What does Scripture say about disability?


I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

This column explores the complex question of disability. What does scripture say about disability, and how should that shape our attitudes?


Reading what the Bible says about disability is a complex and challenging task for several reasons. First, the language of ‘disability’ is a modern one, and the terminology is very recent. The word itself only become the dominant agreed term in the 1970s and 80s. Secondly, when we read Scripture, we are going on a cross-cultural journey, into a culture where understandings of disability are quite different from our own.

There are four main objections to what Scripture is thought to say in relation to disability.

Imperfection

A strong element of the biblical narrative is that God made the world and humanity perfect, and that imperfection has entered the world because something has gone wrong—what the Bible calls ‘sin’. Parts of this narrative imply that physical or mental disabilities are part of ‘what has gone wrong’; the most striking example of this is the prohibition in Lev 21.16–23 of anyone with a physical defect from entering the sanctuary.

But it is clear that this prohibition has symbolic significance, pointing to the holiness and perfection of God. In his vision of the restored temple, Ezekiel is told that the priests shall wear cool linen garments, so that they do not sweat (Ezek 44.17). There is no suggestion that sweat is sinful!

The idea that disability is a form of imperfection aligns closely with the ‘medical’ model of disability; those who are disabled are not able to do things which the human body would usually be expected to do—hence the very term ‘dis-abled’.

Yet Jesus explicitly rejects the idea that we should associate disabilities with personal sin. In John 9, this question is raised explicitly by his disciples—‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’—and Jesus explicitly denies the premise—‘Neither this man nor his parents’. Disability is an opportunity for grace, not a reason for blame.

Instrument

Some have criticised scripture, and in particular the accounts of Jesus’ healings, for turning the disabled into mere mechanisms for Jesus to display his power. Jesus is ‘a cathartic scourge that wanders around eradicating disability from the world… That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God’ (Candida Moss).

But a moment’s careful reading shows this is the opposite of what the gospels actually say. Those with disabilities are often the centre of the narrative; they are the rounded characters, in contrast to the disciples who are more peripheral. Jesus frequently asks ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10.51), putting their decision and will at the centre of the action, and Jesus often heals in private, avoiding the healing becoming a spectacle or a showcase.

Imitation or image?

Candida Moss goes on to suggest that Scripture portrays God as disabled. Ezekiel 1 describes God on a throne-chariot with wheels which allows God to move. ‘It seems like God is a wheelchair user maybe a thousand years before human beings themselves have thought about wheelchairs.’

This is simply imposing our own contemporary ideas on the ancient text, rather than reading what it actually says. For Ezekiel, this is not an image of limitation, but an image of power—it is an affirmation of the continuing power and reign of God, despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of his people. (In the ancient world, being seated is a symbol of majesty, power and authority.)

But we do not need to make God like us in order for us to see the dignity and worth of all people. The central affirmation in Scripture is that we are all ‘made in the image of God’, both male and female, slave and free, ‘able bodied’ and ‘disabled’. That should be enough for us to treat all with equal care and value.

Identity

The final objection arises from the idea that being ‘disabled’ is core to a person’s identity—not least because it is felt to be so central to their experience. ‘If I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven’ (Moss).

But this gives ‘disability’ an absolute status that it does not warrant. I myself have nine ‘disabilities’, ways in which my body does not do what it should, some of which have needed medical intervention. If you took a sample of the population, and lined them up according to ‘disability’, you would not have two groups, but a continuum from the obviously ‘able bodied’ to the more obviously ‘disabled’.

Disability is a particular example of limitations and finitude that we all share—part of what it means to be imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. But we all live in hope, that ‘when perfection comes, what is partial will pass away.’


I engage in more detail with the claims made by Candida Moss in an earlier article ‘Is God Disabled?’ I comment there:

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 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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35 thoughts on “What does Scripture say about disability?”

  1. How do we extend this to include the ‘mentally infirm/disabled’? (And my apologies if that’s the wrong phrase – not intending to cause any offence).

    I have a daughter with autism who struggles to access public worship simply because it involves other people .. !

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  2. Brief thought. You concentrate here on the medical model of disability. But that isn’t the only model. The social model of disability focuses on how society disabled people from taking part. For example, if there is an accessible ramp, a wheelchair user is able to access a building just as a non-wheelchair user can. But steps would disable them.

    On this model, in the new creation our bodies are not disabled from participating in the glory and love of God. So you could remain ‘disabled’ by this world’s standards, but still be part of the new creation.

    I know the deaf community tends not to consider themselves disabled, but in this approach by analogy they could remain deaf in the new creation.

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    • Jonathan, I get what you are saying, but being progressively deaf myself for most of my life I can assure you that I most definitely consider myself disabled and most certainly *would not* like to remain deaf in the new creation.

