This is not the blog post I wanted to be writing today. I had planned to write about some recent research and theology coming out of the disabled Christian movement. I’ll be back soon with some of that. There’s a more urgent issue today.
On Monday night, I cried when I realised that I may not be able to go back to church for the foreseeable future. I’ve been back twice so far, and it’s been such a joy. I finally returned to church in 2020, after about seven years away – and about a month later, I started shielding. For over a year, I only left my house for short walks (and occasional outdoor meet-ups). Online streaming kept me part of my church community, but it hasn’t always been fully accessible to me. So I’ve been beyond excited to be back in the building. That was just one of the reasons I was hoping against hope that the UK government would make sensible decisions and safety measures would stay in place – so I’d feel safe to keep going to church. In my anger at the opposite decision, on Monday night I went to Twitter – where many of my disabled Christian community were saying similar things. Once all Covid restrictions are lifted on 19th July, we won’t be safe to go back to church, unless the church makes a very different decision from the government. It was a mixed blessing to hear and share in the community’s grief. It made me feel less alone – and more angry.
Desperately hoping for some critique of the decision from churches, I went to see what church leaders were saying. Many were celebrating the return of singing… which spreads Covid. There was happiness about the return of religious “freedoms”… for those who feel safe. Senior church leaders spoke about how churches and their members have made sacrifices… but said less about the sacrificed lives of 128,000 people (to date), and how many more might follow now.
From many church leaders, I’ve also seen caution and concern for ‘the vulnerable’, which is a good start.
Vulnerability or Injustice?
But I wanted to hear so much more about justice. About how the church needs to take a stand for the lives that have been devalued during this pandemic. Devalued through media and government comments about how the virus ‘only’ affects those with pre-existing conditions; through clear expectations that the rich will work safely from home while poor people can continue to risk their lives serving the privileged as delivery drivers and shop assistants; through the disproportionate impact of Covid on marginalised groups. Yes, many disabled people have conditions that put us at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. But if the government was making decisions that valued all lives, none of us would need be vulnerable. As a UNHCR statement on disability and COVID-19 recently put it, disabled people “are often wrongly perceived to be inherently vulnerable, when it is attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that result in situations of vulnerability.”1 As our lives have been devalued by social policy and rhetoric, we have been made vulnerable by society. I long to hear churches talking about this – and all the other ways that, during the pandemic, the gap between the privileged and the oppressed has widened into a gaping chasm of deepening inequalities.
I’ve written before about the injustices faced by disabled people during this pandemic, but here’s an updated recap. In Inclusion London‘s words, “From the outset, Disabled people have been discriminated against, forgotten, and in some cases abandoned as policymakers have ignored our needs… Disabled people saw our legal rights diminished, we experienced resource rationing and blanket policies. This led to many of us struggling to get bare necessities, losing support and independence and living in fear for our lives.” Sisters of Frida have written about how our access to food, medical services and support has been limited, as an already-poor community has been pushed deeper into poverty. There has been a rise in mental health problems in our communities as services have been withdrawn. Some groups of disabled people are 91% more likely to die from Covid than their non-disabled peers – after discounting pre-existing conditions – and people with learning disabilities are at particularly increased risk. We have been forgotten.2
And now, on July 19th, all Covid restrictions in England will go away. Boris Johnson says we have to “reconcile ourselves” to more deaths, in the same breath as he outlines the policies that will cause those deaths. Immunocompromised people have been abandoned, with no rights or protection. And, with one stroke of the pen, the government is closing off many disabled people’s access to the world – after many of us just began to to emerge from over a year of shielding – because we won’t feel safe among rising case numbers with no protection measures. The toll on our mental health is likely to be high. And some will die.
During the pandemic, Fiona MacMillan began hosting the ground-breaking video series Shut In, Shut Out, Shut Up. That title is intentional. Since March 2020, disabled people have been shut in our homes, shut out of churches and communities, and shut up – silenced. We have always experienced all of these things, but Covid has deepened all the old fault lines into chasms of inequality.
In the latest series, Fiona and her guests have been exploring ableism in church and society, showing how injustice in society is too often mirrored in the churches – and enabled by their silence.
In 2020 and 2021, the church has said little about justice for disabled people. Its silence on everything that’s been happening to our community during this pandemic has, in Fiona’s words, spoken volumes. That may not be true of all churches, but so many have stayed silent, devaluing lives as they fail to speak out.
In institutions, structural sin enables social injustice.3 But it is human decisions that create environments where justice or injustice flourishes. Churches are places of power, where our choices create justice or injustice, as we resist or collude with society’s injustice.
The One Sheep
Remember those verses from Micah at the top of this post? Disabled biblical scholar Sarah Melcher talks about these verses together with other prophetic Old Testament passages, all showing how God will one day restore disabled people to a situation of justice. Melcher says that the language in Micah compares disabled people to “injured sheep.” She says, “God, like a kindly and conscientious shepherd will gather in even the wounded members of the community, to return them to their land” (p.4).
