Speaking for Those Who Have No Voice

 “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:3-10

Advice is a good thing.  And when the advice comes from your mother, it’s usually worth listening to.  This passage from Proverbs is reportedly an oracle from the mother of King Lemuel.  Some think that Lemuel was one and the same with Solomon.  At any rate, the advice was sound and the thoughts worthy of consideration.

In this teaching, the wise man relates to his listeners and readers that anything that might cause a distraction or detract from sound judgment must be avoided.  The wise woman tells her son that women can be a problem if he pays them too much, ahem, “attention.”  If Lemuel were indeed Solomon, he should have listened to his mother—as numerous modern day leaders should have, as well.

She continues on to say that alcohol can muddy the mind and should be reserved for those with woes to forget.  Seems reasonable.  However, this has been used to exclude any and all use of alcohol outside such “therapeutic” uses.  That is not what the rest of the Bible says.  As we have observed before, drunkenness is condemned, not all use of wine.  Use is one thing; abuse is another altogether.

As I have often reflected on many passages, the first part of this teaching is remembered frequently and given general observance as it specifically warns against some things that we wish to warn against: ill-advised sexual relationships and alcohol.  The latter part of the passage is too often forgotten, and yet it is as applicable if not more so to general teaching and the general public.

Lemuel’s mother tells him to speak for those who have no voice: the destitute, the poor and the needy.  Then as now there are those who would seek to forget the poor and those who have needs of various kinds, not only those lacking in wealth and goods, but those with conditions that limit their abilities.  Too often, those who are most guilty of doing these things are the ones who wrap themselves in a shroud of religion, touting family values and traditional morality.  I have nothing against family values and morality.  I would only hope that anyone who holds to these ideals would not just cling to those that are politically or socially expedient at any given moment and forget the rest of the package.

In past essays, I have explored the commands to see to the needs of those in distress and those less fortunate.  It is inescapable, although many religious people have done a pretty fair job of ignoring the issues.  If we are to live our faith, we must not neglect even those teachings that make us uncomfortable.

So here goes another attempt to speak for those without a voice.

It’s time to change our attitudes about people with mental illness, developmental disorders, and intellectual disabilities.  Maybe I’m more sensitive these days than I used to be, and for good reason.  I have a son with autism.  It is hard going some days just getting him ready for school and getting him on the bus.

That would be the “short bus” that so many people joke about.

It’s time for that to stop. 

To use that expression is to demean the people who ride that “short bus” with the “SE” number on the side.  The intent is to say that a person on the short bus is sub-standard, is not as valuable, or is less important than anyone else not riding that particular bus.

But when I step aboard that bus in the morning to get my son strapped in his seat, I am greeted by beautiful children with smiling faces.  Some are tired and catch up on some sleep as they make their early morning journey to school.  Each and every one is like every one of the rest of us in a very important way: we are all God’s handiwork, and we were meant to look out for each other.

I have been impressed with businesses and institutions who hire people with developmental or intellectual disabilities to perform specific tasks.  These are not glamorous jobs.  But they give these wonderful people a sense of worth.  I remember a young woman with Down Syndrome on the serving line at the local primary school.  She seemed to take pride in her work.  At the university cafeteria, there are people who appear to be autistic or may have other intellectual disabilities who work at cleaning the tables and other things that many people would not want to do.  I applaud these places for taking the chance and letting these people contribute in whatever way to their organizations.

So, plus one for the employers, but minus a big one for some people I have heard who have made remarks about these workers.  That’s right, I have heard several disparaging comments about these very individuals.  And it breaks my heart to hear it.  Mocking the speech of a disabled person is not funny.  It is demeaning.  Making fun of their performance is not funny.  It is petty and small-minded, even if the person making the remarks is highly intelligent.  And what is so sad is that–like every one of us–the person who makes that sort of comment may be only a head injury away from a similar condition.  There but for the grace of God….

I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live years ago when someone was giving directions, and one of the landmarks was to turn left at the “retarded kid selling fireworks.”  I hear people lightly use words like “retarded” to describe a thoughtless act or remark that they themselves may have made.  They may easily joke with friends, calling each other retarded, or simply “retard.”  I know people do these things because I did those very things in my younger and far more foolish days.  Are such comments really that different from the recent report of a bunch of young punks who doused a stripped down autistic teen with a vile concoction of human waste and cigarette butts in a mockery of the “ice bucket challenge”?

There is no humor in making fun of someone who cannot defend himself, whether by some premeditated cruel and heartless prank or by a derisive remark in passing.  There is certainly no humor in belittling an entire segment of the population.  Or in running down someone that I love.

Several years ago, country music singer Mark Wills recorded a song by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin titled, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”  The lyrics are worth exploring.  They touch on many different human conditions, from physical differences to unfortunate circumstances that lead to depression.  The bridge challenges, “I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall / I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all?”

The chorus admonishes,

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

 We have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot, who have no voice at the table of society.  In Isaiah, the Lord asked what almost seemed like a pair of rhetorical questions, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  Isaiah spoke up, and said, “Here am I.  Send me!”  When the moment arises that someone disparages the intellectually disabled or a person with autism or a person with a mental illness, remember Isaiah.  Stand up and speak out.  Ignorance is only forgivable when there has been no chance for enlightenment.  Beyond that, such behavior is merely rude and boorish.

There may be no direct profit in shutting that sort of juvenile bad-mouthing down.  It may lose you a friend or two.  But you will have done the right thing.  Ask Lemuel’s mother.