What Disability Theology Can Teach Science and the Church Part 2
Devan Stahl and Leonard Curry consider how the early Church viewed disability, how theology enriches bioethics, and provide helpful tips on combating ableism.
Leonard Curry is a social ethicist, and Devan Stahl is a bioethicist, both with backgrounds in theology. They recently co-authored an article in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics titled, “Intersections and Methods in Disability Theology: Bioethics and Critical Studies as Dialogue Partners.” In the article they discuss the growing field of disability theology, review the history of how theology has engaged topics of medicine and bioethics, and make the case that theology can help us learn what it means to live and flourish with disability. In this interview, I unpack the article with the authors. The interview has been broken down into two parts, which will each be published consecutively. You can read part 1 here. Leonard was previously featured on our website on the topic of pastoring during a pandemic, as he has served as a pastor.
Ciara: In your article you mention that the field of bioethics was founded in part by theologians. Over the years, however, bioethics and theology have become increasingly more compartmentalized or even polarized disciplines. What do we lose when these disciplines don’t interact in the conversation of disability?
Devan: The first and most obvious thing we lose is a way to connect with the very people we are hoping to speak to and about. People with disabilities are as, and by some measures a bit more, religious than the nondisabled. Religion is a meaningful part of many disabled people’s identities whether they are in the hospital or not. When they ignore religion or are not taught about religion, clinicians and other bioethicists may struggle with how to address patients’ religious beliefs. By refusing to take up theology, bioethicists also miss out on the opportunity to talk about the meaning of the body.
As a Christian with disabilities, I believe that my body has moral significance outside of medicine. I recognize that medicine has been given power to construct and control my body, but my body cannot be reduced to medicine’s schemes. This richer conversation about embodiedness and disability is rarely taken up within bioethics and as a result, bioethicists are often most concerned with how to prevent disability.
[When bioethics and theology do not interact] we lose is a way to connect with the very people we are hoping to speak to and about.
Ciara: Metaphors of the body are prevalent throughout scripture, from the church as the body of Christ, to the symbolism of communion as Christ’s body. How did early Christians understand the body and disability? How have we reinterpreted this?
Devan: This is a difficult question to answer, in part because of the difficulty of defining disability I mentioned earlier. There was no category of “disability” in the Bible in the way we understand it now. “Disability” today encompasses radically different characteristics and identities such as blindness, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and bipolar disorder. Early Christians likely didn’t have just one category like disability to put people into. Instead, it appears that they understood things we might call disabilities as separate conditions with different connotations.
Take blindness for example. It is clear from Scripture that blindness was a prevalent part of the community and that it was sometimes considered some sort of punishment from God. This is likely why Jesus’ followers asked him who had sinned, this man or his parents, so that a man was born blind?
Of course, Jesus answers in a way that is unexpected, saying that neither sinned but that he was born blind so that God might be revealed in him. (John 9:2-3) Like most of Jesus’ sayings, it isn’t clear exactly what he means by this, but it does reveal that there are multiple and conflicting interpretations of various disabilities happening in the first century that Jesus’ disciples and later theologians were contending with. Unfortunately, the notion that disability is a result of sin has never fully been eradicated from Christian theology. Many Christians still believe that various disabilities are caused by sin, either personal sin or the original sin of Adam and Eve. I think it is quite common to believe that everything we call today a ‘disability’ is the result of the Fall.
there are multiple and conflicting interpretations of various disabilities happening in the first century that Jesus’ disciples and later theologians were contending with. Unfortunately, the notion that disability is a result of sin has never fully been eradicated from Christian theology.
Leonard: I am not an expert here. But a few things come to mind that feel important to remember in order to answer your question. The first is that medicine changes. If we’re thinking about the time of Jesus, then the predominant medical model would have been one based on humors. Scientists and medical doctors believed that a person had a certain number of humors and that they had to be balanced in order to be in good health. I do not know how what we now consider disability fared under such a model, but I can imagine not well.
I am also reminded of the cultural and religious upheavals taking place. Rome was the ruling empire during the time of Jesus and this created cultural flashpoints about the perfect or ideal body. Scholars of gymnasiums have told us that Jewish men tried to alter their bodies in order to look more like Romans. Moreover, we know that Greco-Roman art and aesthetics demanded the social presentation of perfected bodies (think about popular sculptures from this period), while Greco-Roman religion valued the beauty of an Aphrodite or Diane and held that gorgons or Medusa were as physically unattractive as they were morally evil.
