Subscribe to Christianity Today
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Idiots, Imbeciles, Cretins
What to do with idiots, imbeciles, cretins? If the reader isn't shocked by this opening query, something is seriously wrong. We have abandoned this language as we were once enjoined to abandon children—and adults—who got slotted into such categories. Every now and then one encounters a person who says Mongoloid idiot, even in polite company, but the effect is rather like bumping into a velociraptor on an evening stroll: Where did this extinct, unpleasant creature come from ?
Times change. And once in a while they change for the better. The seeds of decent treatment of those we call "exceptional" or, if we are being especially correct and perhaps a bit cutesy, "challenged," are of ancient and noble lineage .
It is awfully hard to square Christian understanding of the imago Dei—we are all God's creatures—with a ruthless or frightened determination to remove from our midst those among us who present themselves to us in bodies and with faces that don't fit some norm. But square it all too many did, perhaps thinking: Surely God couldn't have intended this! Surely this is a mistake! To be reminded of frailty and vulnerability and even brokenness in this way? Too much to bear. The human propensity to turn away from difficulties, whether conceptual, ethical, bodily, or social, kicks in, and we shun or dismiss or exile .
But it doesn't end there, for the roots of mistreatment of persons with disabilities lie not just in a turning away from one understanding at its richest (what I have called "Christian anthropology") but in embracing an alternative that embeds within it a rationale for discrimination of an invidious sort .
Consider the high premium the Enlightenment and rationalist philosophers placed on reason as the jewel in the anthropological crown: cogito ergo sum. This isn't Christian thinking—Christian philosophers did not privilege reason in this way—but it certainly is Western and came to dominate much of our thinking. Augustine, by way ...