Disability Theology

Seeing the Differently-Abled with New Eyes

As an abled-bodied person, I have given very little thought to the struggle of those with disabilities. When confronted with the reality of the disabled, I will often applaud their efforts to be “normal.” When cheering on the athletes at the Special Olympics, are we celebrating who they are, or their ability to be more like “real” athletes. I know what the right answer is, but if I am being honest, I think of myself as “abled” and them as “DIS-abled.” I think of myself as normal, and them as people who need healing. “The fear evoked by the presence of people with disabilities has produced two simultaneous and predictable responses: they have been stigmatized, and they have been subjected to relentless exertions to fix them” (Betcher). As I look to faith formation and theology, I can safely say that I have never thought about how a person who is differently-abled might read and relate to the Scriptures. Upon reading Mary Elise Lowe and Sharon Betcher, I look at some of the Gospel stories with new eyes.

Saul is punished with blindness, and then when he open his heart to God’s truth, is able to see. This story may cause someone who is blind to wonder if their disability is not a punishment from God; that somehow they don’t fully understand God’s truth. The same struggle holds true in the story of Jesus giving the blind man sight. Perhaps, someone who is blind may think that they do not yet fully know Jesus, and that is why they are blind.

We hear a similar message in the stories of healing the paraplegic and the cripple, in the deaf being able to hear, and allowing the mute to talk: the way you were born is wrong, come to Jesus and he’ll make it right. I am not talking about healing the sick or the lepers. Some of these Gospel stories equate the challenges of blindness, muteness, deafness, and paralyzation to a sickness that needs to be cured, a sin that needs to be forgiven. Jesus as a "healer" can portray disabilities as the "oppressions of life" (Betcher). People who are differently-abled may truly struggle with how their challenges are portrayed in the Bible. Within our diverse communities of faith, how would a differently-abled person hear the Gospel message?

While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory.
— Kelby Carlson

What happens if we present these stories, not as "healing" or "curing" events but as events of compassion and community. It is the society that is broken in these stories, not the people with the disabilities. Their suffering is not a result of their disability or their sin. These differently-abled characters have been oppressed by their community, rejected by a sinful culture, and Christ acts with compassion to restore these individuals to their community. The disabled can be seen as the child, the widow, or the poor...as individuals, who through no fault of their own find themselves as outcasts. It is not these people that Jesus came to fix, cure, or heal. Rather, Jesus spoke clearly about the need for the broken community to change, to see its incompleteness, and to work towards wholeness by welcoming in these outcasts as full members of society.

As a leader of the church, I ask myself the message that is offered within my congregation. Do those with different needs feel less, or those with behavioral or cognitive needs feel singled out. Both in the message I preach and the environment I create, an awareness is needed. Lowe warns that “when some persons are forced to use ‘accessible’ entrances or attend ‘special’ classes they may experience isolation and embarrassment that makes it difficult to feel that they are created in God's image." Through intentional education, open and honest communication, and active integration, we, as a Church, can begin to overcome disability discrimination. We must actively seek ways to embrace and include the differently-abled before our community of faith can be whole.

Betcher, Sharon V. “Medicine Shows: Humanitarianism, Healing, and the Physics of Spirit.” Chapter 3 of Spirit and the Politics of Disablement. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.

Longmore, Paul. "Conspicuous Contributions and American Cultural Dilemmas." The Body and Physical Difference: Discourse of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Lowe, Mary Elise. “ ‘Rabbi, Who Sinned?’: Disability Theologies and Sin.” Dialog 51, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 185-194.