Three things stand out about this book. First, it has a clear—and deceptively simple—thesis. Second, its thesis is offered as the best way to understand a clear—and deceptively simple—story. And third, its argument shows why the thesis and the story are not as simple as they seem.
Reinders gets straight to the point: “This book makes an unusual claim about unusual people: it says that people with profound intellectual disabilities are people just like other people” (1). This sounds at first like a pious truism, a sentimental appeal to be kind to the wheelchair-bound and the institutionalized. But it’s much more. For if what makes people “people” is a firm sense of self, the capacity for reason, the use of language, or the ability to make choices and decisions, then people who lack these things aren’t really “people” at all. So what are we to make of them? What are we to do with them?
That brings Reinders to the story—or rather two stories—which give the book its pathos and force. The first is the story of Oliver, as told by his younger brother, Christopher de Vinck, in his book The Power of the Powerless (New York: Doubleday, 1990). Oliver was severely brain damaged and completely helpless, but he was the object of his parents’ and siblings’ unfailing love, and was felt by them to be “a true presence of peace” in the household. One day Chris, a high school teacher, told his class about Oliver, and a student said, “You mean he was a vegetable.” To which Chris responded, “I presume you could call him a vegetable, but we just called him Oliver.” But if he was nothing more than a “vegetable,” was there any moral rationale for calling him “Oliver,” for loving him as one of the family? And if he was more, what exactly made him more? The second story is about Kelly, whom Reinders met at a group home for persons with intellectual disabilities. Reinders was struck by how the staff and other residents talked to her as if she could understand, commented on her moods as if she had moods, and treated her like a human being and a neighbor as if she were one. Reinders deeply admired their care for Kelly, but wondered if it made sense, given all those spooky “as-ifs.”
The remainder of the book shows why it does make sense. Reinders inventories several views of disability which do regard persons with profound intellectual disabilities as human beings, but which make assumptions that unwittingly contradict that very conviction. The traditional Roman Catholic account of human personhood, for example, asserts that one is human if he or she has a human origin (i.e., is born of human parents) and a human telos (i.e., the potential for free, conscious union with God). But Reinders points out that although Oliver and Kelly have the former quality, they lack the latter. Are they then not fully human? The disability rights movement rightly campaigns for “full access,” but as Reinders notes, its rationale for doing so, namely it appeal to “human rights,” hardly applies to people who cannot know that they have rights, much less how to exercise them. Those who apply the methods of liberation theology to disability argue that the real problem which disabled persons face is not disability but oppression, and affirm that knowing that Christ identified with the oppressed empowers them to demand a place at the table—in this case, the Lord’s table. Fine, says Reinders, but what of persons who lack the capacity for knowledge or abstract thought? Reinders even engages the Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, whose Trinitarian thought, when applied to theological anthropology, makes “relationality” the distinguishing characteristic of personhood. Reinders’ worries that this identifies the humanum with “subjectivity,” and once again excludes those with profound disabilities.
All this sets up Reinder’s constructive proposal, namely, that what makes us truly and fully human is nothing intrinsic to ourselves, but the fact that we are the objects of God’s love, which is extended to us graciously in Jesus Christ, regardless of our faculties of reason and will, regardless of our moral deserts or devotional activities, regardless of our ability to exercise our human rights or enter consciously into relationship with God or others. Reinders’ argument is thoroughly “evangelical” in its insistence that God has befriended us—all of us—in Christ, the disabled and the “temporarily able-bodied and sound-minded” alike, and that we possess sacred dignity and worth, not because of our own capacities or accomplishments, but because of God’s irrevocable gift. It is this which gives moral intelligibility and spiritual value to the work of those who lovingly befriend and care for the Olivers and Kellys among us.
Receiving the Gift of Friendship is a deeply moving book, and an enormously learned one. It is must reading for hospital chaplains and Christian mental health care professionals, and it would round out the syllabus of graduate-level courses in Christian ethics and theological anthropology.