I am very short sighted (my prescription is -5 diopters) and I also suffer from astigmatism (inherited from my father—it prevented him continuing his career as a pilot in the RAF after WW2) which means I cannot function easily in everyday life without medical intervention in the form of optical correction.
I suffer from acute seasonal allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. It made my teenage summers on the cricket field a misery (which had the effect of excluding me in a large all-boys school where sport was everything), and is accompanied by asthma, which means I need medication when doing strenuous exercise.
In my gap year in Israel I picked up a bacterial infection from drinking unpasteurised and unfiltered cows’ milk, which gives me intermittent digestive problems.
When travelling in the Far East in my twenties, a viral infection killed the nerve supplying my sub-scapular muscle, disabling proper movement in my right shoulder and to this day sending the other muscles in my shoulder into spasm if they are overused (for instance, by spending too much time using a computer mouse). This also put paid to my cricket career in bowling.
Ten years ago I had a serious episode of sciatica, preventing me moving for four days, and leading to an ongoing weakness in my lower back. Five years ago I ruptured my left achilles tendon, and the fibres did not properly reconnect, meaning that my left calf muscle has never properly recovered. It means I cannot run, and because I now walk unevenly, I have continued vulnerability to back problems. I need to do daily stretching exercises to prevent further back pain.
The reason I mention all this is not merely to garner sympathy (though of course that is always welcome!) but because of reading a fascinating article on the BBC website a couple of weeks ago that explored the question of Christian faith, healing, and disability. Damon Rose lost his sight as a teenager, and quite often experiences Christians approaching him and asking to pray for his healing.
From time to time, without warning or encouragement, I get approached in the street by Christians who tell me they want to pray for me to get my sight back. Since I became blind as a teenager this has been a regular yet annoying by-product of being an independent disabled person who can walk about on the street.
I had always assumed that everyone knew these encounters are a fact of life for people who are visibly disabled. But when one day I told some colleagues about my latest brush with a would-be healer, they were variously fascinated or outraged that anyone would have the cheek to impose their beliefs on me about something so personal.
I have to say that he bears this with remarkable grace, and even though he is not a Christian himself, and mostly feels angry about this, at the end of the article he relates a quite different response:
The last time this happened was on the London underground. The train was packed full of people all studiously ignoring each other when a man put his hand on my shoulder and asked if he could pray for my sight to be restored. Normally when people offer to pray for me to be healed, I say ‘No’. But this man told me that he was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who had himself been healed by prayer. I got the sense that he really needed me to let him pray over me, so I said ‘Yes’ and let him lay his hands upon me.
I can’t claim to be cured of blindness as a result of his prayer, but I’ll never forget how happy and grateful he appeared to be. To me it felt very much like the roles had unintentionally been reversed, and that it was the disabled man during the encounter who had given out a dose of healing.
But what I find interesting is that the whole article, and the theological issues it explores, consistently uses the common categories of ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’. So the question is: which am I? How much worse would my sight need to become before I move from one category to another? Or how bad would my back need to be? Legally, there must be a definition before you qualify to register as disabled, for example to get a blue parking disc. But a friend told me many years ago that the threshold was not particularly high (so to speak). The language of the disabled/able-bodied is also becoming an important category for those campaigning for ‘inclusion’ of the disabled, for disability theology (which the article explores a little), and for the disability identity politics which is emerging.
I completely agree with the need for much improved disabled access, and there is a serious practical challenge for any church community to make their building and their activities accessible to all—not least with an ageing church and national population. But I am not sure I am convinced by the basis on which this is usually argued. If you lined up a representative group of people according to their physical abilities, with the most obviously and visibly disabled at one end, and the fittest and most able-bodied on the other, I think you would find a continuum and not a sudden break separating one group from another.
The reason that the ‘disabled’ need to be included, is not because they are ‘another’ group, separate from ‘us’—but because they are the same as us. We are all limited, and most of us are, to some extent, identifiably disabled.
Moreover, from a theological point of view, our various disabilities are all part of our creaturely finitude. I might be more limited than other people in my ability to run, or see, or lift heavy objects—but we are all limited in these regards, and my limitations are relative and not absolute. Some people might need a smooth ramp to access a building, but there is nothing absolute about the standard nine-inch riser in most sets of steps. If we could all jump like kangaroos, then having a two-foot high step would be fine—but being the humans that we are, that kind of provision would make the building inaccessible for most of us. So why should our threshold of provision include only 90% or 80% of the population, rather than 50% or 40%? Incidentally, this puts the lie to the common mantra ‘You can do anything if you try/really believe you can/don’t give up’ as a response to some extraordinary achievement by someone. We can all probably do more than we imagine—but we are all limited, finite creatures, and the idea that we can do ‘anything’ is just a wilful denial of our dependance on our creator.
This of course points to the important distinction between two ways of thinking about disability—the medical and the social. The medical model of disability postulates a norm of human performance in a particular area of activity, and sees medical or physiological reasons why this norm is not attained as needing medical intervention of some sort to effect a healing of the problem. The social model locates the issue more in the expectations of others as to what is ‘normal’, rather than locating the issue in the ‘disabled’ person. It seems to me that neither model is adequate on its own, and both are needed to make proper sense of the issues at stake.
There is no doubt that Damon Rose suffers from a medical condition which has led to his blindness. The expectation that he should, normally, be able to see is not merely located in social expectations; our bodies have evolved to perform certain functions, and the purpose of eyes is to see, just as the purpose of legs is to walk. But there is also no doubt that many are regarded as ‘disabled’ because they do to fit with social norms. I was challenged by this when on the staff of a theological college, and we had changed the catering arrangements and put the salad options on a shelf that anyone over five feet tall could reach—forgetting that one of the students was only four feet tall. That student might (or might not) have had a medical condition—but the primary problem here was the assumption made by others of what was ‘normal’.
