How Ableism Fuels Racism: Dismantling the Hierarchy of Bodies in the Church – Lamar Hardwick

How Ableism Fuels Racism: Dismantling the Hierarchy of Bodies in the Church by Lamar Hardwick
Also by this author: Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion
Published by Baker Publishing Group, Brazos Press on February 20, 2024
Genres: Healthcare, Non-Fiction, Racial Reconciliation, Social Justice
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"Marshaling fine-grained historical detail and scrupulous analysis, Hardwick persuades." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

As a Black autistic pastor and disability scholar, Lamar Hardwick lives at the intersection of disability, race, and religion. Tied to this reality, he heeded the call to write How Ableism Fuels Racism to help Christian communities engage in critical conversations about race by addressing issues of ableism.

Hardwick believes that ableism--the idea that certain bodies are better than others--and the disability discrimination fueled by this perspective are the root causes of racial bias and injustice in American culture and in the church. Here, he uses historical records, biblical interpretation, and disability studies to examine how ableism in America led to the creation of images, idols, and institutions that perpetuate both disability and racial discrimination.

He then goes a step further, calling the church into action to address the deep-seated issues of ableism that started it all and offering practical steps to help readers dismantle ableism and racism both in attitude and practice.

How Ableism Fuels Racism explores how racism and disability justice issues intersect and intertwine, particularly within the American church. Lamar Hardwick writes from his perspective as an autistic Black pastor, and his recent battles with cancer also inform his writing. He takes an incisive look at the ways that people sideline and make judgments about “abnormal” bodies, and he explores how different racist and ableist ideas developed in early American history, primarily related to enslaved Africans. Because I share Hardwick’s interest in American history, I was already familiar with most of this information, but it will be new and eye-opening for many readers.

Hardwick clearly explains the historical connection between ableism and racism, showing how people justified slavery by arguing that Black people were intellectually inferior, were childlike, and should not have agency over their own lives. Hardwick explores both glaring and subtle implications of this ideology, and he makes a number of very excellent points. He is bold and doesn’t mince words, and he explains complicated, abstract ideas in accessible terms. He also touches on a variety of side issues to his main thesis, such as desirability politics, body shame, and issues with grind culture.

Hardwick gives examples of how early American Christians contributed to pervasive cultural problems, and he also shares contemporary stories to show how problematic ideas cause harm in real life. His personal stories add a lot to the book, and I appreciate his honesty and vulnerability. I also appreciate how Hardwick uses Scripture throughout the book, especially when he is writing about disability theology. Some similar books focus primarily on personal experiences and secular social justice theories, with only loose Scriptural connections, but Hardwick bases his arguments in specific Bible passages and the big story of Scripture. I disagree with some of his interpretations, but found his arguments significantly more persuasive than ones I’ve seen before.

One confusing, weaker element of this book is that Hardwick begins using “ableism” as a catch-all term for any kind of hierarchy of human value. Even though different forms of discrimination can overlap in complex ways, Hardwick often uses the word “ableism” in cases where there isn’t a direct reference to physical or mental abilities. Because he stretches this word’s definition, readers who are new to this conversation may struggle to follow his arguments at times.

My other critique is that even though Hardwick is accurate and persuasive in his coverage of historical wrongs in the American church, he sometimes makes it sound like all of these issues started with American Christianity. Even though we can trace back particular expressions of racism and ableism to influential people like Cotton Mather, the root issues are part of the human condition. Many Christians throughout time have absorbed harmful ideas from their societies and expressed these assumptions in Christian language, but they weren’t inventing these forms of oppression.

Also, even though people created specific racist beliefs to justify the institution of slavery, ableism has been an issue in all cultures since the beginning of time. Christianity began in a cultural context where it was normal and acceptable for parents to discard female and disabled infants to die in the elements, and early Christian advocacy is part of why that is so gut-wrenching and unthinkable to us now. Even though Hardwick’s analysis is helpful, it’s only part of the story. I think that he could have balanced it out better with more context, while still holding the same American historical figures accountable for their sins and failings.

How Ableism Fuels Racism: Dismantling the Hierarchy of Bodies in the Church covers a variety of issues in a thought-provoking, engaging way. I appreciate the author’s historical analysis, thoughtful reflections, and personal stories, and I would recommend this book to people who are invested the topic. Also, even though some aspects of this book might be confusing for people who haven’t read anything like this before, the author’s accessible writing style, clear explanations, and personal stories can help engage readers who are new to the topic. Overall, I was impressed with this book and am interested in reading more from this author.