Bear one another’s burdens,” urged Paul in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 6.2). This often-quoted passage comes in the context of a call to put love above selfishness and legalism in one’s dealings with others, in particular one’s fellow-Christians.
“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’”, he advised. “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 5-6).
But this is more easily said than done.
For a start, it is all too easy to be so caught up with one’s own problems that consistently being sensitive to the needs of others – even those close to us – and caring for them can be hard. In addition, competitiveness and scapegoating can get in the way.
What is more, social, economic and cultural barriers can make it hard even to understand others’ burdens, let alone respond to them. Indeed, proposing solutions based on ignorance or dogma can make things worse for those who are already overloaded.
Denying the problem of disability discrimination
While attitudes to disabled people are probably less patronising than when I was a child, hostility has perhaps grown. Frail older people are often discussed as if they were a ‘burden’ on health and social services who might overwhelm society with their needs, while younger disabled adults are widely resented as ‘scroungers’, ‘useless’ or ‘strange’.
In discussions about care needs, ‘solutions’ are sometimes put forward by people whose knowledge about the issues is clearly limited but who feel confident in condemning others, for example, those whose elderly parents end up in a residential or nursing home, since it is argued that families should take responsibility.
Yet in an ageing population, the children of those requiring care are often pensioners with their own health problems, and not every disabled person wants to be reliant on relatives, especially for personal care or if they have complex medical needs.
Even people who are not personally hostile to disabled people often airily dismiss concerns about prejudice. For instance, amidst debates in the UK around assisted suicide, the concern raised by some disability rights campaigners that disabled people might be pressured into taking their own lives as a result of discrimination and negative social attitudes is often brushed aside.
Not only personal testimony but also horrific reports of neglect or other forms of abuse in hospitals and care homes, and disability-related hate crime, are often ignored, or cause a flurry of indignation but are soon forgotten.
It is all too easy for those of us who are able-bodied, even if well-intentioned, to let disabled people continue to carry their own excessive burdens, in part because their experience may be different from ours in certain ways. Though I have been a carer for many years, I cannot claim to know exactly what life has been like for those family members for whom I have cared. Sometimes, accepting our own ignorance and need to learn can be a start.
Sexuality and the churches
Likewise, discussion on homosexuality in the churches is all the harder because of some heterosexual people’s belief that they know exactly what lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGB&T) people should do, without having to engage with the reality of our lives.
People may legitimately take different views on what Scripture and tradition teach about sexuality. But when people use terms like ‘homosexual lifestyle’ as if we had all adopted a consumer preference for a particular way of being, generally involving bars and casual sex, it is harder to take seriously any valid points that they might be making.
Likewise, when some people argue that, if heterosexuals are limited to opposite-sex marriage or abstinence, it is no greater hardship for devout LGB&T people, this is less than helpful.
At one time it was common to pressure left-handed children to use their right hand instead. Of course, it could be claimed that it is equitable to punish pupils for writing with their left hand since this applies equally to both left-handers and right-handers – but, as someone who is right-handed, it is no great hardship to me to have to write with my stronger hand!
It is also true that some people who are naturally ambidextrous can avoid using their left hand for tasks like writing and eating, and some who are inclined to left-handedness can train themselves to write with the ‘wrong’ hand.
However, it is unlikely that all the greatest left-handed cricketers and tennis players would have reached their full potential if denied the use of their left hand when playing. Though this is not a precise analogy for human sexuality, the suggestion that, with a little effort, everyone can stop being attracted to the same sex and become happily heterosexual flies in the face of experience.
Yet some people continue to insist on this belief. They can thus avoid engaging with the reality of the burdens borne by LGB&T people in churches and social circles which continue to deny our very existence.
Of course, we can also adopt unrealistic views of how easy life is for people who are heterosexual. Other people’s burdens tend to appear lighter than our own.
Learning to listen
So helping others with their burdens is not a matter of prescriptive advice based on dogma or prejudice, or trying to take charge of others’ lives. Instead it involves being willing to listen, learn and engage.
Sometimes we may get it wrong: we may be awkward, misinterpret someone’s need or respond in ways that are unhelpful. But if we persist, despite our own fallibility and the barriers which society creates, we may in the end succeed in helping others and growing closer to a loving God.
© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.