My oldest stepson, Chris, is a special needs adult with a diagnosis of Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. Which simply means he has a seizure disorder of no known cause (it started a few months before he turned three) that leads to intellectual impairment and related developmental disabilities. Think of LGS as a kind of epilepsy.
It's pretty rare. Which is why I was taken by surprise this week when a woman I barely know shared with me this terrific story about her late brother. It turns out that he, too, had Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, though clearly the way it affected him was more severe than the way it affects Chris, who lives in a group home and is employed at a sheltered workshop. (And is the happiest, most loving person I've ever known.)
In the piece about her brother Duane, Maureen Swinger talks about a view of life called "utilitarianism," which is promoted by various scholars but which stands against almost everything Christianity teaches about life.
". . .utilitarianism," she writes, "argues that an action is good only because it maximizes a given benefit. This school of thought’s most prominent champion today is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. In Singer’s version of utilitarianism – which is in many ways just an especially forthright articulation of our culture’s worldview – to act ethically means to seek to maximize the satisfaction of people’s desires. This, in Singer’s view, also means that we must seek to minimize the suffering of people unable to have or express preferences – if necessary, through terminating their lives before or after birth. People such as Duane."
By contrast, Swinger writes, "Christians do not think like this. In Christian terms, an action is good not only because it has beneficial consequences, but because it is good in itself. What’s more, good actions have the power to change for the better those who do them. We seek to love like God – to be merciful, honorable, and just – because we want to reflect his character: to 'become like Christ,' to grow into 'the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,' as Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians. It is this becoming that guides our decisions, because all choices change us – in one direction or another."
Swinger describes how Duane, though he couldn't speak, became a teacher to many others who were assigned to help care for him. They learned patience and many other virtues by spending time with him.
Chris is a teacher, too. He teaches not only his siblings about the joys of simplicity, but he also teaches our eight grandchildren what love and acceptance and even joy look like.
From their earliest days they spend time around Chris and come to understand his likes, his limits, his love. They begin to grasp that Chris is far from the only person around with special needs, which means this is all part of normal human life. And they begin to recognize that while having Chris may mean extra work for his family and other care-givers, it also means learning that each person is of inestimable value no matter that person's limits.
Give Swinger's piece a read, please. And then join me in standing against the crushing philosophy of utilitarianism.
(The photo here today shows Chris getting a little exercise with help from his mother, my wife, Marcia.)
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WHAT THAT UNITED AIRLINES ISSUE REALLY SHOWED
When we use our theological lenses to look at the incident this week when a United Airlines passenger was dragged off an overbooked plane, we can find a disturbing lesson, says Fr. James Martin, who is also, by the way, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business. What lesson? "It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity." So this wasn't just a p.r. and customer service disaster. Rather, it revealed something deep in our profit-motive economy that should anger all of us.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Days of Awe and Wonder: How to be a Christian in the 21st Century, by Marcus J. Borg. The author, a progressive Christian scholar and theologian, died in 2015, and this is a collection of some of his works, including a few things not previously published. Borg fans, and they are legion, will be happy to have this collection to be reminded how insightful and challenging Borg can be. Borg reminds us that in biblical times people were not stuck with the one-dimensional world of science and materialism that forms the basis of our commonly held worldview today. Rather, it was assumed then that there is also the world of the spirit, and "it is this tradition of Spirit-filled mediators that is most significant for understanding the historical Jesus." There is both interesting theology here and some intriguing personal stories about Borg's own life of faith. But the afterword by Barbara Brown Taylor, which is a eulogy she offered at Borg's funeral, is all by itself worth the price of admission.