      Thanks to advanced medical technology I hear electronically (I have a cochlear implant) and can hold my own in most hearing situations to the point where I consider myself part of the ‘hearing community’ and can compete on their own terms (this technological marvel means that other people often think I have normal hearing).

      I do not hold truck with some sections of the ‘deaf community’ who would regard people like me who use bionic implants, as traitors to the cause.

      The notion that deafness (along with other medical conditions) is not a disability is delusional as well as divisive. We were all originally designed to hear normally but due to the genaral corruption of nature and sin then deafness and other disabilities will continue to appear.

      Jesus healed those with disabilities and I wouldn’t mind a miracle myself, but I am thankful that I have a means of grace in my implant which has taught me many things about human nature. However, I am looking forward to when imperfection is swallowed up by perfection (1 Cor 13:10).

      I just hope heaven doesn’t turn out to be an everlasting church service…

      Reply
    • I think if people born with a disability such as deafness were given a glimpse of what it’s like to be non-disabled, they would not want to remain as such in the new creation.

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  3. Before the Fall God saw all that he had made and it was very good. Disabilities and birth defects are not very good, though God in his grace and mercy can bring good out of them.

    So disabilities and birth defects are a consequence of the Fall.

    Phil Almond

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  4. Thank you for a characteristically thoughtful article. As you know I have a life-long hearing impairment. That, and my engagement with folk of various mental and physical impairments/dis-abilities, makes me more cautious than you when talking about identity. This is one of those occasions when I could wish this was a discussion with folk of varied direct experience of this in the room. You will reasonably ask me to say more but I am just about to go on holiday for two weeks. Sorry!
    One further point. The discussion on your previous blog about Lambeth is steering once again into the questions of patriarchy and gender. That topic has only recently been debated at exhaustive length on your site with (almost entirely) male conservative voices unable to agree on what scripture actually teaches. Well I note that for significant periods of Church history women have been seen as basically disabled versions of men. I think the shadows of that history remain. Thanks again.

    Reply
  5. David
    On the sexuality thread (End of Communion) I have challenged Ian Paul as follows:

    “I will assume it is common ground that in 5:23 ‘The wives to the(ir) own husbands as to the Lord’ (Nestle-Marshall literal) ‘be subject’ (‘The wives be subject to their own husbands as to the Lord’) is obviously implied from 5:22. I will also assume it is common ground that in 5:24 ‘so also the wives to the(ir) husbands in everything’ ‘be subject’ is implied.
    The exhortation to wives to be subject to their own husbands as to the Lord in 5:22 is ‘because a man is kephale of the woman’. ‘But as the church is subject to Christ…’ in 5:24 is clearly (implied) because ‘as also Christ is kephale of the church’. This implied link between kephale and subjection is supported by Ephesians 1:22 ‘and all things subjected under the feet of him, and gave him [to be] kephale to the church, which is the body of him, the fullness of the[one] filling all things with all things’.”

    “I think you need to show where my exegesis is faulty.”

    I put the same challenge to you.

    Phil Almond

    Reply
    • Greeting Phil. I will not be responding to your ‘challenge’ for two reasons.
      1. It is neither the topic of this thread – nor the point I was making. Would you like to respond to that?
      2. I recall debates with you on this subject way back on Fulcrum. You were putting out these same ‘challenges’ then. And only recently you and other (largely) conservative thinkers argued this topic to a standstill on these threads – without agreement. Phil, I understand the conservative arguments. Do you really not understand mine? Or perhaps you do, but you cannot accept the possibility of another viewpoint from scripture. Either way, you will understand if I feel I am not going to make a difference here.

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      • David
        you posted
        “Well I note that for significant periods of Church history women have been seen as basically disabled versions of men. I think the shadows of that history remain. Thanks again.” My post was in response to that to emphasise that my view is based on the quote I am challenging you (and Ian) to find fault with, or, if you cannot fault it, to agree with it – and not on some lingering view that “women have been seen as basically disabled versions of men.”
        In response to your “male conservative voices unable to agree on what scripture actually teaches” I reply that Ian and those who agree with him on this are wrong and I and those who agree with me are right. I am willing to debate this in detail with anybody. I understand your view and think it is mistaken.

        Phil Almond

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        • Phil I think you must be an evangelist. You never lose hope you may convert me and others to your ‘correct’ view! But ever since I started my theological studies at Bible College such differences were part of even the most conservative world of biblically centred faith. There has never been one view and the insistence there should be explains why the evangelical world has a history of splintering. But I would like to thank you for the tone with which you engage. You are unfailingly courteous, honest and respectful and I hope in my responses to you I honour that.

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          • David
            Thanks. Not convert you only but convert the whole Church. The ordination of women is bound to become an issue as LLF is played out, providing of course that we all confront the detailed exegesis, which you and Ian seem reluctant to do.

