My family and life experiences did not align with what many of my peers in school considered to be a ‘normal life.’ Having a sibling with a mental disability certainly gives you a different perspective of the world. Much of my family life while growing up revolved around ensuring that my brother with lower-functioning autism was receiving adequate care and support through school and at home.
While my friends in school would often complain about how often they fought with their siblings, my relationship with my brother who was disabled was one where I couldn’t exercise any form of aggression due to his high-sensory anxiety and limited abilities to communicate. This isn’t to say that I’ve never fought with my siblings, but the differences between my friends’ conflicts with their siblings and my own was that they were often provoked by an act of the will, whereas my brother’s difficulties were something he was born with and had absolutely no control over.
I remember when we used to go shopping, and my brother would occasionally cover his ears and moan to himself if something triggered him. Sometimes he would throw himself on the floor, kick his legs and wail in agony. My parents would try to console him while bystanders would stare, shake their heads or laugh amongst themselves. Yelling or invoking fear was never a tactful way to help my brother work past his anxiety, and figuring out a way to alleviate his emotional stress was often a guessing game. I truly admire how my parents graciously handled my brother’s emotional meltdowns in public in spite of what onlookers seemed to think, though I never learned to appreciate it until I had kids of my own.
Over a decade ago I volunteered as a counselor at an Evangelical Bible camp, once for a week-long summer retreat for disabled persons, and once for senior-high kids over a weekend at the beginning of the school year. The campers in both retreats had simple desires to be treated with dignity, given the freedom to choose what activity to partake in and, above all, to be loved for who they are – yet the group dynamics of each retreat made for two completely different atmospheres.
Interestingly enough, I actually found counselling mentally disabled persons much easier than dealing with high school kids. The frustrating part about dealing with rambunctious teenagers was having to deal with kids who were trying to prove a point through willful disobedience and disrespect, yet the mentally disabled campers usually weren’t trying to prove anything at all – they just wanted to be loved and enjoy their time at camp.
Usually the only problems we had to deal with among the disabled campers were when they grew sick, lost control of bodily fluids, or emotional triggers that required us to change their scenery. But one particular situation that struck me was when one camper was having an emotional breakdown in the middle of the night, causing everyone in our cabin to lose sleep. While myself and another counselor were trying to figure out the cause of his anxiety, one of the camp directors grew impatient and resorted to invoking fear in the camper by threatening to call the police on him. While it may have forced him to quiet down for the rest of the night, it left the camper very emotionally distressed. Both the co-counselor and I were quite livid with how the director dealt with the situation, especially considering that this retreat was supposed to be a safe haven with Christian values.
These experiences among others have caused me to reconsider the implications of what I believed in as someone who was religious. As an Evangelical at the time, I was taught that there are two types of people in this world – those who have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior, and those who are going to Hell. I was also taught that a person can decipher who among these people are actually saved by knowing a tree by the fruit it bears.
I have a very difficult time accepting the notion that people, especially those who are mentally disabled, are in danger of hellfire simply for not ‘accepting Jesus as their Savior.’ How is it that someone born with the inability to control their emotions or thought patterns can be subject to eternal damnation? Call their conditions the result of Original Sin if you will, but how can anyone force them to have faith when the ability to comprehend something as simple as faith in Jesus could possibly be beyond their control?
It is said that children before they reach the age of accountability aren’t subject to God’s judgment because their minds aren’t fully developed to understand the ramifications of sin. I like to believe this would apply to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well. This is an ideology that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but has been widely accepted by most orthodox Christians. Some would say that Christ’s atoning sacrifice applies even to those who cannot decide for themselves. But what about people who have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea of God? What about children who are born with medical complications that render them into a catatonic state and remains this way into adulthood? What about people in isolated places and cultures of the world who have never been exposed to Christianity? Are they destined for Hell when they die just because they had no formal introduction to a relationship with Christ?
What kind of a god creates people for the purpose of being eternally punished?
When I was in Bible school, I briefly learned that many ideologies adopted by certain Christian denominations can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. One of the most influential figures to come out of this movement was a man by the name of John Calvin, which is where the ideology of Calvinism comes from. While Christians who identify as Calvinists are a minority throughout the world, they have certainly had a tremendous influence on the development of Christianity here in North America, especially among the Evangelical community.
It’s important to note that Evangelicals are quite diverse when it comes to views on biblical interpretation. Many Christians may agree with certain elements of Calvinism, yet they still reject the theological model altogether. Many Evangelicals align with Arminianism, which is a historical rival theology of Calvinism. But it is also worth noting that Calvinism has been particularly responsible for some fundamentalist movements here in North America, such as the Westboro Baptist Church. However various Calvinistic groups have directly spoken out against their damaging behavior, so it’s important to note that WBC is not a reflection of individual Calvinist Christians.
Calvinism is a theological construct that can be summed up with the acronym TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistable Grace and Perseverance of the Elect). It puts a high emphasis on the sovereignty of God that it concludes all believers are ordained and predestined by God to have faith, which often casts doubt over whether or not people who believe in Jesus Christ have done so out of their own free will. Although I am not a theologian nor do I have any teaching credentials, I will list all five points and do my best to briefly explain what they mean, as well as where I stand on all five of them….