Melcher’s reflections make me think of the one lost sheep out of a hundred, in Jesus’s story (Matthew 18:12-14). As Stephanie Tait says, sheep don’t just leave a secure fold – they flee from danger. But the Shepherd is not content to see them lost and exiled. Just like in Micah, the Shepherd goes out to find the forgotten ones, who have been driven away through fear, and brings us home. That’s a vision of justice – for every single sheep.
Disabled people are often driven away from, and forgotten by, churches. But during the pandemic, access to churches has vastly improved for many disabled people. Many have told stories about how they were excluded from church for years, until lockdowns, when live streamed services gave them a way to come home. But this is accidental access, not a thoughtful bringing back of the excluded. And now disabled people fear that even this accidental inclusion will go away.
Now as restrictions ease there is a fear within me that churches will go back to “business as usual” and the eagerness to return to “proper church” will leave many of us – who for the last four months have been more engaged than ever – back where we started.”Emily Richardson – commenting last summer for my pilot research on Covid and disabled people’s access to churches
And it’s not just a fear. Disabled Christians have been seeing live streaming scaled back in many churches, removing new ways of accessing church. On Monday there was talk in the disabled Christian community about how 19th July could mean our exclusion from church, since many of us won’t feel safe in crowded buildings with no Covid measures. And this situation is reflected across society. We will be shut out of so many places again, thanks to decisions that don’t consider our needs and don’t value our lives.
It’s good that some churches are saying that they will continue to stream services. But this provision is patchy. And live streamed church hasn’t been made accessible to everyone. In just two examples, there are no subtitles on many churches’ streams, and informal Zoom coffee can throw up barriers for some neurodivergent people. It can be lonely if you can’t follow streamed services or can’t join online social events. I know many churches have been struggling to keep services online on a shoestring budget and to keep church buildings safe during a pandemic, and I value the people whose hard work has been making it possible for us to go safely back to church.4
But I don’t want to be a lost sheep wandering outside the fold forever.
A Cry for Justice
Rather than closing the doors around our comfortable buildings, shutting out everyone who is not safe there, a vision for justice could move the church out into the dangerous places. Into the world beyond the church gates, where the Reign of God is already at hand. Where, instead of closing ranks, we step outside our comfort zone. And see that we, too, are complicit in social injustice.
What new visions for justice might arise from that kind of engagement with real lived experience of oppression? Could it transform the whole way we do church? Might a forgotten sheep or two finally feel safe to come back then? (Every single person’s inclusion matters, says the parable.)
So my plea to churches now is: Think about how you can value the lives that society has devalued. Love your immunocompromised neighbour, your disabled neighbour, your unvaccinated child neighbour. Think about how, in your institutional policies, you choose whether to harm people, or to create safe, accessible environments. Consider whether this is really a safe a time to drop all restrictions, and who will be shut out if you do. And keep your live streaming and remote access going, in ways that all can access. As you include those who have been shut out, perhaps your whole vision of church will be transformed.
Waiting Outside the Gates
Till then, too many of us could be waiting outside the church gates. Same as it ever was.
I believe that God values lives that have been exiled to the rubbish dump or forced outside the Temple gates. Together with my scattered, gathered disabled Christian community, I’ll be focusing on that awesome eschatological vision of justice that includes disabled people, which brings back all those against whom the church doors have been closed. We’ll wait for the churches to call for that same vision of justice.
“At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.”– Zephaniah 3:19-20 (NIV)
With thanks to Al Barrett for a conversation that inspired these thoughts, and to Fiona MacMillan for looking over this post.
1 The UNHCR statement goes on to explain how ‘vulnerability’ is created by social policy. “While many persons with disabilities have health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, pre-existing discrimination and inequality means that persons with disabilities are one of the most excluded groups in terms of health prevention and response actions and economic and social support measures, and among the hardest hit in terms of transmission risk and actual fatalities.”
2 I could link to so many more studies and reports about the oppression of disabled people during the pandemic. Have one of the most telling: disabled people’s organisations have identified 24 major breaches of disability rights by the government during the pandemic, to which the government has not yet responded.
3 As Liberation theologian Gutierrez puts it, “An unjust situation does not happen by chance… there is human responsibility behind it.” Gustavo Gutierrez, ‘A Theology of Liberation.’ Monthly Review 36 (1984): 93-107.
4 Inclusion requires institutional cultural change, supported by resources at the highest levels of church denominations. The Church of England has work to do here at the highest levels. Inclusion and accessibility can also be cheap and easy to achieve, if churches listen to disabled people and confront their own ableism… but that’s another story for another time.
Edited 9/7/21 to clarify that the complete removal of Covid restrictions I’m referring to is in England.