The “R Word” and the Image of God

by Dr. Georgia Purdom on March 13, 2012

My colleague and friend Stacia McKeever, a speaker at our upcoming Answers for Women conference, wrote this blog about the use of the word “retarded” and the importance of teaching and reasoning from the Word of God that all people are image-bearers created to bring glory to God.

Do you use the word retard in a casual way? As in, “Man, that’s retarded.” Or, after doing something unwise, “I’m such a retard.” It’s just a word, right? An adjective like stupid or red?

Take another few moments and think about the word and the way it’s used. In these situations, the word retarded is an adjective, yes, but it’s an adjective the comes from a description for a certain group of people—those with the label mentally retarded because their IQ happens to be below a certain arbitrary number.

People like Kieran.

When you use the word retarded in contexts such as those above, you’re, in effect, teasing Kieran for being inferior to you. You’re demeaning someone made in God’s image--just as you are.

Now, I understand that words can change in the way they are used. I have a friend who insists that word kid should only be used when referring to a young goat and never when referring to human children. But kid in colloquial language is now accepted to mean young child without any hangover from the goats.

And so while I’d like to suggest that you reevaluate how you use the word retard, I’d also like to suggest that you reevaluate how you think about those who bear the label mentally retarded.

When Kieran was diagnosed with Williams syndrome, we read a lot of literature that used the phrases learning disabilities, cognitive delays, and intellectual disabilities. In years past, the phrase mental retardation was used to describe those with Williams syndrome and the like.

Yesterday (March 2), was the national Spread the Word to End the Word day—a day dedicated to raising awareness about the use of the word retard in all of its various forms. I appreciate the fact that the adage “words can never hurt me” is not true, and that words do have the power to inflict pain. And I appreciate the desire to raise awareness about the harm just one word, when used pejoratively, can do. However, it seems to me that eradicating a word from a nation’s vocabulary isn't necessarily the answer.

Those truculent bullies who currently use the r-word to demean others will simply find another word with which to tease and taunt, will they not? Soon enough, I would surmise, learning disability will become the new r-word and those in the know will come up with yet another euphemism to describe those with mental handicaps. And what sense does it make for a teacher to reprimand a student for using a word that is “dehumanizing” and then turn around and teach that same student that, within the evolutionary worldview, we’re nothing more than animals descended from ape-like creatures?

Instead, I would suggest the focus should be on teaching that each individual—regardless of mental capacity, skin color, or gender—is an image-bearer of the Creator. God has created everyone fearfully and wonderfully and with the purpose of bringing glory to Himself. We do not share an ancestor with apes, nor are some people more “highly evolved” than others. And, in His Word, the Creator has shown us through His Son that we are to be kind to one another, speaking to and about each other with gentleness, helping those who are weaker than ourselves. We can encourage people to understand that each of us is in the same position before our Creator—sinners in need of salvation. When we receive the gift of eternal life in Christ, we are transformed inwardly through the power of the Holy Spirit into the image of the Son of God.

While there’s a certain dagger that runs through my heart when I hear someone carelessly use the r-word, it seems to me that discontinuing a word isn’t necessarily the answer but that reminding people of what the Word teaches is.

Well said, Stacia! My daughter Elizabeth and Kieran are friends, and after church Elizabeth enjoys entertaining Kieran so that his parents have a chance to talk with others. I reinforce to her on a regular basis that even though Kieran may have different mental capabilities, he is made in the image of God to bring glory to Him. God has made each of us unique and we fulfill His purpose and plan in unique ways in accordance with His will.

Stacia will be addressing the topic of her son and understanding the sovereignty of God at the Answers for Women conference next month. Make plans to be there and register today.

Keep fighting the good fight of the faith!

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