From the Paper 2 syllabus on Religion and Ethics:
a) Ethical and religious concepts of equality, including the issues of gender or race or disability and the work of one significant figure in campaigns for equality in the chosen area, significant events in the progress of equality in these areas, perspectives on equality from at least one religion and one secular ethical perspective.
b) Strengths and weaknesses of significant areas of disagreement and debate, assessment of relevant examples, legal changes and social attitudes, appropriateness and value of employing religious perspectives into these debates.
With reference to the ideas of Martin Luther King and Joni Eareckson Tada.
NOTE: There is considerable overlap with the 4B Christianity topic New Movements in Theology because of the emphasis on Feminist and Black Theology. Liberation Theology also relates to the concept of economic equality as supporters of this movement have typically adopted a stance that is critical of capitalism. See HERE for the course notes on this topic (some of the content is repeated below). IT IS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED THAT STUDENTS WHO ARE STUDYING ETHICS BUT NOT 4B CHRISTIANITY READ THIS MATERIAL AS THESE NOTES COVER BLACK AND FEMINIST THEOLOGY IN CONSIDERABLE DETAIL. THE SECTION ON BLACK THEOLOGY ALSO INCLUDES A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE HISTORY AND BELIEFS OF THE NATION OF ISLAM. IF STUDENTS WISH TO EXPLORE MORE THAN ONE RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVE ON EQUALITY, THE NOI IS RECOMMENDED AS A CONTRAST TO THAT OFFERED BY MARTIN LUTHER KING.
Additionally, when it comes to both Martin Luther King’s contribution to campaigns for equality and the value of employing religious perspectives in debates, Christopher Hitchens’ critique of the role of religion in the American Civil Rights Movement and John Holroyd’s response to that critique are also of relevance. Notes on this can be found HERE.
Conceptually, equality can – in a rather simplistic sense – be about everyone in society getting treated equally by others, receiving the same amount of goods and resources, or being able to pursue the same opportunities. Along the way, an emphasis might be placed on ‘Equality of Need’ (everyone getting what they require) or ‘Equality of Desert’ (where some receive more because of the contribution they make to the society of which they are a member).
To refine and add nuance to these notions, it can be helpful to explore some secular ethical perspectives on equality that have been offered by philosophers.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has challenged the view that Equality is a meaningful, bedrock ethical concept. This is because he thinks that discussions about equality always relate to something more basic than the idea itself.
For example, he argues that discussions about economic equality are more fundamentally to do with everyone having enough. Frankfurt notes that we tend to be more upset when we hear about poorer people being treated badly than we do by the simple fact that some people earn more than others (though we do get annoyed when we think that some people get paid far too much for the work they do). So we should concentrate on ensuring that the poorest people have enough to live on rather than aiming for some sort of economic equality for its own sake.
Secondly, Frankfurt observes that when people are on the receiving end of unfair racist, sexist, homophobic or other types of discrimination that this is more to do with lack of respect than a sense that we are not being treated equally.
Overall, Frankfurt contends that discussions about equality should therefore focus more on people having enough and being treated with respect by others (what Kant refers to as people being regarded as ‘ends in themselves’).
JOHN RAWLS (1921 – 2002)
Rawls is renowned for an influential thought experiment that he described in the above publication. He asks us to imagine that we are to become a member of a new society but presently know nothing about who we will be in that society. For example, we don’t know if we will be rich, poor, able-bodied, good looking, male, female, intelligent, unintelligent, talented or unskilled, and we won’t know which ethnic group we will belong to or what our sexual proclivities might be. Rawls thought that in our currently prior state (which he called the Original Position), where where we have to collectively decide in advance from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ on the rules that will govern our new world, that we would be rationally attracted to choosing ones that could improve our situation if we ended up disadvantaged in some way. Specifically, he thought that it would be rational to accept two fundamental principles: those of Freedom and Equality.
The first principle is one that would maximise a range of freedoms for all citizens, such as being able to vote for who governs you and extensive freedom of expression, while the second, which is also called the Difference Principle, would ensure more equal levels of wealth and opportunity in terms of Equality of Desert. For example, although some people might be paid very high salaries, this would only be allowed if lower paid workers somehow received more money because of this arrangement, more than they would if the highest paid citizens were paid less. Rawls also thought that those who blessed with natural talents, such as intelligence or sporting ability were not necessarily entitled to more money, as being blessed in this way is mainly due to luck and good genes.
