Lauren Hayes, "Burdens of Charity? A Different Perspective on a Biblical View of People with Disabilities and the Church"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.

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(Abstract):

Disability affects all of us in some way, yet many of us are unaware of the social, let alone theological, impact created by our response to disability. Across the world, people with disabilities are still one of the most marginalised groups. With such a strong biblical mandate for inclusion of people with disabilities, why is exclusion still so prevalent in our churches and communities? The answer is largely due to the fact that people with disabilities are rarely given a voice within mainstream or faith communities. We are too often seen as charity cases or as a problem needing to be fixed, rather than productive members of society who are accepted and valued. We are family members, next-door neighbours, fellow commuters and colleagues. Sometimes these roles are not acknowledged, and sometimes we want to fulfil these roles, but cannot because of prejudice and exclusion. This paper will explore some of the biblical foundations for disability inclusion, how they have been implemented throughout history, and what a disability theology and praxis looks like in a 21st century context.

 

John 9: A Retelling

It was an overcast Sabbath morning as Benjamin sat by the side of the road, exhausted after a long week of trying to bring in some extra money for his ageing parents. He listened to the excited conversations of worshippers making their way to the temple to celebrate the end of the Festival of Tabernacles. Rumours were circulating that this man called Jesus might be at the festival. Some said he stirred up trouble and couldn’t be trusted, while others said he was what the world had been waiting for. Benjamin was curious, and wondered if Jesus could help him. There wasn’t much chance of that. If he tried to go to the temple now it would be the same as every other time his parents had tried to take him before. “You know the law,” the religious leaders would say. “He can’t come in.”

So Benjamin waited some distance from the temple while his parents went to worship, thinking and praying. A week ago he had helped his father build a Sukkah, the temporary hut used by his family during the festival. His father was a good craftsman, and taught him skills in woodwork at an early age, much to the horror of their friends and neighbours. But his father persisted in the hope that Benjamin might one day be able to earn a living for himself and not have to resort to begging, or be dragged off by the Romans as a source of cheap entertainment for their banquets. No one was willing to hire him, and begging became necessary when work was scarce for his father. The festival of booths was supposed to be a time when people were charitable. People had certainly given him money that week, but it was usually given begrudgingly and came with pitying remarks. In any case, he didn’t want their charity. He just wanted to be a valued citizen in his community.

At that moment he was surprised to hear voices coming towards him from the direction of the temple. He wondered what could have happened to cause people to leave, especially on the Sabbath.

“Why did you do it, Lord?” a man asked angrily. “Everywhere we go it seems we get thrown out of temples and you nearly get us all killed. Can’t you just keep the peace for once?”

“Lord?” someone else chimed in. “See that man sitting by the side of the road? I’ve seen him begging in this area for most of the week. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Benjamin wondered if this might be Jesus, whose name had been mentioned a lot lately around town, and waited expectantly. After he finished talking with his disciples, he approached Benjamin.

“I understand you’ve had a tough week.”

“You could say that, sir,” Benjamin replied, pleasantly surprised by the man’s question, appreciative of being spoken to in a manner that wasn’t condescending.

Benjamin then heard the man spit, and felt mud being placed on his eyes.

“Go and wash in the pool of Siloam. Peter, will you guide him?”

“Sure, as long as you promise we won’t be thrown out of any more temples.” The man’s silence indicated to Benjamin that he was ignoring Peter, and he smiled to himself as Peter helped him to his feet and guided him to the pool. Wondering who this man was and what he was getting himself into, he washed in the pool. As he returned to the water’s edge, he felt a strange sensation in his eyes. He saw different kinds of light, shapes and colours, or at least, what he presumed to be shapes and colours. He silently took in his surroundings as he made his way back. He wondered if there was a possibility that he might now be welcomed to worship. As he walked, heads of unfamiliar faces turned towards him, talking about him and asking questions. He began matching voices of neighbours and friends to the faces as they wondered if he was the same blind man that they knew, and if he could really see. Benjamin tried in vain to answer, but his affirmations were met with disbelief. He didn’t understand. Why weren’t they happy and celebrating his healing? His path was now blocked, and he found himself being forcefully led in another direction.

“I think we need to pay a visit to the temple,” someone said, “to find out what’s really going on.”

Benjamin was overwhelmed by his new sensory experience. Trying to make sense of everything was exhausting. The last thing he wanted was an interrogation, but the questions began as soon as the Pharisees saw him. If this wasn’t enough, accusations were also thrown at the man who healed him.

“But it’s true,” cried Benjamin, in the man’s defence. “I was blind, but now I can see. This man must be a prophet.”

“This is outrageous. If he was a prophet, he wouldn’t have healed you on the Sabbath. Can someone go and find this man’s parents? We need further verification that Benjamin’s story is true.”

Benjamin had hoped he would be able to see his parents privately and explain what had happened, but news of his healing had already reached them.

“So, is this your son? How is it that he was blind, but now has his sight?” asked a Pharisee as soon as his parents arrived.

