Let's start with the beliefs.
-People with disabilities or severe illness did something bad, and God is punishing them.
-Parents are punished for their bad deeds through their child's illness or disability.
-People can cure themselves through positivity and prayer.
-People who have not healed themselves demonstrate a lack of faith or adequate religious/spiritual commitment.
-People with disabilities harmed others in previous lifetimes (or in this one) and must both learn and repay their spiritual debts through the process of karma.
-We all determine what happens to us through our thoughts--their positivity or negativity--and are responsible for all outcomes. Anything we can dream we can be. We are also responsible for the bad things that happen to us and any patterns of ill health that emerge in our lives.
-Everyone needs a church family and regular church attendance to cultivate spirituality and to support us during crisis (even if we're too ill to attend).
-God is "testing" us by making us ill.
I have drawn here from Christianity, Buddhism, and new age spirituality, and there is considerable overlap among them. These particular expressions are based in superstition and prejudice, not in faith or in science. Such notions not only persist, but they become more prevalent. Books and television shows (Oprah) promise our salvation if only we set our thinking straight and find the secret prayer. And people will keep searching, reading more books and attending more workshops, not for contemplation, not for spirit, but to find the "answers." Like Gatsby chasing after the green light, the walking well search for that elusive key that will grant them happiness, wealth, and the perfect job. And in accordance with the stroke of luck that makes them different, superior, even chosen to spread the word, they take to the streets and preach to the unconverted.
How do we recognize the unconverted? Who are they? We. We who are marked by illness or disability. While other people may have terrible misfortunes bundled up inside, physical disability in particular marks us as unfortunates in need, or in the case of karma, sinners or criminals. In other religions, we are untouchables. Regardless of where we go, we are often judged.
How do we respect others' religious beliefs while not compromising our own spiritual integrity or participating in our own oppression? Or do we need to? Ten years ago the rite of "female circumcision" attracted the attention of the press. Female circumcision was considered by some cultures and tribes to be a way to preserve female purity and virginity. Both Muslims and Christians participated, which should have undercut the notion that the practice was a religious mandate. But religious mandate it appeared to be, with women asked to harm their own children or let them be harmed. One midwife later admitted that she faked the rituals in her own tribe. The question for many was how to stop a practice that harmed women and girls for the long term, injuring them psychologically and physically, resulting in fistulas that left them incontinent, too scarred to release menstrual blood, or injured enough to cause severe complications or death during childbirth. Their labia removed or sewed shut, their clitorises cut or excised, their vaginas sewed tight, these women's enjoyment of sex was out of the question. Disability, sometimes severe from urogenital and even bowel dysfunction, was imposed.
The World Health Organization, women's rights groups, western physicians, and victims or would-be victims condemned female genital mutilation (FGM), and under pressure, many groups abandoned the practice. Just as a western physician should not be asked to participate in or condone a ritual act of female genital mutilation, we cannot be asked to uphold beliefs and practices that oppress people on the basis of disability.
Religion has too often been used to support oppression on the basis of race, gender, and sexual preference, as well as disability. Religion is no excuse for immorality. Fear and social conditioning are no excuse for crime. Failure to think is no excuse for prejudice.
What do I believe? I believe Jesus was a liberal, a radical, a hippie. Jesus ignored rules that were in their spirit wrong, teaching us by example. He plucked grains gleefully on the Sabbath. He dumped over tables in the temple. He practiced civil disobedience. Christians who believe that God punishes us with illness or disability forget what he said as a matter of convenience. To those who insisted a blind man or his parents must have sinned, Jesus said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (John 9.3). I've never heard that preached.
The syncretic new agers who believe the Bible promises us riches and that a re-alignment of spirit will restore health forget that Jesus said, "for to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (Matthew 13.12). We lose more in health, but we gain in spiritual growth--this is our abundance. There's an inverse relationship that some miss. I've tried to explain this idea to some people, the ones who think and maybe do wish themselves into material abundance and have good health, and they miss the point, congratulating themselves and judging those who, in their opinion, "lose out." In their minds, Jesus rewards the wealthy because they're virtuous, punishes the poor because they're poor. How 19th century. How colonialist.
Negative thinking, in this bestselling world view, creates our problems; we're at fault for our oppression. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . .Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5)--what book are these people reading? What the bleep do we know?
I believe that Taoism can accommodate disability. I believe that Buddhism can allow for spiritual growth through reincarnation without implying that visible disability indicates past wrongs, wrongs so dire that people must sometimes punish us in a paradoxical neverending cycle of deed-misdeed that requires too many to do wrong. In a cycle that blames the victim for rape, segregation, genocide, illness, accident. I am told by someone living in a Buddhist country that easterners do not take the idea of illness and karma in the same way, so seriously, as western converts do, and yet I read only recently that Cambodian mothers are ostracized for disability. Somehow I still think that religions can accommodate and better support people with disability.
What do I believe? In science, in genetics, in accidents or coincidence. In considering spirit. In doing away with superstitions and antiquated laws that harm or limit our potential for growth. If, beyond that, I sound confused, sometimes I am. But I'd rather be confused than be certain, so certain.