THE SPIRIT LEVEL
Wilkinson and Pickett are epidemiologists. According to their research, in societies with greater levels of economic inequality (where there is much more of a gap between rich and poor), there is less trust between citizens, people have fewer friends, and mental and physical health problems are more widespread. So it does seem that reducing excessive inequality and ensuring that everyone has enough – as Rawls and Frankfurt suggest – may have beneficial knock-on effects on other aspects of communal life, which in turn goes some way to confirming the secular ethical perspectives offered by these two thinkers.
Perspectives on equality from at least one religion : Christianity and economic equality
NOTE: what follows in this section partly draws on the course notes on Liberation Theology for which a link has already been provided above.
The syllabus does not seem to emphasise this aspect of the topic, though it would perfectly reasonable to write about it in an examination provided that it falls within the scope of the question, and perhaps the main issue here is the extent to which Christian teaching is in conformity with the competing macroeconomic theories of capitalism and socialism.
Firstly, capitalism is an economic system whereby the means of production [factories, machinery and so on] and distribution are owned primarily by private individuals and corporations. The prices of labour and goods are determined by the free market and not by central government. Profits are claimed by individual company owners or, in the case of corporations, by shareholders. Globally, this form of economic theory has been the dominant one over the last forty years but it dates back to the 18th Century and the writing of the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith who argued that, if left alone, markets will naturally produce stability and prosperity. Businesses should therefore be given maximum freedom. Firms, being closest to the market, know what is best for their businesses. If we let them do what they want, wealth creation will be maximized, which benefits the rest of society.
Contrastingly, Karl Marx was the most famous critic of capitalist theory. According to Marx, capitalism requires profit and profit requires the exploitation (of employees and, perhaps, to update Marxism for the 21st Century, the environment). Marx therefore proposed socialism as an alternative economic theory. This is an economic system whereby the means of production and distribution are owned by the workers and the state. The prices of goods and wages are fixed by central government instead of being regulated by the market. The whole economy is rationally planned, rather than being determined by the random outcome of private initiatives.
NOTE: Marx argued that capitalism inevitably produces revolution: eventually, people at the bottom of the class system become so intolerably exploited that they rise up against their masters and seize the means of production. The subsequent Communist society would then be a utopia in which its members would be spontaneously moral, as all immoral behaviour was held to be a product of class oppression. Here, there are echoes of the Christian eschatological view that a Kingdom of God will eventually be established after a period of strife and chaos in which the forces of evil are eventually defeated.
Turning now to Christianity, and starting with the Bible, it is clear that there is an emphasis on helping the poor, on ensuring – to borrow Frankfurt’s earlier phrase – that everyone has enough. Perhaps the most powerful teaching in this respect is to be found in Matthew 25 and emerges from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In this parable, Jesus identifies directly with those in need, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’ The ‘sheep’ are those who demonstrated selfless love (agape) for the hungry and thirsty. Their reward is salvation and ‘eternal life’ in heaven. However, the more selfish ‘goats’ are condemned to the ‘eternal fire’. Overall, the message seems to be that we are judged more than anything else on what we do for others.
Assuming the authenticity of this teaching, the harshness of it seems out of step with the message of forgiveness that Jesus espouses elsewhere in the gospels. However, it is notable that the ‘goats’ do not seem to ask for it (unlike the son in the parable of the prodigal son). This might suggest that only truly evil, unrepentant, selfish people end up in Hell.
Additionally, Acts 2v43-45 says of the early Christians that ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need’. Biblical passages like this, which emphasise the virtue of charity, suggest that all our possessions are gifts from God that should be shared, according to the principle of koinonia or ‘things held in common’. Accordingly, The theologian D. Stephen Long has concluded from this passage that, “ ‘Socialism’ was Christian before it was made ‘scientific’ and was fundamentally distorted by Marx”?
In the case of exploitation and its treatment in the Bible, the Old Testament is emphatically condemnatory. For example, Exodus 22 harshly criticises the practice of usury (lending money at interest) : ‘You shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not extract interest from them’, while the book of Amos denounces those who cheat the poor by giving short weight and measure. As part of his theory of Just Price, Aquinas not only condemned usury but also the immorality of gaining financially without actually creating something, and the raising of prices because a particular buyer had an urgent need for what was being sold.
Furthermore, if capitalism is demonstrably exploitative as Marx suggested, then perhaps it is incumbent upon Christians to be as critical of this system as he was. And in fact, the excesses of capitalism have been censured from a variety of quarters within the faith.
For example, according to exponents of Liberation Theology, capitalism is something that human beings need to be liberated from, through the use of violence if necessary, in accordance with a passage in Luke’s gospel in which Jesus references the book of Isaiah and the requirement – as part of his teaching – to ‘liberate those who are oppressed’.
Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King also came to think of capitalism in this way. According to a study by James Cone, in spite of the success of the civil rights movement in ending racial segregation in the south, King eventually came to realize that – as Malcolm X had pointed out – there was little point in black Americans being able to eat at the same lunch counters as whites if they were unable to afford the meal. As Cone narrates:
‘Martin reflected upon socialism even more seriously when he realized that the black poor (as well as the white poor, a reality that surprised him) were getting poorer and the white rich richer, despite the passage of the much celebrated Civil Rights Act and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. He became explicit about the need for economic equality, an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” which would guarantee a job or an annual income for all Americans…But because he was still deeply aware of the harm that a “communist smear” could do to the civil rights movement, he was very cautious about the dangers of speaking positively of “democratic socialism.” “Now this means that we’re treading…in very difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with the economic system of our nation,” he said in a speech to his staff. “It means that something is wrong with capitalism.” During staff retreats, he often requested that tape recorders be switched off, so he could express his views frankly and honestly about the need for a complete, revolutionary change in the American political economy, replacing capitalism with some form of socialism. What we have had in America is “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor,” Martin said often.’
What the above example perhaps demonstrates is that issues to do with discrimination cannot be separated from that of economic inequality. If the latter problem is not addressed, progress in the former is going to be more negligible.
Also worthy of mention is Pope Francis’s condemnation of ‘the idolatry of money’ (a reference to the second commandment – ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath’). Commenting on rising inequality in many societies – the gap that exists between the rich and the poor – he has also criticised the policy followed by many governments of not interfering with the way that businesses operate. This led the late Rush Limbaugh, at the time one of America’s most famous radio talk-show hosts, to accuse the Pope of ‘pure Marxism.’
Similarly, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has characterized the excessive rates of interest charged by payday loan company Wonga as both ‘shocking’ and ‘usurious’.
Lastly, Michael Moore’s satirical documentary Capitalism: A Love Story includes contributions from Catholic priests who denounce capitalism as an inherently sinful and immoral economic system.
On the other hand, it is worth bearing in mind that Marxist societies have tended to be hostile to faith. And it is notable that the very title of Adam Smith’s seminal work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, is a direct quotation from Isaiah 62. He seems to have envisaged is a state of affairs in which the ‘invisible hand’ of divine benevolence operates to ensure that goods and services are bought and sold, and those who produce them appropriately rewarded in the marketplace, in spite of our selfish and sinful inclinations. For example, a seller may selfishly wish to maximise profit while a buyer wants the cheapest deal available. But the presence of competition ensures that products are traded at an appropriate price (the lowest which ensures a profit but that also is affordable).
It should also be borne in mind that Smith was also an ethicist who would himself have condemned some of the exploitative practices of capitalism, such as price-fixing among competitors (where they agree to all charge similarly inflated prices) or the maintenance of monopolies.
More could be said about capitalism and Christianity, with further discussion taking in topics like Calvinism, the Protestant work-ethic, and modern Prosperity Theology. But what has already been mentioned is hopefully sufficient for the Edexcel course.
In conclusion, although Christian teaching seems to have more in common with socialist philosophy, historically it has also been deployed to underpin and justify capitalist thinking. Does this mean – in relation to the syllabus – that there is not much to be gained by employing a Christian religious perspective in debates about economic equality?
Perhaps the best that can be said for the faith is that at a time when socialist policies seem to be incapable of gaining much traction in modern, market-based societies, and Marx has been relegated to the status of a mere ‘poet of moral corruption’*, the Christian church still has a valuable role to play in expressing the collective conscience of a community and curbing the excesses of capitalism, as evidenced by the example set by Dr King and others that have been described above.
*see Kenan Malik The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics
Perspectives on equality from at least one religion : Christianity and issues of gender or race or disability
First of all, there are several Biblical teachings that can be seen as anti-discriminatory.
In the first chapter of Genesis, for example, it is stated that everyone is made in the ‘image’ of God. So it should make no difference whether people are black or white, men or women etc. Significantly, this word appears in the context of the six day creation story: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. As both men and women are created on the same day at the same time in God’s image, this suggests that they both have equal status.
Additionally, when Jesus is asked in Mark 12, ‘Which is the greatest commandment of all?’ he replies with two: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ Obviously, the second teaching could be used to oppose racism and discrimination if everyone is regarded as a neighbour, regardless of gender, race or disability.
Galatians 3 also contains an all-embracing passage: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
Lastly, there is the teaching found in James 2: ‘…if you treat people according to their outward appearance you are guilty of sin.’
So far, so good. But unfortunately, some of these passages are problematic.