“He is our son, and he was born blind, but we don’t know how he received his sight. Can’t you ask him? He can speak for himself,” replied Benjamin’s father. He couldn’t believe what was happening. If his son had indeed been healed, perhaps by Jesus, he didn’t want to admit it for fear of being thrown out of the synagogue. But it wasn’t just this that bothered him. Benjamin was always ignored by others. It was as if people thought he was incapable of speaking, and they asked questions and talked about Benjamin to his parents, instead of speaking directly with him. It frustrated his father to no end, and he couldn’t believe it was still happening now, even after Benjamin’s sight had been restored. He and his wife watched on with concern as Benjamin was once again questioned. As terrible as this situation was, they felt a sense of pride as Benjamin stated his case with the boldness and intelligence that he had displayed since he was a child. His testimony and defence of his healer was again met with disbelief, and he was sent out of the temple.

Later, Benjamin and his parents sat down to eat, hopeful for a moment of peace away from prying eyes and endless questions. It wasn’t too long before voices could be heard in the distance. His mother sighed.

“May we join you?” asked the man leading the group. Benjamin recognized the voice immediately.

“It’s the man who healed me,” he said quietly to his parents.

“Benjamin, do you believe in the Son of Man?” asked the healer.

“I want to believe in him. Who is he?”

“He is speaking with you now.” Benjamin worshiped him.

Disability and the Church

In retelling the story of John 9, I hoped to provide some insight into the social and cultural issues surrounding disability, and begin to draw some comparisons between ancient Israel and the 21st century. I will expand on some of these issues throughout this paper. The last part of John 9, which I did not include in my retelling, involves a conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees concerning spiritual blindness. I will also refer to this in later paragraphs.

In the most recent National Church Life Survey, church leaders and attendees were asked questions relating to disability. Leaders were asked about building accessibility, whether there were disability policies in place, and whether information was given to parishioners about practical inclusion. Attendees were asked whether they had a disability or were connected with someone who had a disability through family, friends or in the workplace, and were asked whether or not they thought their church was inclusive. The limited scope of this paper does not allow me to provide details concerning all of the results, but I will point out those of most interest and relevance to the discussion. Bear in mind that the data may be skewed, given people’s interpretation of disability-related questions, and the fact that not all church attendees may have completed the survey.

According to the results, 8% of people who attend church have a disability. Within the broader Australian population, 16% have a disability. Family members of people with disabilities who attend church is at 18%, compared with 12% in the wider population, and 18% of church attendees work or volunteer in the disability field in comparison to only 6% of the population. Forty-eight percent of people with mild disabilities attending church felt they belonged in the church, but only 12% felt their church was inclusive. “What do we say about the fact that people with a disability are more likely to be absent from church, but not those who care for them? Are we better at caring for the carers than for those they care for?”[1]

We certainly need to be concerned about these findings, as it means that the body of Christ itself is disabled, since parts of it are missing. However, the above statistics don’t surprise me. When parents of a child with a disability are told by church leaders that he or she should not participate in youth group, when the sanctuary of a church is not designed well for wheelchair users, when well-meaning Christians approach people with disabilities and pray for their healing, is it any wonder that people with disabilities are anxious and unwilling to explore what being part of a church might mean for them?

The images and common perceptions about disability we see today are usually negative or overly positive, with middle ground views being the exception. I believe the church needs to take some responsibility for the role it has played in the perpetuation of these perceptions. In the Hebrew Bible, Lev 21:17–23

prohibits anyone “blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes” (vv. 18–20) from the priestly activities of bringing offerings to God or entering the most holy place in the temple. These and similar passages have historically been used to warrant barring persons with disabilities from positions of ecclesiastical visibility and authority.[2]

People have also used passages in the New Testament to support the idea that disability is linked with sin, or, alternatively, that disability helps people to form a special relationship with God—we, as people with disabilities, can teach the rest of the Christian community about patience, endurance, and perseverance through suffering. “Disability is a temporary affliction that must be endured to gain heavenly rewards.”[3]

John 9 picks up on these themes. Jesus seemingly addresses the disciples’ concern about sin causing disability by saying that the disability is present in order to reveal the glory of God. However, I don’t think it is Jesus’ intention for people with disabilities to display God’s glory any more than those who are able-bodied. Nor do I believe it is a story that should be used to teach a spiritual and moral lesson—namely, be aware of your current or potential spiritual blindness. While it is certainly important to reflect on and try to change the shortcomings of our spiritual lives, I feel that too often John 9 has been used to remind people of this, and its deeper message has been ignored. Furthermore, John 9 has influenced societal perceptions of people with disabilities, viewing us as having greater spiritual insights and wisdom than those who are able-bodied.

For me, this story is more about creating loving and inclusive communities than it is about physical healing. The aforementioned Leviticus passage stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ ministry and its impact. Jesus is constantly met with opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders, who try and instigate the Levitical law at every possible opportunity. Prior to Jesus meeting the blind man, he was forced to leave the temple after a heated discussion with religious leaders ends with a death threat. After his healing, the blind man is removed from the temple by the Pharisees following their interrogation. Now, both the healer and the healed have been excluded from the very place where they should be welcomed. The unhealed were also not welcome. Jesus, therefore, often met people outside designated places of worship. He was very much aware of the social, cultural and religious issues that surrounded disability. Too often we have failed to understand these issues ourselves, and impose the passage from Leviticus on others. Creating accessible and inclusive churches, while it is an important task, is just the beginning.

