Weakness That Makes Us Strong

Recent evolutionary theory suggests that the old social-Darwinist dictum “survival of the fittest” couldn’t be more wrong. What has made homo sapiens a dominant species, many biologists now think is precisely our ability to cooperate, to act altruistically, and to protect the weakest members of the tribe.

This hypothesis makes even more incomprehensible the current efforts in the medical community to “purify” the gene pool through eugenic methods. Currently, for example, 90 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Indeed, there are powerful forces who have repeatedly announced their intention to eradicate children with Down syndrome within the next several years. By that they don’t mean eradicate the syndrome by treating it genetically. They mean eradicate the children by testing for their presence and then aborting them. 

Young women ask me all the time: “Am I really required by law to have an amniocentesis? My doctor says I am.” The answer to that question (for now) is: No. But people will tell you that you are required, because (A) they want to cover their own butts – that is, they don’t want to be sued if you give birth to a child that you would have wished to abort (what they call “wrongful life”) – and (B) they may be party to the current eugenics movement that is attempting to eradicate those whom they consider to have “lives unworthy of life.”    

That term, “lives unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) was the term German doctors used to describe mentally retarded children in the 1930s as they were developing the methods of “euthanasia” that became the first step in eradicating all such “undesirables” on the road to the “The Final Solution.”

What makes such children so threatening that some people feel they must be eradicated completely? Indeed, why do they make many of us feel so uncomfortable? If I may indulge a Freudian impulse for a moment, I think it is because we see ourselves in them. That is, we see ourselves in all the most embarrassing moments in our lives: when we dropped our tray of food at school and everyone in the cafeteria laughed and applauded; when we didn’t know the answer to the question we were sure everyone else knew; when we acted in our usual fashion, and it turned out to be radically “uncool” and all the cool, sophisticated kids rolled their eyes at us in contempt. 

Those children are us when we were at our weakest, our most vulnerable, our most embarrassed. And no one wants to look or feel that way. In fact, the fear of looking or feeling foolish is probably one of the reasons that, in survey after survey, fear of public speaking far outstrips the fear of death as people’s “worst fear.” Whom the gods would destroy, they first make foolish. These children hit us where we’re weakest, and we would prefer not to look at that part of ourselves.

That, however, is precisely why they are some of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Remember Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” So too with us. When we can look upon that weak, vulnerable, socially awkward part of ourselves and say, “Yes, this too, God loves; this too, God sanctifies,” then we will finally be on the road to health and human flourishing.

I fear a culture that wants to eradicate children with Down syndrome and the mentally retarded and all people who aren’t strong and vibrant and productive. I fear it, because the purveyors of such a culture are trying to kill what is most human in us.  Caring for and living with children with Down syndrome humanizes us: it teaches us to love selflessly, the way Christ loves us. And it teaches us to love ourselves: even those parts of ourselves we’d prefer others not see, those parts that we ourselves would rather not look at.

We need such children among us.  We need them more than we need the latest iPad or “smart” phone. In a hundred years, no one will care about our technology, any more than my students care about the technology of eighteenth-century France or nineteenth-century Germany. What will make a difference is how well we treated the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

If we fulfill that calling faithfully, then ours will be a culture worth remembering. If we assert our technological brilliance above all else and succeed so brilliantly that we have no room in our lives for the disadvantaged, we’ll be remembered the way we remember Germany in the 1930s: they got the trains to run on time – and then they promptly used them to transport six million Jews and other “undesirables” to death camps.  

In the end, God is our only real audience, and compared to Him, the Creator of the universe, we have a worm’s intellect. But He manages to love us in spite of ourselves. We’re never closer to Him than when we’re embracing that part of ourselves that we see in children with Down syndrome: simple, joyful, vulnerable. 

These children need our help, but we need them more. They make us human. God’s greatest gift to creatures puffed up with silly self-importance is the gift of humility. As the poet T.S. Eliot has rightly said: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”  

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. Take five minutes and watch the International Down Syndrome Coalition for Life video for World Down Syndrome Day. It will be the best five minutes you spend this week.

Watch the video, and thank God for such children. Then pray for a culture that’s humane enough to embrace them and not so foolish as to eradicate them – and its own soul – in its efforts to perfect physical “strength” and genetic “purity.” That way madness lies. 

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.