Firstly, the six-day creation story is followed by a second one, in which Adam is created first and Eve is taken from his side. A possible implication of this is that whereas man is made directly in God’s image, woman is a secondary or dependent creation – and that the image of God is reflected more in the former than the latter. This interpretation is reinforced by the observation that Eve succumbed to sin before Adam. Eve has thus traditionally been blamed for the fall of mankind. Her behaviour was believed to be weak-willed, a vice inherited by women in general.
However, this story can be given an entirely different gloss. Drawing on the writing of Phyllis Trible, Peter Vardy notes that adam is, to begin with, a word used to describe an asexual human being. It is only after the creation of Eve that a specific male and female identity is conferred on the first created couple. Male and female are therefore created simultaneously out of the non-gendered ‘earth creature/human being’. Furthermore, the term for ‘helpmate’, a reference to Eve, is in no way meant to imply inferior status in the original Hebrew. Finally, the theological blaming of Eve can also be challenged, again with reference to the original Hebrew in which the story is written, where it is apparently clear that Adam is fully aware of what is happening when Eve is tempted, thus making him as responsible as she is in giving way to temptation.
Moving on, the teaching in Galatians 3 is usually attributed to St Paul. But in 1 Corinthians, however, Paul explains that women should be veiled in church to signal their subordination to men because ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband’, and that ‘women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, even as the law says.’ Although it is less certain that Paul is the author of the epistle, there is also a famous passage in Ephesians in which wives are instructed to ‘submit’ to their husbands. So how is this apparent contradiction to be explained? In his history of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCullough points out that Paul and his followers thought the world was going to end soon. So this passage, he argues, is about the spiritual equality that faithful believers will enjoy after this happens. As far as inequality in the present world was concerned, there wasn’t much point in trying to change things, given how little time there was left (as Paul seemed to think that Jesus would return in his lifetime).
Elsewhere, in another letter Paul wrote (the Epistle to Philemon), slavery is implicitly condoned as an institution, a teaching that is hardly conducive to affirming the equality of all.
Lastly, even though God is meant to be sexless or above gender, the language used to describe God in the Bible is typically masculine. “He” is Father and Son, King, Judge, Lord and Master. Recent attempts to introduce feminine pronouns and imagery into liturgical worship have been confined to liberal or mystical forms of Christianity, and have proved highly controversial.
Overall then, the best that can be said on the basis of this sampling of passages and survey of their popular exegesis is that if the Bible does present us with a consistent and holistic anti-discriminatory message, the efforts of Vardy and other commentators to draw attention to it must continue, in order to ensure that their readings become more mainstream, especially with regard to the status of women. Given that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still refuse to even discuss the possibility of women’s ordination, while conservative Christian evangelical Christian denominations usually prohibit women from teaching in public (which would potentially include teaching men), they would seem to facing an uphill struggle.
For more on Christianity and gender issues, see the section on Feminist Theology in the course notes on Liberation Theology.
Turning now to Church history, the Christian response to racism is also a cause for concern in some instances.
For example, in the early years of Christianity Jews were referred to as Christ killers, and in medieval times they were said to have poisoned the wells and caused the years of the Black Death that killed millions of people. They were also believed to be murdering Christians, especially children, so that their blood could be used in religious ceremonies. This perhaps explains why Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the founder of Protestant Christianity, wrote that Jewish synagogues should be set on fire. Against this backdrop, it is therefore unsurprising to learn that when, in 1933, a delegation of Catholic bishops asked Hitler, shortly after he had come to power, what he intended to do about the Jews, he replied that he would do exactly what the churches had advocated and practised over the past 2,000 years.
Another example of Christian racist teaching comes from the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa [DRC], a white dominated denomination whose members sought to justify apartheid theologically by arguing that God is ‘the great divider’ who splits people into different races. They held that apartheid was therefore due to God’s will and that the separation of “light from dark” in Genesis 1 showed that whites and non-whites should be racially segregated. This peculiar theology served as a bulwark for the apartheid system.
Moving on to the USA, when slave owning was legal, many Christian slave owners did not think that their black slaves had souls. For example, Jarena Lee was born into slavery in 1783, taken from her parents at the age of 7, and became a Christian preacher in 1804. In her preaching, she forgave all who harmed her. One white slaveholder who heard her speak changed his mind and ‘seemed to admit that coloured people had souls.’, though this did not, apparently, deter him from continuing to keep slaves. Even today, fringe religious groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation still hold racist beliefs. They believe that the blood of Jesus was only spilled for the white race and that God’s promises in the Bible only apply to white people. This is because they believe that the black race was made before Adam. They also believe that the Jewish race are the children of Satan and Eve.
More will be said about how the above examples impact the ‘appropriateness and value of employing religious perspectives’ in the concluding section to these notes.
