s mother, speak for those whose voices are not heeded for whatever reason, and see to the comfort and care of those whose needs may be beyond their own abilities to handle.  The command to “love your neighbor” is not contingent on the “normalcy” of the recipient’s physical abilities or mental capacity.  It is simple, direct, unmistakable, and fundamental to the rubric by which those who claim to be God’s people will be judged (Matthew 25:31ff).  To love here will lead to a better life for the object of that love in the present, and more life in the presence of the very heart of living love, the presence of God in the world to come.  Eternity for “enduring” what some may see as an “inconvenience.”  That seems like more than a fair bargain to me.

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