In her book The Disabled God, author Nancy Eiesland calls for the development of a theology of disability. She writes:

A theology of disability must be made a visible, integral, and ordinary part of the Christian life and our theological reflections on that life. As long as disability is addressed in terms of the themes of sin-disability conflation, virtuous suffering, or charitable action, it will be seen primarily as a fate to be avoided, a tragedy to be explained, or a cause to be championed rather than an ordinary life to be lived. As long as disability is unaddressed theologically or addressed only as a “special interest perspective,” the Christian church will continue to propagate a double-minded stance that holds up the disabled as objects of ministry and adulation for overcoming the very barriers that the church has helped to construct. Moreover, the church will squander the considerable theological and practical energies of persons with disabilities who, like other minority groups, call the church to repentance and transformation.[4]

In developing a disability theology, it is critical that we engage with contemporary issues surrounding disability. In Australia, one in five people have a disability, that’s over four million people. About 2.1 million Australians with disabilities are of working age. Fifteen percent of Australians have a physical disability, one in six Australians experience hearing loss, 357,000 Australians are blind or vision impaired, and 668,100 Australians have an intellectual disability. More than 90,000 Australians experience mental illness. In 2009, only 54.3% of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 83% of people without disabilities. Graduates with disabilities take longer to find work. Two thirds of people with disabilities earn less than $320 per week, compared with only one third of the broader population. Australia ranks 27 out of 27 among OECD countries for people with disabilities living in or near poverty.[5] Women with disabilities experience far higher rates of violence than men with disabilities, or women without disabilities. Issues surrounding access to health care, and parenting rights, are much more complex for women with disabilities than their able-bodied peers.[6]

It may seem that my attitude towards the church is negative. The church has created some positive initiatives regarding disability throughout its time which should certainly be acknowledged. Nancy Eiesland writes:

Historically, church-based charitable societies have also merged charity and healing, establishing numerous hospitals and clinics for people with disabilities. The benefits of these organizations should not be underemphasized. They have provided humane care, medical advances, and indispensable financial support. Yet one unintended outcome of the practices of some charitable societies has been the environmental and social segregation of people with disabilities from the Christian community rather than restoration to social and religious participation.[7]

Today, there are a number of individuals, churches and organisations who are slowly helping to create a shift in thinking about disability, theology and inclusion. The little known disability rights movement, which followed on from the civil rights movement, has been gradually making changes within mainstream society for some time. The 2012 London Paralympics, and the recent political debates and grassroots activism leading to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia, have given the disability community more media coverage than we have had in some time, much of which has tried to begin normalizing disability. Yet the voices of people with disabilities are still relatively quiet compared with those of other minority groups. Within the church, however, their voices are even quieter.

We rarely see people with disabilities in leadership roles within the Christian community. The reason for this is perhaps twofold. First, until recently, there has been little or no curriculum relating to the theology of disability in Australian theological colleges. Former resource coordinator of CBM’s Luke14, Lindsey Gale, has developed a week-long intensive subject called Disability and Normality, which was initially piloted at Ridley College, and is now being introduced to a number of schools within the Australian College of Theology. I hope that the introduction of this course will mean that in years to come, we may no longer have a need for the subject, and that disability inclusion will happen of its own accord.

Second, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are few students with disabilities enrolling in theology courses. This could stem back to the verse from Leviticus I referred to earlier, which may have lead church authorities or people with disabilities themselves to believe that they are unfit for ministry. Another barrier is the lack of physical access to churches and theological institutions. In my own experience, as a recent graduate of Whitley College, there were difficulties in acquiring theological material in accessible formats. With no disability support staff, and not having had a student who is blind before, I would like to commend the staff at Whitley for ensuring that I was able to study equally as well as my sighted peers.

Conclusion

There is much we can learn from the history of disability, both positive and negative, and the various biblical interpretations of disability. Leviticus 21 clearly excludes people with disabilities from participation in the life of a faith community, which in turn has excluded participation from the broader community. Jesus tries to illustrate that this law is only descriptive of how society responds to disability, that it isn’t set in stone and needs to be changed. The people on the margins of society, like the blind man, understand this more than those who hold positions of religious power. The body of Christ will not be complete until people with disabilities are fully included. I hope that together we can come to the Bible with open eyes, and listen attentively as we seek to understand God’s word through the lens of disability.

 

[1] Lindsey Gale, “New Disability Findings from the Latest Church Life Survey,” Luke14, CBM International, 2013; https://www.cbm.org.au/content/our-work/luke14/ncls-results#.VhsXE2t8lOR.

[2] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 74.

[3] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 74.

[4] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 75.

[5] “Stats and Facts,” Australian Network on Disability, http://www.and.org.au/pages/disability-statistics.html.

[6] For further information concerning issues for women with disabilities, particularly in Victoria, see Women with Disabilities Victoria, http://www.wdv.org.au.

[7] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 73–74.

Image: Victor, Flickr (Creative Commons)