Race – a secular perspective: George Yancy
Backlash is an expansion of an earlier article ‘Dear White America’ that Yancy wrote for a philosophy column in the New York Times at the end of 2015. In both publications, the author contends that racism is still an incipient feature of US society. At an individual level, it resides largely unacknowledged within the individual and collective psyches of even those who consider themselves to be white liberals. As such, it helps to perpetuate institutional, systemic racism and white privilege. Yancy’s message is one of what might be called ‘tough love’: he asks his more sympathetic white readers to allow themselves to become vulnerable or ‘unsutured’, a process required for them to engage honestly with their racism in order to let go of their ‘white innocence’.
Yancy offers up variety of compelling examples to lend support to his argument. For instance, he observes that ‘the love you have for certain Black people will not protect them from the white surveillance practice of stop-and-frisk, or from being mistaken as someone “up to no good”, or as someone pulling out a “weapon”‘, whilst also noting that whiteness ‘calms white police officers.’ He also invites us to consider the very different treatment that a black person can receive upon entering a store, namely, being followed by a white security guard, which results ‘from the fact that the Black person is racially profiled’, whereas, ‘As white, you can walk into stores without anyone doubting the integrity of your character and intentions.’ Additionally, white anti-racist campaigner Tim White’s frank admission that upon boarding a flight to St. Louis, the sight of two black pilots caused him to think “Oh my God, can these guys fly this plane?” is deployed to show how ‘white racism…is woven into, etched into, one’s white psyche.’
Over here in the UK, Yancy’s point is mirrored statistically. In the course of the year to April 2015, for example, out of all people stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police in Britain, about 38 per cent were people of ‘Black appearance’ and approximately 14 per cent were of ‘Asian appearance’. Of these, around 21 per cent of the former and 16 per cent of the latter were subsequently arrested. This implies that the rates of stop and search as well as arrests were significantly higher for non-white subjects.
There is also the unanticipated ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US Presidency to consider, which took place between the publishing of Yancy’s original article and this follow-up book. He comments that, ‘the white hatred, vitriol, nasty, and violent threats that I received are totally consistent with the unabashed white supremacist hatred that undergirds and follows from Trump’s election, especially from his own white neofascism, bullying, and his divisive and racially charged, disgusting and xenophobic racism.’ Significantly, Yancy draws attention to the 867 cases of racial harassment and intimidation that took place in the 10 days after that election, as well as the appearance of spray-painted signs with slogans such as “Black Lives don’t Matter and Neither Does Your Vote.”
Here, one is reminded of the many similar incidents that were recorded in the aftermath of Brexit. In both instances, it would seem that a significant minority felt suddenly emboldened to give overt expression to racist attitudes (and many are currently still doing so when it comes to the online abuse meted out prominent black soccer players and media personalities).
A further striking example of what might be deemed ‘everyday racism’ arises from a task that Yancy sets his white students, one which indicates just how deeply racism is ingrained in society, visible even in the most seemingly insignificant gestures of white people. As a class assignment he requires his undergraduates to maintain a journal of their everyday encounters with white racism. The exercise proves to be something of a revelation, with those who had previously assumed that racism is a thing of the past in ‘postracial’ America discovering many instances of it that had previously slipped under their personal radar. Here is one student’s summation of the value of keeping the log:
‘When I was given this assignment, I thought that I would have a really hard time getting journal entries, but I really have not, which was very surprising to me. Until you really listen to what people are saying and making jokes about, you don’t always realize how racist or negative the outcomes really are. This assignment really opened my eyes up to how many people I surround myself with are racist. I don’t think that this means that they are horrible people, but I do think it shows how ignorant they can be. I think that being white in America can really make someone racist without them even knowing.’
In that final sentence, there is an echo and confirmation of a less well-known older remark that was once made by Martin Luther King: ‘I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.’
For Yancy, being white but married to a black husband or wife and considering oneself to be more enlightened about the subject of race therefore does not mean that someone can claim to be free of racist thoughts and attitudes. By way of analogy, he points out that being married to a woman does not entail that one is never sexist, an example that he applies to himself.
Overall, Yancy’s thesis serves as a reminder that racism is still prevalent even within modern, supposedly ‘progressive’ multicultural societies, and that an ongoing process of self-examination, especially on the part of its white members, is vital if predominant liberal dogmas are actually perpetuating its presence rather than working against it.
Gender – a secular perspective: Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)
Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy was influenced by the atheistic existentialism of her partner Jean Paul Sartre. For Sartre, the absence of a creator God means that we are essentially free to decide our own purpose in life, to choose our own destinies for ourselves. De Beauvoir built on this form of existentialism by claiming that women are not born women but become women. By this she meant that women tend to accept men’s view of what a woman is. But to be what men expect you to be is a choice. Instead, women, being free, can decide for themselves what they want to be.