            Phil Almond

          • Whereas Phil’s posts are full of actual content, David’s are contentless and just repeat ‘there are different views’. So what if there are? They won’t be worth much unless they receive backing, and that involves content. Not jumping to conclusions.

          • In his 1948 essay “Priestesses in the Church?” C S Lewis ends with the following prophecy:
            “With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as fact of nature but as live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us”.

            Phil Almond

    • Just a thought. Is St.Paul saying to women: Now look, your men are subjecting their lives and property to the Lord. Don’t go off on your own tangent with the freedom you now have. Work with them as if yoked but, not like a donkey with an ox. Be like minded in everything you do together, like two oxen pulling the same load.?

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    • Dear Phil,

      Since the most reliable manuscripts have Eph 5:22 (not 5:23!!) as the same sentence as v21 – i.e. there is no verb of which ‘wives’ is the subject – you need to first explain how you are to be subject to me (and I to you). These two are part and parcel of the same train of thought.

      Then also you might like to consider how you (if you are married) and I (who is married) are to love our wives as Christ loves the his church. He humbled himself, taking the form of a slave. He came not to be served (have others subject to him) but serve and give his life. He took off his outer clothing and performed the most humble action that one could in those days – wash his disciples’ feet.

      Perhaps if husband did truly love their wives as Christ loves his church, then wives would gladly submit (a better translation than ‘be subject’) to such husbands.

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      • Hello David Wilson
        Thanks for your thoughtful post. If you are open to a serious debate on the detailed exegesis of the relevant passages where you can challenge me and I can challenge you I refer you to my full case

        “We have been over this ground several times

        My view on men-women in marriage and ministry can be found here: On Fulcrum thread ‘Paul’s concern for the women in Timothy’s churches: Notes on 1 Tim 2.8-15’
        Phil Almond
        August 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm”

        and my August 7 post on the sexual thread about end of communion, where Ian’s response and my counter response is.

        But if you have not time for that I will try to reply tomorrow in a shorter form.

        Phil Almond

        Reply
        • Hello David Wilson
          Thank you for pointing out my mistake -‘The wives to the(ir) own husbands as to the Lord’ is Ephesians 5:22 not 5:23. Sorry about that. In my case I wrote

          “So how should we understand verse 21? In a long debate on the excellent Fulcrum forum a supporter of the ordination of women posted ‘the NT church found their relationships and the ordering of their common life and ministry, authority and power completely reshaped by the example of Christ – who came not to be served but to serve’. I emphatically agreed with that but pointed out that the supporters of the ordination of women seem to miss that this revolution does not mean that all relationships between Christians are symmetrical in terms of authority. What the example of Christ does mean, however, is that when one Christian submits in obedience to the authority and leadership of another Christian (wife to husband, child to parent, slave to master, younger to elder, employee to boss, church member to pastor) the one to whose authority submission is made, whose leadership is followed, should have the mindset of the one who said, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls’. And of course, such authority and leadership should only be submitted to and followed when there is no conflict with submission to Christ whose authority is absolute. The husband’s headship is not about asserting rights, power, privileges and status. He is called to exercise his authority and leadership role in a sacrificial way, contrary to fallen human nature. The wife’s role, which is also contrary to fallen human nature, is to recognize and submit to that leadership and authority. Human authority does not imply superiority nor human submission inferiority. In my view this is how we should understand Ephesians 5:21.”

          I stand by that but your post has made me reflect further. 5:21is a general statement about the relationship between Christians in general. This relationship between one Christian and another (You and me for instance) is symmetrical. We both have to love one another as we love ourselves; we have to support one another, remembering that it is more blessed to give than to receive; we have to bear one another’s burdens and not please ourselves; we have to wash one another’s feet; in lowliness of mind I have to esteem you better than me and you have to esteem me better than you.

          But as I point out in my case “this revolution does not mean that all relationships between Christians are symmetrical in terms of authority”. The following are asymmetrical :wife to husband, child to parent, slave to master, younger to elder, employee to boss, church member to pastor.
          In particular, regarding the husband-wife relationship, I invite you to agree or disagree with my (corrected)

          “I will assume it is common ground that in 5:22 ‘The wives to the(ir) own husbands as to the Lord’ (Nestle-Marshall literal) ‘be subject’ (‘The wives be subject to their own husbands as to the Lord’) is obviously implied from 5:21. I will also assume it is common ground that in 5:24 ‘so also the wives to the(ir) husbands in everything’ ‘be subject’ is implied.
          The exhortation to wives to be subject to their own husbands as to the Lord in 5:22 is ‘because a man is kephale of the woman as also Christ is head of the church, himself Saviour of the body’ 5:23. ‘But as the church is subject to Christ…’ in 5:24 is clearly (implied) because ‘as also Christ is kephale of the church’. This implied link between kephale and subjection is supported by Ephesians 1:22 ‘and all things subjected under the feet of him, and gave him [to be] kephale to the church, which is the body of him, the fullness of the[one] filling all things with all things’.”

