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Joseph Casey Merrick, a 19th Century Englishman who was better known as the Elephant Man, lived with physical difference and disability. Merrick’s face and right side were severely distorted by large lumps which gave him an unusual, and to some, frightening appearance. For several years, he made his living as a sideshow exhibit. After being robbed and abandoned by his road manager in Brussels, Merrick made his way back to London where he was brought to a doctor at the London Hospital, Frederick Treves, who had taken an interest in him. Merrick couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) speak when he first came to the hospital, but his intellectual acumen and insight later became clear. Treves and Merrick became friends, and Merrick lived out his final years in the London Hospital where he died at age 27.

A play and a movie introduced Merrick to modern audiences about 30 years ago. This past weekend my family and I saw an outstanding high school performance of the play that poignantly highlights Merrick’s struggle to be considered human.

Near the end of the play, just after being beaten and abandoned by his handlers, he calls after them in a husky voice, “I’m a man. I’m not an animal. I’m not an elephant. I’m a man.” The Elephant Man helps audiences reckon with the painful dehumanization that many people with disabilities experience: gawked at or ignored, left at the margins of society, abused and even abandoned. Not all people who live with disabling conditions experience such severe horrors, but nearly all have to deal with some degree of ableism that pushes them away from other people.

The Elephant Man also portrays the power of human kindness and love. Not everyone in Merrick’s life despised him. Treves and others welcomed him into their lives and grew in their appreciation and respect for him. According to Wikipedia, “Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, The Princess of Wales.”

One brief scene left a dark mark on this beautiful play. I assume that it was inserted to reflect attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities; nevertheless it stuck out like a fly in the punch bowl. Shortly after Merrick came to London Hospital, hospital administration questioned Treves about the expenditure of his and the hospital’s time and resources on Merrick. Little was known yet about Merrick’s capabilities because he came to the hospital so physically sick and emotionally wounded that he couldn’t communicate. Treves argued that if Merrick were an intelligent man capable of reason and human interaction, then he should be allowed to stay. But Treves also said that if Merrick were an “imbecile” (we would use a term like “intellectually disabled” today), then he should be put back on the streets, and no one should feel any guilt about his mistreatment.

Treves’ argument reflects a perception about people with disabilities that is still common today. People place value on other people based on what they can do. I don’t fault the author of the play nor the actors for depicting this natural human tendency. But in the church, we must do all we can to fight this spirit. God does not devalue any human being for any reason. All of us are made in God’s image. All of us are loved by God. All of us have infinite value in God’s eyes.

Treves and Merrick treated each other with great kindness, though for Treves his kindness toward Merrick was conditional, based on Merrick’s intellectual capabilities. True love is unconditional, and reflects God’s love. I hope and pray that churches can reflect this spirit of unconditional love more and more with everyone, including of course people who live with disabilities.

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