Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion

Written by Lamar Hardwick Reviewed By Jesse M. Ratcliff

Disabled people make up the largest minority group in our society today (p. 103). However, many churches fail to engage meaningfully with the disabled community, resulting in this group being largely missing from many congregations. Lamar Harwick—who describes himself as the “autism pastor”—was diagnosed at thirty-six and campaigns for greater awareness and acceptance for people with disabilities in the church. This book is Hardwick’s tough “love letter” (the title of his introduction) to the church for local congregations to ask themselves two questions: “what do people experience when they experience me? What part of what they are saying is true?” (p. 18). Hardwick’s aims are two-fold: to “introduce a vibrant biblical theology of disability” and to offer “actionable steps and strategies” for pastors and congregations (p. 19).

Hardwick’s passion for Christ’s body is evident—unlike some who use the church’s failings to justify their rejection and withdrawal from her—and will commend him to readers of this journal. He has a clear writing style and personable approach that draws the reader in, while his use of personal anecdotes and other people’s stories keeps his points grounded. For example, Sarah’s story of how her autistic son was treated in a Sunday school was painful to read and illustrated the human cost of the prejudice and discrimination many families face (pp. 106–9).

Hardwick is at his best when he speaks with a prophetic voice, and many of his criticisms are cutting but delivered lovingly. For example, he observes that many churches of all sizes quickly built an online presence during the Covid pandemic because of the needs of the majority (p. 49). Why, then, do many churches baulk at the challenges of meeting the needs of their disabled members?

What makes Hardwick’s perspective interesting is the intersection between his autism and his race. He draws analogies from his experience of racism and uses that to illuminate the prejudice he has encountered because of his autism. While the parallels he draws are legitimate, this leads Hardwick to reject deficit or medical definition of disability for the social model (pp. 88, 102) and, on several occasions, to quote with approval from Nancey Eiesland’s work, The Disabled God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994). His stance is not without its problems, therefore, but Hardwick does not deserve to be dismissed out of hand solely because of this.

Nevertheless, this reviewer was left with a sense of unease and disappointment at odds with the glowing endorsements that occupied the book’s first four pages. My reasons are three-fold.

First, Hardwick fails to present a robust biblical theology of disability. On occasions—for example, in the parable of the lost sheep (pp. 25–29), and the vast crowd before the throne in heaven (pp. 34, 79–80)—his exposition is imaginative and thought-provoking. Yet, at other times, Hardwick’s exegesis feels forced and, in a few instances, descends into eisegesis. For example, viewing the types of soil in Jesus’s parable of the sower as an analogy of barriers to inclusion (pp. 98–99, 100–62) is simply untenable. This is not to say that the points Hardwick wishes to make are not credible, merely that his attempts to ground them biblically are unconvincing.

Second, Hardwick’s use of the terms “inclusive” and “diversity” are potentially confusing. In a time when multinational conglomerates, government departments, charitable organizations, schools, etc., all trumpet their commitment to inclusivity, the suspicion is that the term has lost all meaning and instead is an exercise in virtue signaling. Hardwick is adamant that the church has ceded too much ground and must follow culture wholeheartedly in adopting a posture of inclusivity (p. 24); inclusion is why the church was born (pp. 38–40)! But inclusion is too “thin” a term for what the Church should aim for, as John Swinton has argued (“From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 16.2 [2012], 172–90). Instead, the Church should be a place where people belong. Hardwick also argues for the importance of belonging and community (pp. 22–24, 30, 51), which suggests the issue isn’t one of substance. Still, his uncritical acceptance of the language of inclusion runs the risk of suggesting that the solution to exclusion is to embrace our culture’s, rather than Scripture’s, answer to the problem.

Finally, Hardwick’s use of the term “disability” is both too broad and yet also not broad enough. To explain: although he aims to address disability generally, many of Hardwick’s examples are about autism (understandably, as that is his direct experience). But as Hardwick himself acknowledges (p. 12), the disabled community is large and varied, encompassing physical, intellectual, and developmental conditions. The self-perception and needs of different groups within the disabled community are not identical and, in some instances, are opposed to one another. For example, there is a debate whether some forms of autism are a disability or simply a neurological “difference.” The only time the term “disability” can be, and is, applied without distinction is for political purposes. Yet the reader of Hardwick’s book will not be made aware of these nuances. This reviewer believes that if he had restricted himself to solely addressing autism, Hardwick would have better met his book’s aims.

And yet, even in his discussion of autism, Hardwick’s treatment feels myopic. The medical definition of autism has expanded considerably in recent years. It now encompasses various conditions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. But, too often, Hardwick appears to address issues associated with the mild to moderate expressions of autism only. But the needs, challenges for pastoral care, and value to the church of profoundly autistic people and their families are considerably different. (For a candid yet hope-filled account of parenting two profoundly autistic children, see Andrew and Rachel Wilson, The Life You Never Expected: Thriving While Parenting Special Needs Children [Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015].) By painting autism in such broad strokes, Hardwick fails to serve the very group he wishes to help.

To summarize, this reviewer believes that by attempting to offer both a biblical theology of disability and a practical guide for congregations, Disability and the Church falls between these two stools and does neither particularly well. Although pastors and others looking to develop a disability ministry in their church will find some help in this book, especially in the latter half, the issues identified above mean that it can only receive a qualified endorsement.

Jesse M. Ratcliff

Jesse M. Ratcliff
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

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