F rankly, I’ve never been a big fan of the Beatitudes that Jesus taught during his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). I mistakenly thought they conjured an image of a miserable, dour, joyless, mournful life marked by timidity, a person poor in both spirit and personality. This dour image is exactly the opposite of the joy, verve, and creativity I try to embrace in my own life.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
However, as I looked at the Beatitudes in a new light recently, I was struck both by their beauty and by how significantly they dovetail with the mission and pursuit of ending or reducing ableism in our churches.
Reading commentaries on the Beatitudes to try to understand them more deeply, I came to see that they are not instructing us to live dour, miserable, joyless, mournful lives of timidity. My desire to live with joy is not counter to them.
Instead, at the heart of the Beatitudes is a spirit of humility and a right approach to God and to God’s calling to love our neighbour in this suffering world.
At the heart is a spirit of seeing ourselves as we really are, including our struggles, and bringing them before God. A quietness, confidence, and strength that aligns with our Christian calling to love God and our neighbours with all we are, as lived out through lives of love, justice, mercy, and walking humbly with our God.
A humble spirit helps fight ableism
It is this humble spirit of love, justice, and mercy that should be at the centre of our approach to ending ableism—discrimination in favor of nondisabled people—in our churches. It is an understanding that a quiet and humble spirit does not just mean welcoming people with disabilities and creating spaces for them but allowing them to welcome and create spaces for you.
We are to see people with disabilities as equals as you serve beside them or as you serve under their leadership.
How counter this is to our society, in which the powerful are expected to be the leaders, the ones who reach down to save or help the less powerful. Our society usually values and grants certain people more power; those who are bigger, richer, stronger, younger, smarter, faster, more beautiful, or of certain ethnicities are seen as better and thus allocated more power.
We especially see this when people of typical ability are more highly valued and given power far beyond people with disabilities. This exclusion and devaluing of people with disabilities is the very heart of ableism. And it is just as prevalent in our churches as elsewhere, which is why the work of combating ableism is so important.
Often, the devaluing takes the form of able-saviourism. At the heart of this devaluing is a premise that the powerful reach down and help the powerless. This can be expressed as typically abled or neurotypical saviours who come in to fix things for people with disabilities.
Who doesn’t want to be the hero who helps the disadvantaged person, running in quickly and loudly to fix things? That feels good. People look up to you when you are the helpful person. But this approach goes against the very soul of Jesus’s Beatitudes.
When we embrace a Beatitudinal spirit, we enter with quiet humility, fighting against those power structures that make some people the normal ones and some the disabled.
This is why it is critical that we serve, include, and advocate alongside people with and without disabilities to fight ableism in our churches. We must surrender to those with lived experience with ableism to be the leaders in teaching us instead of us taking charge. We must listen to their voices instead of clamoring over theirs. We must see and embrace each person for who they are, instead of mentally categorizing ourselves into an “us” and “them.”
It may make us less of the heroes. But it is the way Jesus teaches us to live.
What is our Beatitudinal calling?
Please don’t think for one moment that I am immune to having an ableist heart just because I have physical disabilities and experience ableism against myself on a fairly frequent basis. To look at me or speak with me is to know I’m different, and the world reminds me of my differences constantly. I could tell you stories of my own experiences with ableism that would curl your toes.
But, somehow, my own experience and awareness haven’t seemed to prevent me from having an ableist approach to others who live with disabilities different than my own. Being disabled myself doesn’t automatically make my heart humble, my approach meek and serving, my love soft and genuine. I need a Beatitudinal spirit as much as anyone.
God has really been making me aware of this ableist sin in my own life in my parenting of my adult son who lives with disabilities. Often, I find myself at my wit’s end when he displays behaviours I find challenging. As a mother, I grieve when he makes choices that hurt both himself and others.
But I feel God challenging me to realize that my frustration with him is unfair and in fact is rooted in ableism. I’ve never lived with cognitive disabilities or the level of pre-adoption trauma my son experienced, both of which deeply marked and shaped him.
Yet, despite our significant differences in experience and level of ability, somehow, I expect my son to behave and think like me and make the choices I think he should make.
And I get so surprised and mad when he doesn’t, when he cannot display behaviours that characterize a person of typical cognitive ability who has not experienced severe trauma. This is ableism at its worst, and my ableism doesn’t help him.
Instead, my Beatitudinal goal is to listen, value, and let him lead and write the story of his own life. I want him to be my teacher. I want to approach him with an attitude of love, mercy, humility, and peace. I welcome God in writing out the story of the Beatitudes in my life and in my son’s and my relationship.
Likewise, this is what we are called to do in our work and roles within disability concerns and advocacy. We work to end ableism in churches by embracing our Beatitudinal calling—
- To be quiet in spirit, mild, gentle, listening to our God and follow God’s leading.
- To grieve with those who face ableism, both inside and outside our churches.
- To remember we are not the saviours of people with disabilities, but we walk or wheel alongside them.
- To have pure hearts of love, listening, and support as we work alongside people with disabilities and follow their leadership as we stand or sit together.
- To be merciful peacemakers, doing all we can to live and share lives of peace and mercy.
This is our Beatitudinal calling.
Jenna C. Hoff
Jenna C. Hoff is a writer and editor who attends Inglewood Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She and her husband have three great kids and are thankful for the privilege and gift of older child adoption. Jenna is passionate about reducing ableism and working towards a world where all people are treated with equity, acceptance, love, and welcome.