The word “retard”

The invidious usage of the word retard never really bothered me, as sad as that sounds. Not that I would ever mistreat anyone with a handicap but I realize I need to change more than just my views on the usage of the word per se.

Anyways I bring this up because of my own behavior around a member of my former church who is retarded. I don’t mean this in the sense of “I hate this kid, he’s a retard”, but objectively retarded, with mild cognitive and social deficiencies. This man lets call him “Jon”; a consistently faithful member and attendee of the church, is mildly retarded insofar as he is capable of driving a vehicle and engaging in most discussions, but has social quirks that can be somewhat distracting and has slower cognitive function. For instance, his remarks in some discussions were considered “conversation-killers” and even though he was unintentionally rude, nevertheless, he made all sorts of people quite uncomfortable.

I overheard one member of my church tell me that there were a few people who found it irritating that they had to sit next to Jon during a group event. This of course caused the bells to ring in my head, as I angrily denounced their antipathy towards this guy who meant no ill or harm. What the F!@# is their problem?? Self-righteousness kicked in full gear.

But as Zosima says, “Each one of us is guilty before everybody for everything, and I am more guilty than anybody else.” I remember many key instances where I would intentionally avoid lengthy conversations with him, especially in group settings. I found his presence to be most of the time a nuisance and did my best to just avoid him. It wasn’t that I hated him per se, I just didn’t want him to be around me. I had been discussing this with a friend, when he reminded me of Matthew 5:22:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old,’You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, Raca! will be liable to the hell of fire.

What a radical message! For those who think the Christian faith should be a display of conservative morals and values, guess what, the very leader of the faith is saying, merely practicing good deeds is not enough, even our very tainted thoughts are deserving of highest condemnation. I don’t think you need to be “born-again” to realize the impact of what JC is saying. You see, “Raca!” here translates to “you fool!” When a person is driven to murder, he desires to existentially eliminate another person. In essence, he is trying to say, “I hate you so much, I’d rather not have you around anymore.”Jesus points out in the same way that when we are angry at someone, when we say “Raca!” we are saying to that person, “I wish you didn’t exist.” Murder, to Christ, was an intense desire that wished a certain person removed from your life. Surely, I didn’t plan on murdering this guy or harbor any thoughts of doing so? Yet, where was my heart just a second ago; while I didn’t cut him out physically from existence, I just chose to amputate him from any personal contact. When I said before, “I didn’t want him to be around me”,  what made me really all that different?

You know its really easy to be patient towards that really cute girl, the absolutely charming guy or the person you are marrying! I think it is great that many couples strive to be patient with each other. However, true patience should extend towards those who are most trying to us. Its easier to be patient to the person you like so much that you find yourself engaging in DeBeer’s swindle of paying two months salary. (No a diamond isn’t forever) How about showing patience to someone who irritates you immensely by always talking about pro wrestling?

I remember in school we were taught the concept of being “politically correct”; we were not to use the term retarded and instead accept these students as “special”. Yet, this word “special” held little sway in my heart and mind, because realistically there was nothing special about these kids to me. In a culture that told me to value accomplishments, awards and status, these students were surely on the low end of the totem pole. Fine, I will acknowledge their nominal specialness only to assuage the concerns of my insufferably liberal teacher. The problem here was that by forcing me to recite this line about their specialness, somehow this would sensitivity training would be sufficient to change my attitudes towards those who were handicapped. In the same sense, the solution is not changing our outward sensitivity towards others.

What bothers me the most is that this man will find great difficulty in finding a wife, never have any potential for a lucrative career and will continue to face a certain amount of ostracism due to his condition. It seems almost morbid to admit such, but it makes me wonder about how this world keeps on spinning? Is his redemption his achievement? I hope not. I wonder why then I need to do the same for myself. This is where I can understand liberation from being around the “weakest” of us. Society reminds us that our accomplishments give us our value and meaning, yet this notion becomes inevitably paralyzing. As grow and look around me, so many people can literally jump higher, run faster and travel further than me. I know self-centeredness in my own accomplishments becomes crushing in the face of my own imperfection. No matter how many battles we win in this world, if we keep the discussion centered on the here and now, death currently has an undefeated record.

Call me crazy but this causes me to place my hope in something else. Relationships become meaningful and beautiful when we realize that we love someone for not what they accomplish, but for who they are. JC demonstrates this love to us simply and forcefully on the cross. In that sense, the humility that comes from understanding this message helps us to embrace those around us who are difficult to love. We shouldn’t love the Jons of the world because we are forced to, we should love them because to God we are more unlovable than Jon could ever be to us. I hope in that way people can be convicted to love Jon.

(Its interesting because it makes me think about how politicized the abortion debate has become in Christian circles. While I do find conservative arguments persuasive about the sanctity of life, I have to take a more Haeurwas-ian approach to the topic. I think if anything JC’s statement implicates conservatives just as strongly. This is not to morally equivocate and say abortion is ok, but to say that sitting back and merely harboring resentment towards the act is just as evil as the murder you view abortion is. A viewpoint I probably need to think about and ponder more…)

Perhaps I can continue to try to find a way to make my mark on this world, to achieve greatness. But looking at Jon and his own faith, I think I need to start thinking about looking towards a different direction.

Thanks Jah-Mez

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