In the BBC article, the source of the inappropriate behaviour by those praying for the disabled is traced back to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry.
For Candida Moss, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, these stories can be alienating for readers who, like her, are disabled.
“I think the main problem for disabled people reading the Bible is that while Jesus does spend a lot of time with people with disabilities, every time he meets them, if they encounter him with faith, he heals them and so he’s sort of like this cathartic scourge that wanders around eradicating disability from the world.”
Another difficulty, says Prof Moss, is that disabled people are often used by the Gospel authors to beef up Jesus’ credentials, showcasing his divine powers.
“When Jesus meets people with disabilities, he fixes them and that’s a sign that he is powerful,” she says. “That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God. They’re not really real characters or real people who have feelings and needs and personalities. That pushes them to the margins of the story.”
I think this offers quite a serious misreading of the gospel narratives. A classic example is the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9.1–41. The story is both carefully crafted (having an overall chiastic structure of personal encounters) but also includes narrative realism; you can use it unedited as a play script. It begins and ends with a striking contrast between Jesus and his interlocutors. At the start this is with the disciples, and they are the ones who want to treat this man as an exercise in theological reflection.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9.1–2).
And, similarly, at the end, Jesus’ approach contrasts with the religious puritanism of the Pharisees. In the middle of the narrative there are two encounters between Jesus and the man himself, in classic Johannine one-to-one conversation. The first time, Jesus heals him, and the second time he invites him into relationship as a disciple. The man is a real character, who shows courage, wisdom and wit, and who is certainly not at the margins of this story.
This kind of humane treatment is found all over the gospel healing narratives. When Jesus meets blind Bartimaeus outside Jericho, he does not presume to know what he wants, but asks ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10.51, Luke 18.41 where he is unnamed, and Matt 20.32, where he is in a pair). Power and decision have been handed back to the person in need, who becomes quite central to the whole episode. Something similar happens in John 5, where Jesus heals a man at the Pool of Bethesda—but after asking ‘Do you want to get well?’ (John 5.6), a question that is completely redundant, unless Jesus is seeking to empower by his healing. On other occasions, Jesus sends the crowds away, or takes the person he is dealing with aside on his or her own; this is no healing circus for others to be entertained by. Surprisingly, at times Jesus even tells people not to make their healing known; his action is driven by compassion for the individual.
It is certainly true that Christian prayer for those who are ‘disabled’ can be crass, even offensive—but I think this arises from confusion about power, as we are anxious about the power of our prayer, rather than focussing on the power of God. It certainly does not arise from the example of Jesus in the gospels.
Moss draws on another image from scripture, one that has been of encouragement to ‘disabled’ readers, of God apparently in a wheelchair.
“We don’t get many descriptions of what God is actually like but we get one of them at the beginning of Ezekiel,” she says. “The Prophet has this vision of the Heavenly throne room, where God resides and God is sat on this throne that is pretty much on fire.
“But it’s also described as having wheels within wheels attached to it. And following this scene, if you think of all the scenes of the Bible laid out chronologically, God is always sat in this wheeled throne and in fact moves – leaves the city of Jerusalem – on the wheeled throne and returns to it later on the wheeled throne.”
Although God is depicted walking in the Bible, Prof Moss says this happens earlier – in the Garden of Eden. “It seems like God is a wheelchair user maybe a thousand years before human beings themselves have thought about wheelchairs.”
So is God disabled? “That is certainly a way to read it” says Prof Moss, admitting that for many, this is a jaw-dropping and theologically challenging idea.
The difficulty with this reading is that the text is really communicating precisely the opposite. The throne is itself an image of power, and the fact that is has wheels implies that God was not dethroned when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonians who took the people of Israel into exile. In other words, the image is an affirmation of the continuing power and reign of God despite appearances. We do not need to project our anthropomorphic understandings of ourselves on God, no matter what the degree of our disability—not least because God has experienced our creaturely finitude in the incarnation, when the Word became flesh.
This issue then connects with whether we will be healed of our disabilities in the life to come (described in the article as ‘in heaven’, but perhaps better described as ‘in the new creation’). Mention is made of the pioneering writing of Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God, in which she comments:
The resurrected Jesus Christ in presenting impaired hands and feet and side to be touched by frightened friends alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability and calls for followers to recognize their connection and equality at the point of Christ’s physical impairment.
Candida Moss then extends this to the disabilities of the believer.
Prof Moss says the fact that Jesus retains his scars after the Resurrection suggests that disabled people might also retain their disabilities in the afterlife – something she hopes for herself.
“I think that if I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven. I certainly hope that I don’t feel pain in heaven – that seems antithetical to what heaven is. But I still want to be me. And I don’t think that I would be me without the conditions that I have. It’s shaped who I am, how I think, what I do. Everything about my life involves this part of myself, which is integral to who I am.”
But if disabilities lie on a spectrum, rather than being something absolute, does this still make sense? Again, at what point of being disabled does my disability become ‘part of who I am?’ I wonder whether this claim is in danger of making a category error, mistaking means for ends. It is certainly the case that my disabilities and limitations can form in me a greater self-awareness, a sense of humility, perhaps a quality of patience that I did not have when I could do things more easily, and even a greater consideration of others. They shape me in a way that I might not have been shaped without these disabilities. But these things have only needed to be formed in me by my limitations because my sinful, fallen life did not manifest these things already.
The promise of the life of the new creation, when we raised to life, is that we will be ‘perfect’ in the sense of having reached our full potential as the creatures God intended us to be—to ‘become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4.13). If that involves a healing of my ‘disabilities’, then I shall be content.
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