Disability Theology: A Primer

At Church in the Cliff, we make a big deal about being as welcoming and inclusive of all people as we can possibly be. So it hurt a little when one of our friends pointed out that we’re not very welcoming or hospitable to people with disabilities. In church parlance, it was convicting. She was right. We’re not overtly cruel or unkind, but we don’t necessarily make it easy for people with disabilities to participate. So we’re going to spend a couple of weeks talking about disability and what we can do to be more welcoming. This week, we focused on physical disability; perhaps this can be a primer that I share as my first forays into this new learning.

The beginning of repentance, of course, is awareness. We have done a lot of work to educate ourselves on the discourse of race, gender, and sexuality. There is a lot of commonality and I think I had assumed that we could simply adapt what we already knew. But, as we discovered as we dove deeply into those other constructs, the particulars matter. Within each of these social constructs, there is a great deal of diversity that both informs and undermines a monolithic construction. Perhaps that is even more true with disability.

The lives and conditions of people with disabilities are incredibly diverse. To start with, disability encompasses physical, psychological, and intellectual impairments. Just within physical impairments, they are as different as deafness and paralysis. The extent of impairment is very diverse. For example, dyslexia and mental retardation are both considered learning disabilities, but are very different conditions. Some disabilities are congenital and some are acquired, the difference between being born without a limb and losing a limb in an accident. Some are static – not having a leg is always the same condition – and some are progressive, such as multiple sclerosis, where a person will become more impaired over time. All of this diversity means that responses to any particular person with disabilities are somewhat unique.

Unfortunately, we as a society have responded to all people with disabilities in uniformly harmful ways. For most of our history, we segregated people with disabilities into facilities to be managed medically. I say “managed” because cures for most disabilities are unavailable, so we warehoused people with disabilities. Then we changed to an economic model, where the goal was rehabilitation and education. Productivity was the ideal. If we could just make people with disabilities productive, then we’ve solved the problem. But that does nothing to solve the root problem. Our world is constructed without regard to disabilities. There are institutional biases in hiring and housing. There are architectural barriers to mobility, which affects every aspect of a person’s life. Impairments are inevitable, but we disable people by the way we construct our world. Part of that is the symbolic construction enacted through the Church.

The Church has dealt with disability in a variety of unsatisfying ways. Theologically, disability has been viewed alternately as a blessing or a curse. Either it is the result of sin and lack of faith, or it is a blessing bestowed on some lucky people to learn a lesson – either for themselves or for others – or build character or to participate in the same kind of redemptive suffering as Jesus. How God decides who gets this blessing is a mystery.

In terms of polity and practice, the Church has rarely allowed people with disabilities to participate fully. Some denominations won’t ordain people with disabilities on the grounds that they cannot perform the duties of the office. Diane DeVries tells of being excluded from her church choir, in essence, because her lack of legs would make her too short and would look weird next to everyone else. In some cases, churches have caused harm even in their attempts to be helpful.

In Nancy Eiesland’s book, The Disabled God, she tells of her experience of communion. People with disabilities were told to stay where they were instead of moving to the front of the sanctuary to receive communion like everyone else. The thought was that it was challenging to move, so they would bring communion to you. However, the effect was to exclude her from what is supposed to be a communal action and highlight her impairment. They might not have made this mistake if they had talked to people with disabilities in formulating their practices. As we have seen with other social constructs, the best practice is always to center the voices of those who are being marginalized.

Finally, hermeneutically, the Church has a lot of challenges. The Bible is filled with metaphors of disability. It fills our hymnody: “I once was blind, but now I see.” It is part of the regular way we talk about our faith. Worse, many of the stories of Jesus are healing narratives, so let’s look at those for a moment.

Disability in the ancient world could be a cause for total exclusion. Disability meant impurity and many of those impurities were thought to be communicable. So for many disabilities a person could be completely shunned, cut off from all systems of support, consigned to begging at the town gate. When Jesus miraculously cures someone, it is not just the resolution of an impairment, but the restoration of a person to their community. Our traditional interpretation of these passages is that the cure is a sign of God’s power, so we highlight the cure. But disability hermeneutics shifts our focus to the healing, which is the restoration of shalom, the harmonious well-being of a person within community. I would argue that this is the true power of God: the call to us to restore everyone to community. How do we do that when it comes to people with disabilities?

First, Kathy Black in A Healing Homiletic advises a theological shift. Our faith has become focused on individual salvation rather than communal well-being and justice. This dovetails nicely with the American myth of independence, but it makes us disdain those who are obviously dependent in so many ways. If we understood that we are all interdependent with one another and with God, we might see people with disabilities as existing within a spectrum or web of dependency instead of viewing them as uniquely dependent.

Eiesland suggests that God is disabled. She notes that in the resurrection Jesus’ wounds are not healed. If the resurrection is a triumph over death and injustice, it is the perfection of what has been imperfect. That can only mean that those wounds, those impairments, are a part of the perfection found in God. They are not impurities to be shunned, but signs of who God really is, a disabled God.

Finally, Eiesland suggests that people with disabilities exist within a matrix of limitations, just like the rest of us. Their limitations are sometimes more obvious or more severe than average, but we are all limited. That’s the nature of reality. But we must remember that the God we claim is an incarnate God. There is something necessary about incarnation for God to be God, which means that limitation teaches us something about the divine. This puts people with disabilities in a position of epistemological privilege. That is, they know more about limitations than the rest of us.

Eiesland lifts up Nancy Mairs, a poet and essayist with multiple sclerosis. After her diagnosis, Mairs rebels, leaves her family, tries to pack all of her imagined future life into a short time, then ultimately attempts suicide. But then she finds some peace, the knowledge that her body is what it is. She finds that her task is to learn to live in that body, to become fully herself in that body. In doing so, she became more compassionate to others, more realistic about the limitations that others face. Acknowledging her own dependency made her more willing to help others rather than less. “Because a difficult life is more complicated than an easy one, it offers opportunities for developing a greater range of response to experience: a true generosity of spirit.”

I want to be careful not to lionize disability, to fall into that trap of using a person as an object lesson for our benefit. I don’t want to say how lucky she is to have this disability and learn these things. Notice that it’s not her disability that taught her, but her response to it. So maybe the thing we can learn is how to respond to our own limitations, whatever they might be. I’ll close with her words because I think they epitomize what Eiesland characterizes as “the resolve of someone who realizes that an ordinary life is filled with blessings and curses and that it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the two.”

All the same, if a cure were found, would I take it? In a minute. I may be a cripple, but I’m only occasionally a loony and never a saint. Anyway, in my brand of theology God doesn’t give bonus points for a limp. I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one. A friend who also has MS startled me once by asking, “Do you ever say to yourself, ‘Why me, Lord?'” “No, Michael, I don’t,” I told him, “because whenever I try, the only response I can think of is, ‘Why not?'” If I could make a cosmic deal, who would I put in my place? What in my life would I exchange for sound limbs and a thrilling rush of energy? No one. Nothing. I might as well do the job myself. Now that I’m getting the hang of it.

May we all keep doing the job of being ourselves. We might just get the hang of it.

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