Re-imagining disability

A new theology of disability envisions a Body of Christ where all have a place.

By Molly T. Marshall

What do race, gender, the poor, sexual minorities and persons with disability have in common? They are all the focus of theological thinking over the past few decades.

All of them are in some way “other” and have suffered exclusion. More important, all of them are honored participants in God’s desire for human flourishing.

Our seminary is offering a new class this week, “Disabilities and the Church,” in conjunction with the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It is an opportunity for seminary students and church leaders to think together of ways in which people with disabilities can be more fruitfully included in the life of the church as self-determining participants. New learning can transform perception and practice.

While the language of “disability” is more modern nomenclature, faith communities have always struggled with the theological implications of impairment, healing, wholeness and the purposes of God. Often ostracized for their difference, persons with a disability have rarely been allowed to construct their own life narrative.

When the Bible deals with the blind, the deaf and the lame, the assumption is that if God has favor on them, they will be healed. Issues of purity and defilement usually accompany the narratives of healing, and those involved often try to discern the reason for the disability, usually by trying to determine whose sin is the cause.

Healing features prominently in the ministry of Jesus and is interpreted as a sign of messianic identity by the Gospel writers. An additional challenge in the Gospels is the association of disability and “evil spirits.”

Thankfully, contemporary New Testament studies are helping us understand the worldview that would make this connection of illness and “possession.” Further, scholars are examining the “ableist” prejudice that places persons as objects of pity rather than agents in their healing -- or the reality that many are not healed.

Thomas E. Reynolds writes: “Disability is an often overlooked and contested ‘site’… that has the potential to raise issues of difference, normalcy, embodiment, community and redemption. For this reason disability has theological power.”

The reality of disability prompts us to look at theological doctrines with new eyes. For example, we can regard the emergence of creation as provisional rather than perfect. Contingency and finitude are part of creaturely life, and God’s will is not opposed to laws of nature.

Genetic mutations and harmful accidents occur in a world still being fashioned, yet disability is not punishment from God.

When looking at theological anthropology, we must re-imagine what it means to be created as the image of God. Rationality, dominion and the grace of the human body -- old determinations of imago Dei, which fit better for non-disabled -- are rightly challenged. God values all people, and God works through differing human capacities to hold them in relationship, a better definition of the image.

Some scholars write with the provocative intent of locating disability in the life of God. It is the broken Christ whom we meet at the cross and in the Eucharist.

He ministers out of weakness and trusts the empowerment that comes from beyond himself. His resurrection body bears the scars of human contingency as he rose with his wounds. And so will all resurrected bodies.

As Moltmann writes, “We will still be recognizable from the configuration of our truly lived life.” Yet, what has made persons inconsolable in this life will be transfigured in God’s eternal reign.

Holiness can include impairment, and God accompanies all persons with embodied compassion. In a sense, all persons live in an extended “holy Saturday” between brokenness and wholeness, with hope.

This vision can help us think again about the Body of Christ, where all have a place. It can help us think about new patterns of discourse (new tongues?) that do not marginalize but offer emancipatory proclamation and performance.

We can learn to speak of “differing abilities” and grant dignity and practice humility. Re-imagining disability will be for the good of the churches and all God’s people.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.