Fathom Mag

How do people with special needs fulfill the cultural mandate?

The same as you and me: by grace.

Published on:
May 17, 2021
Read time:
4 min.
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And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Genesis. 1:28

I remember the first child I met with autism, Jason.[1] He sat in a red wagon, rocking back and forth with a yellow feather duster in his hands. At age eight, Jason spoke very few words and couldn’t use the bathroom independently. I said hello and he never looked in my direction. Over the following days and weeks, I got to see his sassy personality as he chuckled at his over-serious speech therapist or darted away from his table work when he’d rather play. I laughed lovingly as he gathered small objects from around the room and collected them in his pockets or dropped them in the heater vents. It didn’t take long to learn that Jason is a human just like you and me.

People like Jason show me the qualities that Jesus spoke of when he commanded us to become like little children in order to inherit the kingdom of God.

Seeing our shared humanity up close left me with questions about how I understood my faith. Jason was as human as I am but had an exceptional life experience. Did I believe in a God who would require Jason to understand the theology of justification in order to have a relationship with him? Was he required to make spiritual disciples to further the kingdom of God? People with autism don’t always have the capacity to perform for God in the ways I tended to believe God required. As I developed more relationships with those with autism, I began to question the way I saw Christianity: If I believe I must do something specific to please God, how does he love these children regardless of what they do?

People like Jason show me the qualities that Jesus spoke of when he commanded us to become like little children in order to inherit the kingdom of God. Their presence in the world as beloved children of God challenges me to remember the beautiful mercy of God. They humble me with their reliance on others when I am tempted to be so prideful to think I only need myself. They embody the necessity of the body of Christ.

In the series The Crown, Netflix paints a stunning portrait of the longest-reigning British monarch in history, Queen Elizabeth. In arguably the most powerful scene of the series, Elizabeth receives the eponymous crown at her coronation. Months of preparation and familial tension go into that one moment. She dons an intricately gold-embroidered gown and sits on a towering throne, which is itself engulfed in the ethereal legacy left by rulers of ages past. Elizabeth waits timidly as men bow down to her newfound regal power—a position she has scarcely yet accepted. One day, she is simply a part of a royal family, the next, its ruler. She was given this position, not because of what she had done, but because of her bloodline. Her authority rested on her name. She was given no test of her acumen—no interview of her skills. Elizabeth became queen simply because she was born to it. 

I wonder if my questions about Jason’s ability to fulfill certain commandments grow more from our culture’s bent toward valuing achievement and vocational success than a true biblical reality. Because of our deep-seated western value of work, we tend to interpret biblical mandates as something we must do—even when the call relates more to our identity and virtue. Jason—just like me—was born to rule and have dominion. 

Jesus iterated through parable after parable about a heart that reflects the nature and kingdom of God: Unyielding love for the prodigal son, wisdom to build on solid ground, and persistence to pray like the widow. On earth, Jesus showed us the pure heart of God and through his sacrifice, he secured for us a position with God. We are called co-heirs with Christ, children of God. What if, in giving us dominion over every creature, God is actually referring to an identity we must assume rather than an action to perform? 

As image-bearers of God, we cultivate the character of God and reflect him in relation to one another and to nature. This position applies to all people—of every ability and in every corner of the earth. It does not discriminate based on IQ or skill. It is not acquired by people with the right résumé. 

I need grace in order to steward my part of the world, and so do you, and so do those with special needs.

So how do people with special needs fulfill the cultural mandate? By the way God displays himself through any of us. By grace. 

I need grace in order to steward my part of the world, and so do you, and so do those with special needs. The answer is really all the same. And a person with autism or dementia or paralysis needs the grace of Jesus no more and no less than another human being. Each child, each person—is crowned with dominion. Crowned as image-bearers of the one true king.

And what if we, as a body of Christ, share dominion over the world and we each imperfectly represent the character and nature of God to the world. Together, with our collective “disabilities” and faults and imperfections, we are the church. We are his children, and that separates us from beast and tree and land.

It is by the gift of grace we now offer Christ’s love and power to the world. And who are we to say that there is a cognitive or physical requirement for who can enact that command? Together, we share the mantle of God’s image-bearers for all of history. For, through Jesus, we were reborn to it.

Julia Robertson
Julia Robertson holds degrees in religious studies from the University of Virginia and in special education from Old Dominion University. Her global career in ministry and education has taken her from Granada, Spain as a campus missionary to her home in Pennsylvania as a behavioral therapist for children with autism.

[1] Names have been changed.

[2] Cover image by Jon Tyson.

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