A slightly more detailed description of existentialist philosophy can be found in the course notes on Situation Ethics.
Perspectives on equality from at least one religion : Joni Eareckson Tada and disability
Joni Eareckson Tada is a prominent American evangelical Christian author and speaker, and an advocate for those with disabilities. She became quadriplegic following a diving accident at the age of 17. There is a brief YouTube video (see above) in which she introduces herself and describes the extensive charitable work that has been undertaken on behalf of those with disabilities both in the USA and abroad (especially in LEDCs – Less Economically Developed Countries) by Joni and Friends, an organisation that she founded in the late 1970’s. The aims of this institution are summarised on one of its own web pages as follows.
Joni and Friends is built on Biblical truth and the foundation of Jesus Christ. Since 1979, we’ve been advancing disability ministry and changing the church and communities around the world. The Joni and Friends International Disability Center (IDC) serves as the administrative center for ministry programs and locations across the United States which provide outreach to thousands of families impacted by disability around the globe.
We present the Gospel of Jesus Christ through all of our programs around the world. We train, disciple, and mentor people affected by disability to exercise their gifts of leadership and service in their churches and communities. We energize the church to move from lack of awareness of people impacted by disability to including everyone into the fabric of worship, fellowship, and outreach.
Inspiration for the work of Joni and Friends is to be found in the parable of the Great Banquet that appears in Luke 14 and contains these words:
‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
In terms of theology, Tada advances a distinctive theodicy in both the above video and here:
Her actual words are: ‘God permits what he hates to accomplish that he loves. He permits awful things like paralysis to bring forth Christ in the hope of glory.’ In other words, even profound suffering has a purpose, namely, that of potentially having the power to act as a catalyst for faith, which once aroused can help us accept that suffering as part of a spiritual path that also takes us closer to God. Or put more simply, Tada’s theodicy is that evil is a test from God. It is only through the experience of adversity in life that the need for Christ can be recognised. Again, there is a Biblical passage that underpins her theology of disability, namely Lamentations 3 v 32-33: ‘Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.‘
Tada has additionally stated that disabled people are ‘audio-visual aids for the church’, in the sense that their visibility serves as living proof that faith can overcome adversity and that they should be regarded as fully integral members of the Christian community.
Although there is no denying the sincerity of Tada’s sentiments about disability and the undoubted success of her organisation and its supporters in bringing much needed help and assistance to the disabled, often and especially children, who are frequently living in conditions of poverty without access to adequate health care in many instances, there are aspects of her program and theological outlook that some may find problematic, particularly with respect to the overarching topic of equality that is under consideration here, and specifically the ‘value of employing religious perspectives.’
First of all, in 2016, Tada publicly endorsed the Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio. In an interview with the Gospel Herald, she explained her reasons for doing so as follows:
“What Senator Rubio has done thus far in the Senate to help dismantle Obamacare is pretty important, because the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, is not good news for the elderly, the medically fragile, infants with disabilities, or people like me with significantly handicapping conditions…When there are only a limited number of healthcare dollars, people with significant disabilities and the elderly aren’t going to have the same access to good healthcare as those that are healthy and able-bodied. I’m so grateful that Senator Rubio recognizes this, he sees this, he sees the danger of the affordable care act, and he has moved in the Senate to help begin dismantling it, and that’s that good news…American society, as with any nation, is judged on how it treats its weakest members, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and the unborn. It is why I personally support Senator Marco Rubio.”
The problem here is that the Affordable Care Act (also referred to as ‘Obamacare’) was designed to ensure that all Americans were able to obtain health insurance. A further aim of the Act was to lower the overall cost of health care, which in turn would reduce the growing cost of Medicare and Medicaid, two government and state subsidised programs that ensure access to medical treatment, primarily for the elderly but also for younger disabled people and dialysis patients in the case of Medicare, and those on low income when it comes to Medicaid. An important aspect of Obamacare was to compel medical insurance companies to provide coverage for those with chronic health conditions (who might otherwise have been denied insurance altogether under the previous ).
Did Obamacare achieve its two aims? Certainly, it succeeded in expanding the overall number of those insured. This is therefore significant in terms of ‘equality of need’, as poorer and more vulnerable members of society would seem to have benefited the most from this additional support, which in turn suggests that Tada’s claims are disputable. However, the evidence that the ACA has reduced costs and improved the quality of health care is much more shaky.
