Disability

every church an oasis

…what a glorious adornment of the gospel it would be, if people with disability found their local church to be an oasis in an otherwise hard world

That’s from Andrew Cameron’s latest briefing paper for the Social Issues Executive, which you can read HERE.

Also in that briefing, you’ll find these two fabulous opportunities promoted:

Go and check out all three resources! And, of course, you can read my recent series on disability and theology HERE.

disability and theology #10

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:27

And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.
Titus 3:14

The people of God are repeatedly called to care for the vulnerable, oppressed and in urgent need. People with disabilities and those who care for them far too often fall into one or more of those categories. Providing for people with disabilities and their carers in material ways is just the start of our love for them. The church should be the model of accessible community.

The community around us (in Australia, at least, I can’t speak for the rest of the world) has been progressively working at creating spaces that are physically accessible, and I reckon the church should be a community leader in this regard as a pragmatic demonstration of the welcome we offer to all people. We ought to delight in the ways in which our community has come to respect and honour people with a disability rather than grumble about the burden we might have to shoulder to be open to all. When we fail to provide access for people with a disability, or when we use language that is archaic or acts as an unnecessary stumbling block to unbelievers, we ought to repent.

In the gospel of Mark  (2:1-12), we hear of some friends who are so desperate to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus that they cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus is in. Now, I’m not saying church is the only place we ‘meet’ Jesus, nor that this passage is speaking directly about providing physical access. But I do think that the heart of desperate concern for the friend with a disability, and the desire to share with them the freedom Jesus provides, is something we ought to imitate. And I suspect that includes making sure they can be part of Sunday services and life in and around our church buildings.

The love that Christians are called to show each other and the world is abundant, gracious and relational. The picture Jesus paints in Luke 14:12-24 of the way God pours out His abundance on broken people is the same abundant generosity His church is to display: we are called to show hospitality especially to those who cannot repay our generosity. The love that we enact ought to open up possibility for (if it does not already embody) genuine relationship and affection.

The responsibility that the church bears to uphold people with a disability is great. It may be tempting in the face of an overwhelming challenge either to despair at the magnitude of the problem or to shrug it off as an inevitable part of the Fall. Neither of these responses is adequate, for the gospel fills us with confidence, power, patience and diligence. We can seek justice for the oppressed, patiently working and fully trusting that in siding with the weak we are siding with God — endeavouring to do His work in His timing with His power by His Spirit for His glory.

View the complete archive of posts in this series HERE.

Download a list of references HERE.

disability and theology #9

…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our presentable parts do not require. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24a)

In other words, people who are the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church. I have never seen this as the first line of a book on ecclesiology. (Vanier, 2008 p74)

Provocative words, huh? Jean Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche community, in which people with and without disabilities live together in long term voluntary shared households. The community’s objective is to live out the commitment to the personhood of the other; Vanier (p69) describes this commitment as tranlating the idea ‘I am glad you exist’ into physical presence with people with disabilities.

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man'

Similarly, this passage has led McNair (2008) to declare that if we don’t understand what our brothers and sisters with disabilities offer the church, then that’s a mark of our immaturity in the faith. The object of Christian maturity is interdependence — not independence. In order to fully love our brothers and sisters with disabilities we need to both honour them and strive to submit ourselves to learn from and be served by them.

It is not sufficient for the church to be a place where people with disabilities are accepted, we’re called to be family to one another — a place of welcome, love and service; a place of friendship and hospitality (Reynolds 2008). Reinders (2008) suggests that we should regard one another as gifts given by a good God.

If Jesus takes on our human brokenness and vulnerability in his incarnation, then it is probably reasonable to expect that the body of Christ — the church — will corporately still exhibit a brokenness and non-self-sufficiency. And that this is what enables us to display the power and wisdom of God in our own (apparent) weakness and folly.

View the archive of previous posts in this series HERE.

Download a list of references HERE.

disability and theology #8

For the previous posts on disability and theology click HERE.
For full references, download the reference list HERE.

