‘The Proximity of Human Difference’: Care and Receiving Care as Vocation
by Global Scholar, Dr. Andrew Barron
I am the child of Jewish parents. It was in New York City during the 1960’s that I learned that being Jewish was a special calling and that we were chosen. I was initially not sure what that meant or what I was supposed to do about it. I had been told that being and remaining Jewish was our obligation to one another as fellow strangers in the world. God had told us to care for the stranger because we were strangers. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Jewish tradition is clear: We are called upon to protect the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant. The stranger is really one who is different. Someone who is from another place or has a different accent or perhaps has different capacities. I didn’t understand the deeper meaning of that until much later.
I first heard the Gospel in University (Florida Institute of Technology in the USA) and from there, was challenged to read the New Testament. I remember asking a friend “what are all these Jews doing in your book?” I was incredulous. How come I didn’t know about this? As I read the New Testament, I remember being comfortable in it. It was so Jewish! But I couldn’t as easily reconcile Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and sin bearer. The world was a mess and the Messiah was supposed to bring peace. Jesus could not be the Messiah because the Lion had not lied down with the Lamb (Isaiah11:6). I struggled with this for a while – at least a year.
Where was the Kingdom that the Messiah promised? I read CS Lewis and was struck by his argument for the existence of right and wrong: It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us. In Jewish tradition, we are sinners because we sin. In Christian tradition, we sin because we are sinners. One is an action – the other an orientation. This stumbling block was enormous for me, but Lewis helped me over it. I knew that I had a problem, and that the Kingdom was waiting to reside in my heart first. I soon became a follower of Jesus and was discipled and baptized by another Jewish follower of Jesus who was also a holocaust survivor.
This brings me to Rafi, my son, our first child. We were told shortly after his birth that he had Down Syndrome and the following near three decades, have been an unexpected and difficult journey along the path of difference and the way of proximity to disability. The years have been filled with problems and pleasures that any parent would recognize. Ours were the same but different.
Rafi is 27 and doing well. He is in a day program that provides training in life and vocational skills. Rafi is highly functioning – he has excellent receptive language skills but limited expressive language. It takes a while to understand him. This can be frustrating for him and for his helpers. I am grateful that he is healthy and settled and that he has a good life despite his differences.
I see Rafi and those like him as strangers – they are different. As a corollary to caring for the stranger Moses also writes in Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God — I am your Lord. Here is the people’s moral mission as it relates to the “stranger” or “other.” We are warned many times not to behave insensitively toward the stranger.
Our experience in Egypt saw how a different identity led first to dehumanization and then to decimation at the hands of an oppressive majority. The one who is different is often feared and usually denigrated. The Bible wants us to carry the pain of the stranger.
I think that Paul had this in mind when he speaks of weakness. Those who were weak were outsiders, but Paul tells us to give preference and honor the weak: On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, (1Cor. 12:22,23)
Along the way, I’ve learned regarding the disabled, that God is not only caught up, He is fully connected and anchored in this human difference. Moses disagreed with God about his calling as the Redeemer of Israel and he complained about his own disability. God’s response:
“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? […] I will help you speak and will teach you what to say. (Exodus 4:11,12) Later God commanded Israel: Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:14). I believe that God is caught up in every aspect of Rafi’s disability.
I believe that my vocation is to care for Rafi. Being able-bodied is more than a medical construct‒ it is a vocation. We are all on the same path of care-receiving and care-giving and again, care-receiving. The timeline for some is just different! We all experience this in relatively the same way: at the beginning of our lives, we received care. Eventually (if you are able) you give care. Then you will receive care again. It’s inevitable that our ableness is temporary! It’s part of being human. We all must accept that our own brokenness is hidden and will eventually be uncovered. Don’t think that being cared for is undignified or diminishing; it’s not true. Care is Holy – it is what we do whether you are giving it or receiving it. Receiving care is a subversive vocation!
Rafi’s vocation is to be cared for. There is dignity in all of it because God is in all of it. This must be the case because “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” (Romans 11).
Proximity to disability teaches us that human difference is sacred and that the disabled are a conduit of the gifts of God. The disabled are witness to God’s hospitality in a world without it. If Paul is right that ‘from him and through him and for him are all things’, then we need to think in new ways about strength, weakness, and ability and how we use our time and vocation. There is plenty of lament in disability. I don’t want to romanticize it, but I hope my friends and colleagues would find time and space to be in proximity to such human difference. In God’s time our vocations can look different. The disabled have a vocation of receiving care. They are us. Maybe not now, but some season, some day.
Since becoming a Global Scholar, I have retired from 38 years of full-time ministry with Jews for Jesus. I am Rafi’s primary caretaker, and now I use my experience and gifting along two lines – first, to teach about the Jewish life of Jesus; and secondly, to be a student of Disability and Theology. I am especially concerned for underserved students who are eager to learn but do not have access or the resources to obtain access. I am motivated by a delight to be with and engage students in a life of learning. I aspire to connect the Christian worldview across anthropological, economic, disability, theological, and physical borders. If you are interested in learning about Disability and Theology, I would recommend John Swinton and Stanley Hauerwas who are arguably the worlds leading authorities on the topic. Read “Living Gently in a Violent World.”
Please consider giving to my teaching work through our donations page. I teach online and sessional classes at the Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I am also adjunct faculty at Tyndale University and Wycliffe College. I invite you to read my article on the “Conflicted Jewish Imagination of Joy Davidman” here (C. S. Lewis’ wife) and my article on “Disability and Discipleship” here. You can read my C.V. here.
My Family 2022