Hauerwas and Disability

There was quite a little contingent from Concordia listening to Stanely Hauerwas at Fontbonne University this past Monday evening.  Travis Scholl did a nice job summarizing the main thrust of the lecture in an earlier post, so I won’t do that again here.  The topic was on disability, and if you are familiar with Hauerwas, you will probably note that the topic of disability is not one for which he is necessarily famous.  He is more often associated with arguments for radical Christian pacifism, the centrality of narrative in Christian/ecclesial identity, and the priority of the Christian community as an ethic vis-a-vis the Christian individual.  His thinking on disability, however, brings many of these themes together in a constructive way that I have found rather helpful, especially in my work with the deaconess program.

In one of our seminary classes, “Theology of Compassion and Human Care,” we read several essays by Hauerwas that deal with disability, aging, and abortion.  In many ways these topics accentuate more clearly what is a common theme throughout Hauerwas’ writings:  the church is a unique community in the world and thus necessarily approaches these issues differently than the world.  This uniqueness becomes especially apparent when we contrast this with how social welfare is carried out in the public venue.

In this country, approaches to social welfare are worked out within a “social contract” framework, the basis for our political and public discourse.  In a social contract, rational parties choose mutually advantageous arrangements, being sure to address any claims of authority to those on whom the claims are made, i.e. we must reason from the standpoint of others.  In this “social contract” it is assumed that the participating parties are roughly equivalent to each other in strength, abilities, intelligence, sensibilities, and status.  Pretty straight forward stuff—Locke, John Rawls, et al.  However, when it comes to questions of justice for the marginalized, one difficulty with this framework is what has been called the “outlier problem.”  That is, the contract model enables mutual agreement only within the boundaries of an “in-group/out-group” frame.  It is thus precisely those without power and without a voice—the disabled, the poor, the unborn, animals and the rest of creation—that are “de facto” outside the social contract.  Instead, their participation must come through the advocacy of someone else, and this is where it gets really sticky.  Since their is no agreed upon ideological basis for advocacy, issues such as justice, rights, and care for the marginalized are largely considered on the basis of “incentives.”  And incentives are usually economic—e.g. it is more economically beneficial for me to offer treatment to mentally ill people, because functioning members of society cost me less than institutionalizing them.

Obviously, such incentives for care and compassion are completely alien to the Christian ethos of love for the neighbor.  But there is further difficulty with advocacy, and here Hauerwas’ views on this are particularly insightful.  “Advocacy” entails speaking “for” someone else and assumes that we have the right to do so.  But who gives me the right to speak for the “disabled”?  On what basis do I carry their voice forward?  Can I really speak from their perspective?  Hauerwas notes that even grouping people under the label “disabled” is an act fraught with ambiguity and potential abuse.  To counter this, Hauerwas does not eschew advocacy altogether—Christians should “work for” and “work with” the disabled and others in need.  But “working for” and “working with” ought to grow out of “being with” them.  If we don’t start there, then the “disabled” are viewed more as a problem to be solved rather than people who have the capacity to love and be loved.  For Christians, the “disabled” are not a problem to solve, they are God’s creation, dearly loved, objects of redemption with a future promised in the resurrection of Christ.  Such an approach implies and thus requires a particular expression of Christian “patience.”  We are a patient people because we share a common life—the life of the body of Christ.  We are patient—patiens—because we suffer one another and share in the sufferings of others.  We are patient because we believe in the resurrection of Christ and that these “present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory yet to be revealed to us.”  Such Christian patience draws us first to “be with” others, to share a mutual story and to find hope and purpose in the story of God in Christ.

On the surface this seems to “do” less.  Pragmatics asks what is being accomplished here, and the utilitarian wants to know whether what is being accomplished is effective and efficient, perhaps in removing suffering or producing happiness (whatever that means).  But pragmatics, efficiency and happiness do not really drive Christian love.  Rather, Christian love is informed by the patience and hope and beauty of a future promised that cannot be reduced to the “cost of the nard.”  In a culture driven by economics, it seems to me that Christians seem inordinately focused on the single virtue of “stewardship” and all that entails regarding finances, efficiency, etc.  Perhaps, it is time to privilege some of the more prominent virtues in the Scriptures that characterize the body of Christ—virtues like patience, kindness, gentleness, hospitality, generosity.  We don’t need to read Hauerwas to get that insight; St. Paul has given us plenty to ponder.


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  1. Robert October 24, 2011

    John Rawls does not merely assume that persons are essentially equivalent to each other; he recognizes inequalities right up front and tries to rectify them. His theory of justice (magnum opus by the same name) seeks to provide equality for all persons, including the “worst-off.”

    Thus, while Rawls would suggest that goods should be distributed equally, he would allow for the unequal distribution of goods to assist the “worst-off” as much as possible. So his theory, at least, does provide some response to the “outlier problem.”

    Robert at bioethike.com

    • Erik Herrmann October 24, 2011

      Thanks for your note. You are right about John Rawls; he is nuanced on this. I was citing him more as a representative political philosopher that utilizes the “social contract” framework rather than detailing his specific contribution. Even so, social contract only provides a theory about how persons ought to relate to one another, not a theory of “persons.” The “worst-off” category is entirely subjective, and requires an additional theory of persons-an anthropology. For example, are fetuses the “worst-off”? Rawls does not include them, even though his theory of contract includes duties to future generations.
      Also, to be clear to the reader, I am not critiquing social contract per se. I am using the “outlier problem” not to undermine the theory, but to point out that a philosophy/theology of persons is not entailed in theory. That must come from elsewhere.
      Again, thanks for the note, Robert.

  2. Daniel Ross October 31, 2011

    First, I would like to point out that it should not be “the disabled.” I made that mistake once with my wife who had to have a whole class on it for her undergrad. After a three hour lecture/argument I was led to the errors of my ways. They are “people with disabilities.” The more I thought about it the more it makes sense, especially with a Christian ethic. I was not at the lecture, but I think that was the point Hauerwas was making? If we put people first and the qualitatives second, then the value is placed on him/her/them not on an ailment or disability.

    Upon that basis people become valued simply because they are. They exist and are therefor a valued part of the Creation. They fact that they have a disability is then therefor secondary.

    When I view if from that angle it then becomes a matter of helping my neighbor. Whether that help takes the form of service or advocacy depends on the moment and perceived need. The other possibility is that since they are a valued part of creation I help those in the Body of Christ. That leaves the problem of those outside the body. But, if I take the view of that these persons are a part of creation then I am obligated to the proper stewardship of creation and therefor should help or advocate. That last one is a little more tenuous in my opinion and I have not thought it all the way through to see how valid of an argument it might be.

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