Central 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. We trust that our learning together will be transformative both in understanding 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 human flourishing. Often ostracized for their difference, persons with disability--whether physical or intellectual or both--have rarely been allowed to construct their own life narratives, according to Amos Yong in his fine work "Theology and Down Syndrome."
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 "cause" of the disability, usually by trying to determine whose sin is the causative factor.
In the lectionary cycle featuring Elijah, we remember that his healing of the widow of Zarephath's son becomes the demonstration that he is a mighty prophet of God; it also reveals his compassion. Yet, the son is not any kind of agent in this narrative, only the object of pity.
This healing ministry figures prominently in the ministry of Jesus, which is interpreted as a sign of messianic identity. An additional challenge in the Gospels is the association of disability and "evil spirits." Thankfully, contemporary New Testament studies are helping us understand the world view that would make this association; even more important, scholars are learning the "normate" or "ableism" bias in reading such texts and are learning to ask new questions.
A "pneumatological imagination" (Yong's term) can help us think again about the Body of Christ, where all have a place. This vision can help us think about new ways of discourse that do not marginalize, but offer emancipatory proclamation and performance.
I am grateful for Central's alumna, Jenny Hatfield-Callen, whose advocacy for people with disabilities has prompted her seminary to enter new learning in this area. We pray it will be for the good of the churches and all God's people as we reimagine disability together.
Molly T. Marshall
Central desires to prepare leaders who practice mercy and kindness, walking humbly with our God. To learn more, continue visiting our website.