It should also be noted that in endorsing Rubio, Tada is expressing support for someone who is a climate change denier and who does not “believe same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.” Again, this will be a cause for concern for those who regard the latter statement as discriminatory. Tellingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Tada and her supporters are conservative evangelicals, a page on the Joni and Friends website affirming the core beliefs of that institution includes this declaration:
‘We believe God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage, that God created man and woman as unique biological persons made to complement each other in marriage if God wills. God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.’
Additionally, the site includes an entry dated January 16th 2020 entitled ‘A Valuable Fight’ that contains these remarks:
‘I am reminded of my time with President George W. Bush and our campaign to restrict federal funding for research on stem cells obtained from human embryos (ESCR). I was honored to take part in many press conferences and symposiums with President Bush and his team of advocates, making it clear that such research was totally unethical – it meant the destruction of human life. However, in the following years, President Obama lifted the Bush-era ban on embryo research resulting in millions a year in federal funds toward embryo-destructive research.
What’s amazing is, after all these years and despite all the research, zero lives have been saved. It’s a totally different story involving stem cells derived from sources like umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and adult stem cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic ones – these ‘ethical’ stem cells are estimated to have saved over two million lives treating conditions like leukemia, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injuries. On top of that, new studies have shown not only remarkable treatment but even reversal for chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis!’
In the light of these comments, students of the Edexcel course may be left wondering what Tada might think of Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), a form of IVF that does not involve any use of stem cells but certainly results in embryos being discarded, in order to ensure that children are not born with devastating illnesses like Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s disease.
Those who have studied the evidential problem of evil may also regard Tay-Sachs as an example of gratuitous natural evil, one of many that serve as examples which undermine an implication of Tada’s theodicy that all suffering is ultimately purposeful in terms of God’s will. Those who are severely disabled but do not share her theistic outlook may even find it offensive.
Joni and Friends also hosts an ‘Abortion Policy Brief’ containing this statement: ‘…abortion—whether for disability-related reasons or not—must be
opposed vigorously, both as a matter of individual choice and as a matter of public policy.’ Again this may be a cause for concern for those who do not take such a hardline on this issue.
Lastly, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the already vulnerable circumstances of the poorer recipients of charity from Joni and Friends may render them more susceptible to evangelism, the extent to which children with physical disabilities are exposed to it, and what goes on in situations if and when those in need of charitable assistance belong to other faiths. Do, for example, Tada’s missionaries believe that disabled members of other world religions are destined for hell if they do not convert, and do they make this belief known to those they are seeking to help?
Overall, the philanthropic activity engaged in by Tada and her supporters is undoubtedly laudable and sincerely motivated, but when that activity is accompanied by readings of key Biblical passages about the sanctity of life, sexuality, and the aims of mission that do not seem to be the product of direct engagement with academic Biblical criticism (and as noted by John Holroyd, the best theology departments around the world do not tend to be staffed nor even sprinkled with faculty members that are conservative or fundamentalist Christians), then the value of ’employing religious perspectives’ in this instance surely has to be questioned if it causes people to do the right thing for what are possibly the wrong reasons.
Disability – a secular perspective: Peter Singer
A particular concern of Tada’s organisation is with the termination of pregnancies where the fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome, a problem usually identified during pre-natal diagnostic testing. The following video presents the case against aborting in such circumstances.
Once again, an appeal is made to Biblical teaching, in this case Psalm 139v14 : ‘ I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful., I know that full well. ‘ The passage serves as a reminder that even an unborn child with Down syndrome is being made in the image of God, and affirms the inherent value and dignity of human life. The video concludes with a message for women who are pregnant but are aware that they are carrying a child with a physical disability to contact Joni and Friends for prayer and practical support.
Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism provides a contrasting secular perspective to this (though it should be kept in mind that he has recently modified his ethical stance and now appears to have aligned himself more with the utilitarian philosophy of Henry Sidgwick). Firstly, like all utilitarians, Singer is concerned with the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of suffering in ethical decision-making. For this reason, in relation abortion and infanticide, the suffering that an unborn or newly born child is likely to experience as a result of any medical issue is a primary consideration, though the preferences of those affected should also be heeded as part of any decision-making process.
Singer also appeals to the principle of personhood in outlining his views. For Singer, ‘killing a disabled human infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person’, because such an infant is not aware of itself as an individual with a life of its own to lead. However, as a preference utilitarian, Singer does acknowledge that some parents may want even the most gravely disabled infant to live as long as possible, and that this preference should count as a reason against killing the infant. He further acknowledges that some couples may be willing to adopt a severely disabled child but cautions that this usually happens as a result of publicity, while the more common situation is one in which the child ends up in an institution because the parents feel unable to cope.
