Friday, 18 March 2016

Jesus and his friend Nicodemus: Autism in the Bible?

I'm sometimes asked if there are autistic people in the Bible.
We don't know for sure, of course.  Autism, as a diagnosis, has been with us less than 100 years.  But it has always been with us, from what we can see of genetics and accounts of behaviour.

Let us look at Nicodemus.  He appears three times in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 3, 7 & 19.

When we first encounter him, we learn that he approached Jesus in the quiet of night.  He needed to talk to Jesus alone about what Jesus was teaching.  Nicodemus was a well respected Jewish leader, who would have known every word of the rules and regulations of that faith.  He didn't understand Jesus's sayings about 'being born again', and took it really literally.  Born again?  That's impossible!  Baffled.  I'd be the same.  Not scorn or low intelligence.  Seemingly a brain that thinks literally, and often (for many of us) mostly in pictures.

So, Nicodemus needs to learn something new in a low-sensory, low-social environment.  Really keen on rules.  Can't understand strange expressions without a lot of explanation.  Hmm, where have we seen things like that before...

When we next encounter Nicodemus in Chapter 7, he's getting out the rule book to try to defend Jesus.   Solving things by reference to rules, not social-skill persuasion.  Sounding familiar?

In Chapter 19, Nicodemus is there after Jesus's death, at the tomb, staggering up the hill with 75 lbs of herbs & spices for fragrancing the tomb.  Most people would have brought a small bag of the stuff.  He's committing a bit of a social faux-pas here...and I'm imagining the astonishment/annoyance of the others, with their handful of herbs.  Ooops.  But what a gesture of love, if seen that way.

For a long time, we've assumed that Nicodemus was an example of what Jesus disliked. An example of the ridiculousness of the 'old faith'.   I think we've had that very wrong.  Nicodemus was, as far as I can tell, an autistic friend to Jesus.  Not cured, not pitied.  Someone who stood by Jesus in the best ways he could, right to the end.   Loyalty - another 'hallmark' of autism.

So, next time we describe autism as something broken, dangerous or as something that is too much trouble/cost for us to include...think about how inclusive Jesus was to his autistic friend.  A friend he trusted to still lead, still be there, as himself.  Wonderfully autistic.  Be the person who allows for that low-sensory, low-social enquiry.  Be the one who re-explains things we don't 'understand.  And you'll have followers who are there for you to the very end.