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Once in a blue moon I read a book that challenges my assumptions so skillfully that I can’t go back to my old way of viewing the world.

How Ableism Fuels Racism, by Lamar Hardwick, is one of those books. As a pastor who is Black and autistic, Hardwick’s life has been affected by ableism and racism. This makes him uniquely qualified to tackle the bold premise of this book: that the church has linked Blackness to disability and that we must dismantle racist and ableist systems in our churches, faith communities, and lives.

First things first: What is ableism? According to Hardwick, it is “the practice of discriminating against people with disabilities based on the belief that normal bodies are superior to those that are not,” he writes. “Essentially, it is a hierarchy of bodies.”

With razor-sharp insights and painstaking historical research, Hardwick persuades the reader that this hierarchy had been in place from the beginning of the United States. From 1640, “disability weaved its way into the narrative of the newly forming nation … Defining Africans as mentally inferior and effectively disabled allowed for proslavery advocates to appeal to the Christian ethos of benevolence.”

Since then, he argues, the American church has treated sameness as a venerated ideal. “Bodies that are different aren’t invited to lead, and the work they produce is deemed deficient.”

He pushes back at John Piper, who used the words “disabled, unsightly” in a blog about why beauty matters. “He assumed that to be disabled means that a person cannot possess beauty. In doing this, he makes disability a placeholder for ugliness.”

A few points of this book really hit me between the eyes. I may have dismissed Hardwick’s assertion that there is deep medical bias toward Black people, and that their health concerns have been effectively linked to moral failings, but then a voice from my past rose up.

In a conversation with an older, white Christian friend about why Black people in my neighborhood seemed to be dying young of heart disease, she threw out what was, to her, the obvious answer: “Well, their diet is just so poor,” as if the Black community’s consumption of junk food was the reason they were dying young. (This woman was also morbidly obese.)

Hardwick himself, having suffered from Stage 3 colorectal cancer, was turned away without treatment at an ER when he had horrible abdominal pain. Treated as one seeking drugs, the author nearly died from what turned out to be a huge bowel blockage requiring intense emergency surgery.

He also asserts that there is a “perceived difference in the quality of teaching and doctrine associated with the Black church and Black pastoral leadership.” Black theology, he writes, became necessary because “Western Christianity all but removed Black and disabled bodies from the story of God’s grace and redemption. Justice was hardly a focus, and the equality and equity were not attributes of the God of the colonizers.”

(Unfortunately, I have seen this bias toward Black theology myself, both in the remark made by a strong Christian man my dad’s age, who waved off “that Chicago Liberation theology” as weak and unorthodox, and in the comments made by church members at my own church, about the perceived theological weaknesses of a Black pastoral candidate.)

Hardwick makes a strong case that these biases exist (and white people in my life have confirmed this), so what must we do to dismantle them? First, we must turn to Jesus, who rose again and walked on this earth, now “disabled” by those who had tortured and killed him. (The location of where they drove nails into his wrists and ankles would effectively impair him and, therefore, disable him.)

Though Jesus could have come back from the grave completely whole, “God uses his spiritual authority to reverse death while retaining disability. … In Jesus we see the radical reorienting of the body hierarchy.”

This same God who works through a variety of bodies to “curb the chaos” in the world also designs people a certain way for a reason.

Near the end of the book, Hardwick concludes with a premise that not all his readers will agree with. Is the presence of “bodily variation” a result of sin entering the world? Many would comfortably say yes, of course.

But Hardwick challenges this assumption with two verses. In John 9:1-3, the disciples ask Jesus if the man blind from birth they encountered had sinned or his parents’ had sinned. Neither, Jesus responds. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.”

''In Jesus’ response, we see that disability is not the result of a human hereditary condition of sin,” he writes.

All humans sin, of course, but “disability is not a virus that passes from person to person.”

The second verse is Exodus 4:10-11, wherein Moses pleaded with the Lord that he wasn’t good at speaking or talking in public, which some scholars think might be because he had a speech impediment. But God made Moses’ mouth that way on purpose. “Who makes a person’s mouth? … It is I, the Lord.”

Could God have designed the blind man in John 9, and Moses whose speech was less than perfect, on purpose, for his glory? Hardwick strongly proclaims yes.

“God is the author of human design, and we are woefully inexperienced in being able to determine what God’s design for the human body is,” he writes, adding as another example (switching to animals) millions of flightless birds, who are born with “wings that do not fulfill their purpose of design.”

In the end, this book has a lot to process and think about. How can we as readers collaborate with God to disassemble ableism and racism? That’s something I will ponder in the days and years to come. Perhaps my best endorsement for this book is my response to a young dancer at our church’s Easter service. “Ruby” is Black and has Down Syndrome. Her dancing, though joyful and sincere, was somewhat out of sync with the other dancers. She was moving to the beat of her own drum, bearing the imago Dei and brimming with love for her creator. Her performance brought me and many others to tears. In the past, I might have focused more on Ruby’s disability and less on her masterful ability to lead me in worship. After reading Lamar Hardwick’s book, all I could see was her gifts—and her glory. (Brazos Press)

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