Adoption may also be a possibility in the case of children born with less severe problems, such as haemophilia and Down Syndrome. Indeed, in the third edition of his book Practical Ethics, Singer acknowledges that although ‘most will never be able to live independently’, the lives of children with Down Syndrome ‘can be joyful’, and that ‘neither haemophilia nor Down syndrome is so crippling as to make life not worth living from the inner perspective of the person with the condition.’ Nevertheless, he still affirms that because a newborn infant is not a person, this can sometimes make selective infanticide morally acceptable.
Singer’s view that killing a disabled infant is not always wrong has proven to be extremely controversial. For example, in the preface to the latest edition of his book Practical Ethics, he mentions that in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, conferences and lectures at which he was invited to speak were cancelled because of opposition to his views on euthanasia, and that an audience member at a lecture in Zurich ‘leapt onto the stage, tore my glasses from my face, threw them down on the floor and stamped on them.’ Protests also took place at Princeton University after Singer was appointed to the chair of bioethics (footage in the television documentary Peter Singer – A Dangerous Mind shows disabled demonstrators chanting ‘We’re not dead yet’ and includes contributions from them comparing Singer’s philosophy to that of Adolf Hitler).
In a subsequent press release, Singer modified his earlier position: “Whereas I previously said I thought parents and doctors should make decisions for their disabled infants, I now say that, where the parents are at all uncertain, they should contact organisations representing those who have the particular disability their infant has or representing parents of people with the disability. The point has been made to me, and I think probably there is some truth in it, that doctors may not be well informed on what life is like for a particular disability. It is an empirical point; you have to have the best information in order to have the best consequences.”
The documentary goes on to highlight the fact that Singer is only in favour of abortion and infanticide in circumstances when a disabled child would be condemned to a life of suffering. In particular, it focuses on the case of David Glass, a boy with hydranencephaly (a rare condition in which the cerebral hemispheres of the brain are absent and replaced by sacs filled with cerebrospinal fluid) and cerebral palsy, who is partially sighted, epileptic, cannot speak, and has profound learning disabilities. Singer argued that doctors acted inappropriately in being unwilling to treat him in accord with the preferences of his mother. This was a position that Singer adopted after meeting David and his mother and being able to see for himself that this severely disabled boy was still able to derive some enjoyment from life and did not appear to be in pain.
A brief summary of his views can be found in this video:
NOTE: this section is indebted to observations made by John Holroyd in his book Judging Religion : A Dialogue for Our Times, a publication that has already been referenced in connection with other topics on the Edexcel syllabus.
Staying with the theme of ‘the value of employing religious perspectives’, we can see that religion has the power to sustain and nurture disadvantaged individuals and groups during periods of oppression, adversity and suffering, which in turn suggests that faith can be fundamental to psychological survival. This is true for members of the American civil rights movement (including, at an individual level, Martin Luther King, who was encouraged at a time of crisis by his well-known ‘vision in the kitchen’), supporters of Liberation Theology, and – for all the misgivings expressed immediately above – members of the disabled community who consider their lives to have been transformed by Joni and Friends. Religion can also serve as an inspiration and motivation for the pursuit of social change in the quest for equality, with prominent spokespersons like King, Justin Welby, Pope Francis and Oskar Romero (in the case of Liberation Theology) often taking on the role of the collective conscience of their communities when speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised. Finally, religion offers a perspective that extends beyond the individual and that often entails self-sacrifice.
On the other hand, we have also seen that religion can sometimes align itself at an institutional level with the very worst forms of government, as we saw with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. The historical track record of pre-Holocaust Christianity, in the West at least, serves as a source of embarrassment and shame in the case of anti-Semitism, and there are still ongoing controversies to do with gender and the role of women in the Christian church, as perhaps exemplified by that of the ordination of women.
When couched within an exclusivist missionary and evangelical polemic (one which does not perceive other faiths as equally valid paths to God), and that seems to operate in a vacuum as far as academic Biblical criticism is concerned, the value of introducing religious perspectives into ongoing debates about issues to do with equality, in this instance, is surely questionable, especially when the agenda appears to be one of conversion as much as the provision of charitable aid. In particular, proselytising in hospitals and schools abroad strikes one as being ethically dubious, but when there are no alternatives, and missionary institutions like Joni and Friends are bringing help to those who might otherwise not receive it, then perhaps better them than no-one at all.
Lastly, it should be borne in mind that, on the whole, religious charities tend to respond well when new crises arise by offering contexts for charitable volunteering and giving, and therefore opportunities for those who engage with them to do something practical and meaningful about, for instance, the poverty that is invariably encountered where economic inequality exists. It is also important to note that those who benefit from this work and charity often stand outside the religions themselves, as is the case, for example, with food banks in the UK like the Trussell Trust.