Reflections on Sagamihara

A group of Japanese protestors walk and push wheelchairs in a wide file down the street while several hold a large yellow banner.

What happens when we forget? What happens when we refuse to acknowledge pain and struggle and heartache and loss? What happens when we lose track of those who weep, when we turn away from those who cry out, when we forsake those who display their wounds in public?

One year ago today, a group home for adults with significant disabilities was attacked by a lone terrorist. Before breaking in and murdering 19 residents, Satoshi Uematsu (a former caretaker in the facility) wrote a manifesto condemning the service and care of those with disabilities. In it, Uematsu claims that supporting the disabled is “against nature,” and goes on to say that “those who cannot communicate should be euthanized.” You can read the story here.

As the Church, in Japan, in America, and across the world, we failed to respond.

It was not that Christians found themselves openly agreeing with Uematsu or defending his actions. It was more that Christians found themselves completely oblivious to the deeply rooted problems that his murders illustrated. No calls for healing, hope, or restoration were exclaimed from religious leaders, Christian blogs and magazines didn’t toss out ‘think-pieces’ on what this meant for modern faith communities. New reports barely trickled through to social media, much less to our bulletins, church announcements, and prayers. The whole incident, even with 19 people murdered, was essentially swept under the rug.

Christians, we cannot allow this to happen. Even as we failed to be a beacon of light and hope in the midst of darkness last year, we must reclaim our voice in this one. We must speak prophetically to the abuse of God’s children. We must not let the silence overwhelm us.

The question, however, is not whether we change our behavior. The question is, “why do we hesitate to speak boldly against the murder of our neighbors with disabilities?”

This is a large question, invoking our basic beliefs about the human condition. Those questions are far too large to be answered in a simple blog post. But one small aspect of that question can be, and must be, pushed out of the darkness and into the harsh light of recognition. The sad, but true, reality is this:

The Church, as a whole, rejects the humanity of people of with disabilities.

Now, your church may have a special needs ministry. Your church may include families with disabilities in your service. But countless families have left churches because they felt unwelcome. Countless people with disabilities choose to avoid your service because it was not built with them in mind. And countless others are damaged, hurt, isolated, and scarred by your theology.

The Western world has long been subconsciously dominated by a thought commonly called, “progress.” That hard work leads to improvement, which leads to better lives. When applied poorly, “progress” is nothing short of eugenics. The modern eugenics movement is a naming of subconsciously-held beliefs about the relative worth of others when compared to one’s self. This can look like Christians excluding and ‘exterminating’ Jews (which was happening for centuries, though the Shoah was the most publically acknowledged modern eugenics event). This can look like white Americans believing Black Americans are inherently more dangerous or less intelligent. This can look like those in a certain IQ range believing themselves to be more important those in a lower IQ range. The basic, underlying assumption is that the people who are different than me are worse than me, and progress only comes by preventing them from holding any social power.

Perhaps you would disagree with every example listed. That’s fair. But ultimately, it isn’t about you individually. It’s about what we hold to be true within the social fabric, of which your are but one thread. Does it matter what you believe and do? Absolutely. But it also matters what bigger institutions belief, and what assumptions they act on.

This is why the silence from the Church is so painful. The Church is simply a collection of threads, individuals who hold belief together forming a cohesive pattern. And that patch on the social fabric is large enough to make a real change. But it isn’t doing so. At least, not when it comes to disabilities.

Every day, we are showered with beliefs that it is better to be pretty than ugly, skinny than fat, tall than short, intelligent than dumb, fast than slow, rich than poor, trendy than boring. These social assumptions about what is more right are rooted in a false idol of ‘progress,’ which in turn is rooted in the belief that if we are just right enough, we can save ourselves. We call it “improving humanity,” but we do it more for ourselves. Being confronted with things considered bad only highlights our own limitations and brokenness. So we turn it around, lift ourselves up, and blame those not in power of holding us back. When we apply this to those around us, selfishly placing ourselves on the altar, we condemn others to the negative side of eugenics – death.

That’s why Uematsu is a terrorist. He has tapped into the subconscious lie of progress and wants his actions to push others to act similarly. His desire is to see a world in which no one needs support, a world without disabilities. And, I’m afraid that by remaining silent, the Church has essentially co-authored his manifesto.

But the Church does not, or should not, stand for this. The Church is rooted in the idea of resurrection, that death holds no sway over us, that pain and loss are natural functions of our world but that hope springs eternal because God is with us no matter our struggles. The Church openly believes that all are created in the image of God, that those the world calls worthless are among the most valued to God, that we cannot be the Body of Christ without every member. The Church is diametrically opposed to eugenics; we cannot save ourselves, no matter how intelligent, rich, or powerful we become.

What do we lose when we forget? We lose our ability to be the Church. We lose the power of our radical message. We lose the chance to change our social fabric, one thread at a time. We lose a bit of ourselves, handing over our souls to the world of progress and eugenics.

I don’t have all the answers. But I can two questions. What do you really, honestly believe about the worth of people with disabilities? And how will you let God speak truth to, and through, you?

 

To the victims of Sagamihara, I offer this passage from Joel. Joel writes in the midst of a great famine, brought on by a plague of locust. Perhaps your experience with the Church feels like a great famine, as well. Joel writes on behalf of his people, crying out in the midst of the pain and loss, though no one hears him but God. Even with the world ignoring those who starve, Joel is given the words of hope and redemption – God will restore to them the year which the locusts have stolen.

Our world has stolen much from people with disabilities. And we continue to do so. May we remember both your pain and our calling to speak life. And may God restore to you what we have stolen.

 

Joel 2:18-27

18 Then the LORD will be zealous for His land

           And will have pity on His people.

19 The LORD will answer and say to His people,

           “Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine and oil,

           And you will be satisfied in full with them;

           And I will never again make you a reproach among the nations.

20 “But I will remove the northern army far from you,

           And I will drive it into a parched and desolate land,

           And its vanguard into the eastern sea,

           And its rear guard into the western sea.

           And its stench will arise and its foul smell will come up,

           For it has done great things.”

21 Do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad,

           For the LORD has done great things.

22 Do not fear, beasts of the field,

           For the pastures of the wilderness have turned green,

           For the tree has borne its fruit,

           The fig tree and the vine have yielded in full.

23 So rejoice, O sons of Zion,

           And be glad in the LORD your God;

           For He has given you the early rain for your vindication.

           And He has poured down for you the rain,

           The early and latter rain as before.

24 The threshing floors will be full of grain,

           And the vats will overflow with the new wine and oil.

25 Then I will make up to you for the years

           That the swarming locust has eaten,

           The creeping locust, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust,

           My great army which I sent among you.

26 “You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied

           And praise the name of the LORD your God,

           Who has dealt wondrously with you;

           Then My people will never be put to shame.

27 “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel,

           And that I am the LORD your God,

           And there is no other;

           And My people will never be put to shame.

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