Monday, March 21, 2016

"God can heal you!": the distortion of religion

Being the object of a stranger’s pity is an everyday occurrence for countless people with disabilities. One of the many ways it manifests is in the piousness typical of certain religious environments; specifically, as discussed here, in the misplaced charity of perfect strangers who tell people like us that we can be healed through faith in God. It’s situations like these that traumatized me as a child during my visits to holy shrines and places of worship.

Something that Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and Santiago de Compostela all have in common are hordes of sanctimonious and bigoted pilgrims. I’m not criticizing the places themselves, mind you, but  they are inevitably swarming with such people. If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of visiting one of these shrines as a wheelchair user or, in any case, as someone with an obvious disability, you’ll know it needs a great deal of courage. It is simply impossible, for example, to leave the main church in Lourdes without receiving at least three tearful kisses from old ladies or nuns, two or three exclamations of “poor thing!” from middle-aged women, and the ever-dependable “God can heal you! You just need to pray enough!” in various European languages, followed by a lapful of calling card-sized portraits of their favourite saints. 
And this is if you’re lucky, and the bigot of the day (because in most cases we’re talking about bigots) doesn’t actually talk to your companion as if you weren’t even there. In these cases the least offensive comments you’ll hear will be something like “you poor mother,” or “I’ll bet it’s hard, isn’t it?”. One of the gems I remember “collecting” in Medjugorje was a woman who said to my mother, in a tone meant to be sympathetic, “I once had a cousin like her, too. She’s dead now...”
And then there were the people who took a photo of me as a souvenir. Yes, really.
After such splendid booster shots of positivity, vitality and energy, I remember leaving the church in a daze, my self-esteem wavering, and seriously wondering how I must appear to the outer world. The risk of unpleasant encounters like these is especially high in centres of pilgrimage, but nor should we underestimate the danger lurking in apparently harmless everyday churches. Even if you’re there as a mere tourist and you’re busy admiring a gorgeous 13th century mosaic, all of a sudden you can find yourself surrounded by a group of pious busybodies telling you how much they feel your pain – and it is indeed painful to realize that you can forget about checking out that famous painting in the central nave now, because your priority has suddenly become getting out of the church (semi-)unscathed. 
But you won’t be completely safe even when you’ve made it out onto the street. All too often I’ve been approached by shifty-looking individuals handing out leaflets on the Messiah or even particularly sensitive passers‑by, all of them with the same aim: they want to heal me. Even at the tender age of twenty-three, I’ve seen enough to know that this problem is not limited to those of the Christian faith. I’ve also experienced similar episodes with Muslims, who are all too ready to present me with prayer beads, small chains and strange puppet-like icons imbibed with the power of healing me.
I believe that recommending faith in God to “heal” someone of their disability contradicts the concept of religion itself. The major world religions all ultimately share the same principles and basic values, in the sense that everything revolves around love and compassion, and all of Creation is good in and of itself. The idea that disability and disease are a divine punishment originates from a petty and boorish closed-mindedness, not from any religion. People who offer me help in the form of God to heal me assume that there is something - in the work of God, part of Creation - that has to be healed in the first place: in other words, that I am not OK the way I am, but just something broken, that has to be fixed and adjusted to so-called “normality”. This is not only indicative of someone who judges by appearances, but also insulting and presumptuous. What else can you call someone who stands in judgement over another person’s quality of life? On what basis can a stranger decide that another person - one they have only just met - has an inferior life and is necessarily unhappier, just because that person has a disability? It doesn’t seem to cross their mind that the disabled girl in front of them might have a richer, more satisfying life than the one who proclaims she should seek divine healing. Of course, it’s entirely possible that a disabled person has an unhappy life, perhaps because of their very disability: but again, who are these people to stand in judgement of God’s work?
This might seem a sterile argument to those who don’t believe in God in the first place, but that’s not the point. First, behaviour like this is arrogant and offensive to anyone with a disability, whether they are religious or atheist, and second, the people who proposed such miraculous cures to me all did it in the name of a religion. (So far, it’s only happened with Christians and Muslims, but who knows what other gems are in store for me!) It’s self-evident that I’m talking about a group of people with some kind of religious faith. Their behaviour thus blatantly contradicts what they claim to believe as Christians (or Muslims). Anyone who truly believes in God should see the good and beauty in all His Creation. For me, this is an essential part of any religious faith. Why, then, when the token bigot chances upon a young woman in a wheelchair who’s chatting and joking with a friend, is their first thought of how she can be healed? Instead of reflecting on the diversity of Creation, and perhaps on the suffering which is part of both Creation and our human condition or - why not? - on the joy you can experience despite your suffering, the bigot gives her a holy picture of a Saint and tells her to pray for Jesus to heal her.
Why is this? The answer lies in the morbid attitude that most of society has towards people with disabilities and in an erroneous interpretation of religion. Let me be clear: I am not attacking the concept of praying for a cure (even if I have always had my doubts on this point). Believers of any monotheistic religion turn to God to ask for help at difficult times, and having a disability can easily be considered as “something difficult”. No, what actually irritates me is the arrogance of those who tell complete strangers than they can be healed through faith in God. Their attitude may be due to simple ignorance or thoughtlessness, and they may have the best of intentions, but it still boils down to arrogance. It never seems to have crossed their minds that those strangers might belong to another religion, or be atheists, or even already be way more religious than the bigots themselves.

And maybe, of course, they don’t actually consider themselves as needing to be healed in the first place.

Translation: Marie-Hélène Hayles

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