Ableist Metaphors In Worship: Why It Matters

Guide my feet while I run this race,

Except I don’t run. My feet don’t work all that well. Where is my part in this?

In the past few weeks, out of my regular routine, I have encountered ableism in worship in a way that I usually don’t. Songs that lift up as exemplars of things that I will never do and casual uses of the words of disability to mark ways that people have problems or limitations weighed on me. I began to think about why it is that people who are building Beloved Community are called to more. Using metaphors is more than simply using words.

Why are metaphors more than just words? headfoot

I am so glad you asked. The point of using metaphors at all is that they create experiential and emotional links for others. They are a way to move from known to unknown in thought and feeling. Emotions are one legitimate way of knowing things. Here is where our responsibility arises as we use metaphors, since they are for the purpose of making emotional connections with the audience.

“[O]ur emotions reveal the moral dimensions of our relationships–in particular, emotions reveal how seriously we take the concerns of others, what we take to be our responsibility for others’ plights, and the extent to which we regard others as having points of view we need to take seriously.”  (May and Ferri, Fixated on Ability, 2005)

In other words, the practice of using metaphor is intentional emotional engagement. We are responsible for how the experience is for the one being engaged. In Christian language, people may be deaf to God’s voice or blind to God’s leading quite often, actually. Unitarian Universalists may not favor those specific metaphors but we have others about running races and standing for things. What is the effect of telling people over and over, in poetry and set to music, that the way their bodies are is indicative of their moral lacking? Please don’t assume you know the answer. Please don’t assume that one disabled person can answer this question. The point here isn’t the quest for the right words, as though you’re filling out some kind of social justice Mad Libs. Rather, the practice of just language can elevate and include us all.

Analogy and metaphor have their risks because of how viscerally they can engage us. At the same time, much more is possible than defaulting to metaphors because those are the ones we have always used; appropriate, inclusive metaphor can do the following three things as it employs the experiences of people as sources for metaphor:

  • Preserves the experiences of people yet seeks to know more.
  • Preserves the boundaries between self and other.
  • Does not seek to assimilate or obliterate the lived experiences of people. (May and Ferri, Fixated on Ability, 2005)

It bears explicit saying that every time the disabled body is used as a source of metaphor for being less, being broken, or being wrong, that metaphor violates these three principles. In that moment, the negative metaphor eliminates curiosity about the experience of others. After all, everyone can run, right? Or run in their minds? What does that even mean? (protip: No. I don’t run in my mind. Running doesn’t communicate an experience or emotion to me because I don’t do it. In those moments, I end up waiting for the conversation to include me again.) The negative metaphor confuses the boundary between the disabled person and the one observing them, allowing the observer to overlay their own meaning on the disabled body and describe the quality of the disabled experience. My experience is that walking is hard. Part of using metaphors skillfully is being accountable that having the experience that walking is hard is distinct from running a difficult race. Mashing everything together isn’t the best approach. It is a way to obliterate or assimilate the stories of those voices at the margins.

Is this a matter of faith? Yes. Faith is not just how we feel; faith is also what we do, and, in this case, how we talk to and about each other.

Remember the challenge of James:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. James 2: 14-18, The Message

It matters how we are together. It matters what we do. It matters what words we use.

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