The last post touched briefly on the fact that Jesus resurrected body bears his wounds. I don’t know about you, but this raises significant questions for me:

  • How will the Christian with a disability be restored on the last day?
  • What should we hope for in light of the gospel promises of healing?

In post #4, I reflected on the way Jesus healing miracles often serve to restore people to relationship with God and to each other, through both forgiveness of sins (e.g. Matthew 9) and by making the unclean clean (e.g. Luke 5:12-16). And both forgiveness and cleanness are provided to people in the death and resurrection of Jesus: we are covered by Him, our very minds and hearts having been washed with His blood. Our frail bodies are the site in which God chooses to dwell. Jesus has done everything necessary to heal us from sin and death, restoring us to God and to each other.

So if physical healing was either a sign that forgiveness had been achieved or a means to full participation in community — both of which we now have in Jesus — does that mean physical healing is no longer really relevant?

I’m not sure that it does. There is a wealth of Scriptural promise that when God’s kingdom is revealed ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (Isaiah 35:5-6). Jesus claims these prophecies are fulfilled in his earthly ministry (Luke 7:18-23). It may be possible to argue that this healing was simply a sign that Jesus was bringing in the Kingdom. However, it would not be unreasonable to expect that these were the first fruits of a much more abundant restoration that will accompany the resurrection.

I think there is still a whole lot of ambiguity about what to expect of our physical bodies at the resurrection. But I also think we can have complete confidence that every obstacle that prevents us from relating freely with God and with one another will be overcome. Emphatically proclaiming either the complete reversal of disability or the complete correspondence between our earthly and resurrected bodies are probably equally unhelpful options.

disability and theology #7

For the previous posts on disability and theology click HERE.
For full references, download the reference list HERE.

In his humanity, and particularly in his suffering to the point of death, Jesus shares our human vulnerability in a very embodied way. There are some really quite challenging pieces of work out there that call us to think about the ways in which we could say God is therefore disabled (e.g. by Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God).

Now I’m not sure I’m on board with their whole agenda, but I do think it’s quite profound that Jesus not only suffers, but also bears the physical reminders of his suffering in his resurrected body. Any understanding of the victory and power of God that neglects the amount of weakness and patient suffering involved in that victory ought to be suspect.

Likewise, any approach to disability that refuses to recognise the profound sense in which in Christ God takes up the cause of the weak and broken — indeed, of all human beings in the weakness and brokenness of our sin and vulnerability to death — fails to reflect the hope of the gospel.

It is God’s power and wisdom that is displayed in the ‘weakness and foolishness’ of the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31). God’s identification with weak and vulnerable humanity in Jesus is motivated by love and specifically aimed at dealing decisively with the human plight of sin, death and alienation from God.

However, while there is a significant sense in which Jesus joins us in our vulnerability — sharing our limitations and frailties — he does so in power and freedom, as the one with the authority to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10: 18) This is what gives his purposeful solidarity with and self-giving for humankind on the cross its character as a victory. This victory is announced in the resurrection, in which Jesus overcomes sin and death. Indeed, we share in this victory through our participation in his death and resurrection by taking up our cross and following him.

disability and theology #6

For the previous posts on disability and theology click HERE.
For full references, download the reference list HERE.

In truth, no person is without impairment in some form because none manifests the fullness of the image of God in which we are created.
Birch 2007 p185


The human experience of embodiment is really complex. By using the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’ we create two pretty artificial categories. Everybody’s experience of their physical and mental capacity is unique. Indeed, we can have great gifts in one area and be limited in others.

Some authors, like Thomas Reynolds, suggest people are only more or less limited than one another; that disability is simply the manifestation of human vulnerability. And before we jump to thinking that limitedness is a function of the fall, it might be useful to remember that even Adam needed a helper … he wasn’t wholly self-sufficient.

Authors who ask us to recognise our own brokenness often do so in order to elicit our solidarity with people our society would label as ‘disabled’. What this ought to do is help us (whether we have a disability ourselves or not) to regard people with a disability as close to ourselves. It is a framework that can help us love each other better.

