896) Retarded?

 By Lutheran pastor and author Walter Wangerin, in Christianity Today,  page 66, August 10, 1984.  (Notice the date of this article.  Wangerin objects to the use of the ‘R’ word, and it is no longer used; but it was commonly used yet in 1984).

      Thanne’s sister’s name is Dorothy.  Thanne is my wife.  That makes Dorothy my sister-in-law.

     Four feet six bitty inches stands Dorothy; she’ll grow no more than that.  Silent she can be, all the day long; but her silence expresses a multitude of things moral, emotional, judgmental, and kind.  She cries easily, though she’s 32 years old; mourns noisily at the prospect of eating vegetables; weeps for her father when he lies in bed sick.  He hands and feet are miniature, her tongue thick, her eyes slanted.  Her mind lacks the ability to reason, to solve problems in the manner of the rest of the world.  So she may be classified, I suppose, abnormal.  It’s her chromosomes, you see; she possesses more than most of the race.  Dorothy has Down’s Syndrome.  She’s ‘retarded.’

     Now, that always seemed a curious thing to me:  that we should label one who lacks the reasoning capacity in terms of contempt, judging her undeveloped, subhuman, less than we are, piteous, retarded!  Yet those who lack more critical capacities– such as to discern right from the wrong and to do the right, such as to love– these people, severely retarded in other ways, we take for granted, labeling them nothing at all.  Why do we damn the irrational, while granting the unmoral and the unloving all the rights, choices, and protections of society and law?

     But Dorothy has her Ph. D. in loving and caring for her family.  I know.  I broke my nose against her iron ethics…

     I courted Thanne on the farm that reared her.  The setting was exquisite for the melting of hearts, since it possessed a screened back porch, which possessed a hanging swing of old wood.  A northern Illinois evening is cool.  A farmer’s supper is satisfying.  An invitation to the farmer’s daughter that she accompany me to the swing is accepted.  The swing faces west, and God himself smiled upon the project, spreading heaven with an orange quilt, needling the evening with nighthawks, sweetening the air with the breath of corn.  I am smiling.  My arm slides toward the farmer’s daughter.  My husky whisper begins a well-turned speech;  “Thanne–“

     –When suddenly the back door shocks the countryside with a bang!  Three heavy steps, and Dorothy stands in front of us, hands on her hips, effectively blocking the sunset.  Without a word she turns, presents us with her rear, then jams herself down between our knees, the farmer’s daughter and mine.  Boom, push, tussle, and boom!  Dorothy made a seat for herself and a division between us.  And so we sit the rest of the night.  There shall be no hanky-panky on her porch (her jaw is firm and her arms are folded).  And no talk but what is fit for company (her silent eyes do twinkle distantly).  God may have smiled, but Dorothy frowned.

     Now, we can analyze the irrationality of Dorothy’s acts; we could even get angry at her for not understanding the ways of the world.  But I haven’t the heart to do that, for her motives were unimpeachable, and her love of such sophisticated quality that few of the intelligent beings about me now– yea, even at Harvard University– have attained unto her degree.  

     And yet!  I learn that were Dorothy’s mother pregnant with her today, a doctor could use ultrasound scans to guide a needle through the womb and into the amniotic sac, withdrawing fluid to analyze the cells there; and finding those cells to possess one extra chromosome, that mother could freely choose to abort the fetus, seeing that this baby would be born lacking the reasoning capacity.

     For the baby’s sake?  Life is hard on such a one?  No.  Without a baby there is no ‘sake.’  It’s specious reasoning, even for those who have the capacity.  And there is such an infinite variety of life that one cannot determine whether a child may not find some form to fit her joyfully.

     For the parent’s sake?  I’m afraid so.  Life is hard on the parents.

     Oh, people!  Why must we so passionately seek to reduce sacrifice in our lives?  Why do we so fear and hate hard service unto others that we at every turn run from it, calling the right thing wrong and the good thing bad?  Do you not know that sacrifice is the very stuff of Christlike loving?  And selfishness the seed of sin?

     “But it’s my body.  I’ve the right to choose whether to carry a baby to term.”

     No!  Not if you are a Christian.  For coming unto Christ is no mere shaking hands with him; it’s giving yourself to him wholly, body and soul.  You are not your own.  You were bought with a price.  Another has authority of choice!  So glorify God with your body, which glory is loving, which loving must needs be sacrifice (even if that be one of nine months duration, followed by a sharing of the love/sacrifice with an adopting couple).

     For my parents-in-law, Dorothy has been a 32-year hardship, indeed.  But it hasn’t been empty, debilitating suffering.  It has been a Christian opportunity.


“If you are going to say the R-Word, I hope you say “Respect.”


I Corinthians 6:19-20  —  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Matthew 16:24  —  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Romans 12:1-2  —  Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.


O Lord, I do not pray for tasks equal to my strength; I ask for strength equal to my tasks.  

–Phillips Brooks  (1835-1893)