Greco-Roman art and aesthetics demanded the social presentation of perfected bodies…amid these…discourses of perfection…we have religious visions [from prophets like Daniel, Ezekiel and John the Revelator] of extraordinary bodies, bodies that are fantastically strange…Maybe we can recover the strangeness of heavenly bodies to remind ourselves to keep an open mind about the kinds of bodies that are God-ordained demonstrations of grace.
Meanwhile, and on the other side, in the Jewish and early Christian traditions, we have accounts of prophets having heavenly visions and in those visions they see language and logic-defying extraordinary bodies. Daniel, Ezekiel, John the Revelator all see in heaven creatures which nearly defied their capacities for speech. So, amid these floating imperial discourses of perfection and abnormality, we have religious visions of extraordinary bodies, bodies that are fantastically strange, bodies which secured the heavenly nature of the vision. I don’t know that our histories have born this out but, for me, there is the hope that these strange, extraordinary bodies–which are at the same time heavenly bodies; bodies of heaven that belong to heaven–can help our imaginations to be more expansive. The religious imagination can be a counterpoint to the imperial-social imagination. Maybe we can recover the strangeness of heavenly bodies to remind ourselves to keep an open mind about the kinds of bodies that are God-ordained demonstrations of grace.
Ciara: At the end of your article, you write that the work of disability theology is “not only important for the academy and the church, but for all spaces in which ableism continues.” What is ableism, and how can we guard ourselves against this and combat it in our communities of faith?
Devan: Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against disabled people. Ableism sets up able-bodiedness as preferable, valuable, and normal. Most ableism isn’t overt or even conscious, it’s the way we’ve been taught to see and value normalcy. There is much our churches can do to draw attention to ableism.
- We can watch our words more carefully. Obviously, we should never use a disability as an insult against others. But we should also notice when we use disabilities as negative metaphors in language (e.g., blind to the truth, crippled with fear, deaf to justice). Our spiritual language, hymns, and Scripture is laden with these metaphors. We should try to use more precise language or give warnings and explanations for when we do use disability negatively. Learning to speak differently may awaken us to new ways of understanding God and ourselves.
- We can do more to universalize experiences of limitation. All of our bodies and minds are limited in fundamental ways, and these limitations are not always bad (if they were it is hard to explain why Christ came to us in a limited and finite body). Pastors and religious leaders can also begin to name the ways in which they struggle to destigmatize disability and mental illness
- We need to start allowing people with disabilities to take leadership roles in our congregations. Often within Christianity, disabled people are seen as charity cases, ways for nondisabled people to practice benevolence. Only seeing disabled people this way renders them subordinate and pitiable. When we allow people with disabilities to take on leadership roles, we may begin to understand their experiences as well as their strengths.
We need to start allowing people with disabilities to take leadership roles in our congregations…When we allow people with disabilities to take on leadership roles, we may begin to understand their experiences as well as their strengths.
Leonard: In an unpublished paper, I tried to provide a rubric towards becoming “anti-ableist,” using that term to push us a little further than the first step of being aware of ableism, and the second step of just avoiding ableism (doing no harm). Those are great starting places, but the end goal is to do good, to be a part of the co-construction of a world of flourishing for folks with disabilities. Much of what I’ve said, Devan has already said. So, I’ll just add a few important, concrete thoughts.
First, acknowledge the people with disabilities in your own lives. When I first began to pay attention to disability, I realized that there were many people in my life who were persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. Trying to comprehend why I didn’t perceive them as people with disabilities or as persons pursuing social justice and the elimination of structural inequalities caused by ableism became my first work. Remembering people with disabilities in my own life has helped me to ground my conception of disability in material, concrete relationships rather than hypothesized persons.
Remembering people with disabilities in my own life has helped me to ground my conception of disability in material, concrete relationships rather than hypothesized persons.
Second, as a scholar, I insist on reading what people with disabilities are writing. It is important to me to have first-person accounts of the joys, pains, sorrows, and the spiritual and physical ecstasies experienced by persons living with disabilities. Writers who are persons with disabilities are a profound resource for understanding how ableism works, and how we all participate in it. Reading their work keeps one from the kind of arrogance that is complicit in ableism, an arrogance that assumes it knows without asking, that assumes it can access bodies as knowledge without listening to their testimonies. Instead of pretending to possess all knowledge, expertise, and mastery, feel your way with head and heart, ask questions, and read.
Third, when you are ready to make material, concrete, and structural changes, hire a person with a disability who does consulting. People with disabilities need good work. Pay them for their labor and expertise.
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About the authors
Charles Foster | Inhabit the World