But I do think it would be harmful to suggest that there is no difference between the experience of people with a disability and able-bodied people. There are many material ways in which people with a disability are discriminated against in which the able-bodied are not. We must not let a legitimate desire for solidarity blind us to the very real ways in which our society facilitates the exclusion of some, lest we become like the fool who declares ” ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body” (James 2:16).

disability and theology #5

I’m sure that, before I started reading about disability, I would have quite simplistically asserted it was a ‘product of the fall’.

So much disability seems to be the product of a broken world. Sin has massive consequences for the physical world. Accidents, violence, disease, punishment — all can impair bodily function.

Yet I want to suggest that it can be decidedly unhelpful to point to the bodies of people with a disability as the site in which this all pervasive evil manifests itself. In fact, Scripture identifies God Himself as the originator of what, on the surface, can seem like impairments. For example, in Exodus 4:10-11, God takes creative responsibility for Moses’ speech impediment.

Yet congenital disability is not somehow ‘above’ other forms of disability. Jesus still reverses congenital disability. In John 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth, refusing to enter into the disciples’ speculation about the origin of the man’s disability.

Either way the loving sovereignty of the Creator must be affirmed in both the experience of disability and the healing of bodily impairments (whether ‘acquired’ or congenital).

Indeed, as a final challenge, it’s worth noting that the writers of the New Testament are much more likely to point to depraved human behaviour as evidence of the all-pervasiveness of sin than they are to point to the more visible disabled body.

We ought not mourn the disabled body but our own incompleteness and brokennness.

disability and theology #4

Is disability situated in the body? If you’re anything like me, you may well say ‘obviously, yes’. But I was challenged about that.

In the literature on disability, people identify two models for understanding disability:

  1. The medical model is what most of us are familiar with. In the medical model disability is thought of as a loss of bodily function. Disability is by definition negative in this model and treatment is directed at restoring function. It is understood as a deviation from what is acceptably ‘normal’ and specifically located in the body of the person with a disability. This way of thinking about disability as deviance from the norm can lead to ways of talking about people with a disability as less than whole, where something is missing.
  2. The minority model is probably what you’d hear disability activists espousing. And it makes a lot of sense! This model shifts the focus of attention from the person with a disability as a patient (to whom things are done) to the person with a disability as citizen (who does things). It locates disability in the society that facilitates exclusion and therefore calls for changes in society to allow the full participation of persons who have some form of physical or psychological impairment. The social model of disability is therefore necessarily political, in that it calls for changes in values and attitudes rather than scientific advances.

Both these models are useful, but neither is sufficient. It’s interesting the way healing narratives in the gospels describe Jesus restoring people’s bodies and addressing their exclusion from the community and from relationship with God.

So, for example, in Matthew 9, Jesus heals the paralytic as evidence that he can heal the much more important wound that is sin. Jesus restores the paralytic not only to health but to relationship with God. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus heals a leper, making him clean and freeing him to rejoin the community and participate in worship.

Jesus is not concerned simply with either physical restoration or restoration of community. He heals the body as a means of restoring relationship (for more check out the Berinyuu article in my reference list).

disability and theology #3

There are a lot of people with a disability in Australia: over 800,000 people are considered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to have a profound or severe disability that limits their independence in three or more core activity areas.

It’s important not to think that this ‘group’ is homogenous — there’s a lot of diversity captured by the term ‘disability’. But that’s still a lot of people. More significantly, there’s a very real possibility that you and I will be counted in it one day. Disability is almost unavoidable as we age.

Some authors talk about the ‘able-bodied’ as ‘not yet disabled’ or ‘temporarily able-bodied’. I find this quite helpful. It’s a constant reminder of my own frailty and what we have in common.

disability and theology #2

A gift to start us off!

You can download a list of the references I worked through here.

All research is about setting boundaries. I went looking for theological books or articles that explicitly dealt with disability; it got a little broader — but not much. My top 3 recommended resources from the list are:

  • Creamer D (2009) Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hauerwas S and Vanier J (2008) Living Gently in a Violent World, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove Illinois.
  • Reynolds T (2008) Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids Michigan.

I’ll share more about what I found later this week.