          You will realise that Ian Paul, with whom I agree on many things, has spent a lot of time trying to persuade us that there is not a link between kephale and subjection. I am convinced that this exegesis makes the link clear. Do you agree or disagree?

          I know there is more to be said, including how I see all this bearing on the ordination of women and the same-sex disagreement but it would be good if we could concentrate on this point at the moment.

          Many thanks

          Phil Almond

          Reply
          • Hi Bruce
            It is by subjecting herself to Christ, individually and in community, that the blessings of 4:16 are realised.

            Phil Almond

          • Except that what is said using the kephale metaphor in Eph 4:15-16 (and Col 2:9-10) seems to rely on a sense of kephale related to growth rather than authority/submission. Why would that be?

    • Perhaps David should have been more careful in his words. It is certainly true that in the ancient classical world women were regarded as defective men. In this, as in other matters, the Church through the years seems to have absorbed this thinking, and used it in their reading of Scripture.

      A careful reading of Scripture against the surrounding culture of its time shows significant differences. Scripture has a much higher view of women than the surrounding cultures of the first few centuries. That is one reason why women flocked to the church (c.f. Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”).

      [I would note that performing the same kind analysis for sexual immorality (of various kinds) shows that Scripture is always more strict than surrounding cultures.]

      Reply
    • Thanks Chris. The first priority is avoiding getting covid from my wife at the moment. I am isolating more than her! Hope you have some space in this time too

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  6. This article is beyond my understanding. One of the things that the author seems to project is that we Christians keep the same body after the resurrection from the dead. I beg to differ. My understanding is that we receive a new body when Christ returns to get his bride, God’s children. 1 Corinthians 15 indicates so where it is written,

    “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory…”

    I so look forward to my new body and freedom in Christ. I’m sure that my disability will be gone. No sin nature, no disease, no illness, no sickness, no infirmities, and no death.

    So listen out for that trumpet!

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  7. Yes, and I see people say that disability will still be present in heaven because Jesus still had his scars. But they seem to be missing that Jesus walked, cooked, ate, none of which he could do if he still bore the disablement of the cross.

    I did reply on Twitter too but it’s hard to follow a conversation there, and I think there was a poster whose tweets I couldn’t see.

    I think one of the difficulties is the subtle differences in the use of the word identity. I identify as disabled, but what I mean by that is that I am disabled as defined by the Equalities Act. Also there are commonalities of experience for people with a chronic illness like mine (EDS) and similar (Lyme disease, ME, long covid). That commonality creates a community/identity group.

    I use identity to mean that I associate myself with a particular set of people. There is a different use of the word that is under contention here, but I confess I am struggling to define it. I will continue to think and perhaps come back.

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    • Emma, l think that people with common disabilities will naturally congregate together as a means of support and understanding. In my own case it takes someone with a cochlear implant to understand what it is like to hear with one. To that extent we identify with each other. This l think, is different from forming an exclusive identity that marks you out from the rest of the world as being a unique ‘community’ with its own membership and participation parameters which to my mind, smacks more like a spin off from identity politics.

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  8. Like many hearing impaired people I have tinnitus. Being deaf can be a very noisy business! The struggle is to recognize, through the noise, what is signal – the message we are being offered and need to hear. During one of those periods when tinnitus was wearing me down, I was sitting with a wise friend, an Orthodox monk, telling of my frustrations. I told him my only sense of God’s response to my prayers for relief was that tinnitus would in some way become a song. It was a thought I had not actually articulated aloud before.
    ‘I know what it is’, he immediately replied. ‘It is an “ison”.’ In ancient Byzantine worship the ison is the continuous bass note held in the background by the choir. The cantors then improvise and weave the worship and prayers of the church and world around it. You get something similar in jazz. Faithful improvisation. Hold that core beat and the music can go anywhere. Lose it and all becomes formless and void. Theologically the ison represents the sound of God – the divine song that holds all creation in being, makes all other songs possible and gives them their freedom and extraordinary diversity. It is the audio equivalent of gold in the background of icons – the uncreated light. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the ‘Cantus Firmus’.
    For me deafness has become a kind of parable and commentary on the continued challenges of living and believing in times like ours. If life is to have any nurturing depth, the ability to distinguish signal from noise is the biggest challenge we face. What if God is the tinnitus of our age? And the thought that the very thing that we wish most to be rid of – that we can only react to as a wearing distraction, distorting what we think really needs saying and doing – is actually the sound we most truly need to hear and recognise, the song that holds us in being and will yet save us all – this is both disturbing but endlessly hopeful.

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