We are watching the creation of a new class of socially undesirable people. Modern-day lepers to be feared because the perceived burden they place on society. And I am one of them because I have diabetes.
Recently, an official in the current presidential administration singled out those with diabetes when reacting to entertainer Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional plea about pre-existing conditions. Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Trump administration, said, “That doesn’t mean we should take care of the person who sits at home, eats poorly and gets diabetes. Is that the same thing as Jimmy Kimmel’s kid? I don’t think that it is.”
Mr. Mulvaney suffers under the same false assumption that many people do: if you have a chronic illness like diabetes you must have done something to deserve it. We’ve seen this repeated elsewhere when politicians like Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama argue insurance companies should be able to charge people with chronic illnesses more as a way of rewarding “people who lead good lives” with lower premiums. Obviously insinuating that those with chronic conditions are to blame for their lot.
This is an extension of the same stigma overweight people have dealt with for years. Yet medical and social science is clear, you cannot assume individuals are wholly responsible for their physical conditions. There are many factors like genetics, environment, education, and family history that play a huge part in how healthy a person is.
As Christians, we don’t even need the science because Jesus himself made things clear 2,000 years ago. Look at the exchange that happens in John, Chapter 9:
“As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him […]’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’. Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’”
Then, as now, the disciples were quick to assume the blind man was to blame for his problems. The neighbors think of him only as the person who begs, as a person who burdens society. Only Jesus saw him differently. He recognized how unfair it is to assume that blindness was some sort of punishment. He corrected them and then revealed the truth: the blind man was not a burden to society but a gift to it.
As healthcare continues to be a hot political topic, we cannot lose track of the truth: we are talking about real people. It is too easy to point fingers at a few and say “I’m not taking care of them because they caused their own problems.” It’s too easy to raise the bar on who we are willing to help. But if we do that, we will find ourselves to be the same as those who did not stop to helped the wounded man in the story of the Good Samaritan.
As the church that was charged to care for the sick like in Matthew 25, we cannot stand by and allow the creation of a new class of “undesirables”. Currently, 30 million Americans have diabetes, nearly 1 in 10. Every congregation has many people in it who deal with diabetes and other chronic medical conditions. These conditions are a daily burden and those who deal with them are more prone to self-harm, depression, and even suicide.
So, how can a church help?
- Talk about it. I’m embarrassed to say that in all the years I preached sermons weekly I never once talked about my diabetes. I had the chance to be a witness through my own struggles but I choose not to. The first thing we must do is break down the stigma by talking about it out in the open.
- Look at who and what you serve. Many congregations have worked to make their building more accessible for those with limited mobility by installing ramps and lifts. Yet, after worship coffee time is still always in cakes, cookies, and donuts. People with diabetes like small talk to but not with a side of temptation. Why can’t there also be cheese, nuts, or fruit?
- Form small groups. Having a chronic illness feels very isolating. I have often found myself nodding along with people talking about their experience with Alcoholics Anonymous and found myself wishing a similar experience was available to me. Sometimes you just want to share with those who understand the struggle. The church, with all our experience with creating small groups, is the perfect place for this to happen.
- Educate yourself. If you are blessed to not have any personal experience with chronic illness, first count yourself blessed. Then, get educated. Recently I wrote a book called Rotten Hobby, which is about my experiences with diabetes. It was hard to do because I knew if it was going to have power it needed to be real and very honest. It is one of the many resources available to get a true understanding of what it is like to live with chronic illness.
There is tremendous ministry potential for any church willing to engage in a sincere and honest way with the growing population of people dealing daily with diabetes and other chronic conditions. They are in need of authentic understanding, grace, and hope. If that is not the work of the church then I’m not sure what is.