In Unitarian Universalist worship, we march for justice and stand for causes all the time; we also see clearly, raise our voices, and hear the truth. We bless the hands that reach out, and the feet that follow the ways of righteousness. If we like something, chances are good there will be an able body attached to it. Disabled bodies, and minds, are reserved for things we don’t like or don’t want to be.
When all our positive body images are of able bodies, and all the negative ones are of disabled bodies, we reinforce societal attitudes that people with disabilities are worth less. These images both rely on and perpetuate the able privilege our society is founded on. That privilege is what makes the dehumanization of disabled people possible, and puts both our rights and our lives in peril. When we reinforce these images, we teach the privilege. By giving it respectability, we make it harder even to perceive it. Like all forms of privilege, it diminishes the humanity of those who hold the privilege, not only those who do not.
It is the job of religious community to resist this, because we are in the business of unmasking privilege.
The relentless use of embodied imagery leaves many people with disabilities feeling excluded. I often experience that feeling of exclusion. The experience of being part of a gathered worshipping body, and then suddenly thrust into the role of “other” by a worship leader’s choice of imagery may not seem like a big deal — but when your faith community tells you, explicitly, that your differences are a difference too far for you to be included, it is a big deal. When even worship is not a refuge from society’s endless negative messages, it is a big deal.
More often than not, I’m told "it’s just a metaphor – get over it," or to not be so thin skinned (which is, itself, an ableist metaphor!). This formulation of the push back is telling: “You’re too sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it like that” or “oops, I wasn’t politically correct” are the classic taglines of microaggression. When your siblings in faith don’t perceive this as a real problem, and that they are erasing your lived experience, it is a big deal.
If it's "just a metaphor," then find a different one.
Now is the time for blessing rituals that bless the reaching and the doing, in all the ways we do those things. Now is the time for songs that praise the historic power of other ways to change the world – sit down strikes, sitting in at lunch counters, refusing to yield a seat on the bus, die ins, or crawling up the Capitol steps. Now is the time for metaphors that challenge the received wisdom that some are more valuable than others.
It's time to be more intentional with the use of body imagery in worship. Our faith can ask no less of us.