Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings

Blind man walking with a cane and dog.
Let's look at Matthew 20:29-34. In this story, two blind men call out to Jesus and ask him to give them their sight, and he does.

In my experience, when Christians read biblical accounts of Jesus' healings, we discuss and interpret them from a certain set of assumptions about disabilities. These are assumptions which seem, to abled people, to be so obviously true, we never even question them or realize it's possible to think in a different way. Specifically, I'm talking about beliefs like:
  1. The #1 thing a disabled person needs most is to become not-disabled.
  2. After Jesus heals them, everything is good, and they can immediately go ahead and "be a normal person."
However, I have now learned that society's beliefs about disabled people are often wrong and harmful. In particular, many disabled writers talk about how they want people to listen to them instead of spreading ignorant stereotypes, and they want society to be accessible so disabled people are not barred from participating in everyday activities that abled people take for granted. They say that it's not the disability that limits them, it's people's stereotypes and ignorance and how society is basically designed with the assumption that disabled people don't exist or aren't important. To imagine that they just need to be "healed" and then everything would be better just perpetuates the idea that there's nothing wrong with society and it's totally fine that we constantly exclude disabled people.

In my own case, loud sounds are painful for me (because of sensory reasons related to autism). If Jesus "healed" me so loud sounds weren't painful, that would be great, but it also wouldn't mean the whole loud-sounds problem is solved and done and it's all good. I have an entire lifetime of experience of people not taking me seriously when I was upset by a sound, people laughing at me, people saying my pain isn't real and "it's not that bad." I have all this emotional trauma that I'm working through now, trying to make sense of my childhood and what was really going on all those times adults told me to "be brave" and stop being so "sensitive"- and it takes years. (Blogging is cheaper than therapy...)

It would be just THE WORST if Jesus "healed" me and then other people thought, "ugh FINALLY she got over it and quit complaining"- as if my "healing" justified all the times that they wished I would just shut up and act normal. Like they did nothing wrong, all their attempts to shove a square peg in a round hole, because I finally became a round peg and gained the ability to act like they always wanted me to act. Why does "healing" mean a person becomes not-disabled, rather than abled people learning how to stop excluding and stereotyping disabled people?

So anyway, my point is, when I read this story about Jesus healing two blind men, I wanted to know what blind people think about it. And in general, what do disabled people think about Jesus' healings in the bible? I've gathered some articles here, and I would like to know if my readers have any other good resources about it or book recommendations.

Here are the links I've found:

Out of the Darkness: Examining the Rhetoric of Blindness in the Gospel of John
[In the gospel of John, p]hysical blindness may provide the necessary ground for faith to grow and emerge, but the person cannot remain physically blind. There are biblical scholars and disability activists alike who note that there are no blind disciples. Grant (Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998) writes, for example, "It is true that at one level the healing stories are stories of inclusion in that Jesus heals and welcomes all sorts of people into God's reign. However, the very fact that they are physically healed by Jesus suggests that physical restoration is a necessary component of their entry into the community" (p. 77). Grant also cites Donald Senior, Frederick Tiffany, and Sharon Ringe, all who have made similar points. From her perspective working with people with disabilities and government agencies in Australia, Elizabeth Hastings writes:
...with all the respect due to the ten lepers, the various possessed, and the sundry blind, lame, and deaf faithful of scripture, I reckon people who have disabilities may have been better off for the last two thousand years if Our Lord had not created quite so many miraculous cures but occasionally said, "your life is perfect as it is given to you – go ye and find its purpose and meaning," and to onlookers, "this disability is an ordinary part of human being, go ye and create the miracle of a world free of discrimination" (quoted in Calder, 2004, p. 12).
John Hull (2001) in his recent reflection on reading the Bible from his own blind perspective tries to conceive of blind men and women following Jesus through the Galilee—he cannot. Blind disciples would have been an affront to Jesus' power.

Although physical infirmity is not connected to sin in the example of the man born blind, it is, in this case, connected to ignorance of truth. In John 9, the physical condition of blindness always also connotes metaphorical blindness as a mental or spiritual condition, or ignorance. Both the literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness are always present every time the words "blind" and "to see" are used in the story. The literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness have the potential of contaminating each other in any context. There is a danger of at least implicitly, if not explicitly, associating physically blind people with mental and spiritual incapacity, and associating Jewish people, whether blind or not, with the same shortcomings.
In Search of a More Robust Theology of Disability
The idea that sight=good and blind=bad is so deeply ingrained in our culture that most of us are not even aware of its existence. I can't begin to cover all of the ways that this idea manifests itself, from sighted people giving pity to finding inspiration in how we "cope" with our "suffering" to fearing us, to assuming we have substandard lives, to fervently thanking God they are not us, to rushing up to us on the street and laying hands on us to receive healing, when we are trying to run to the grocery store before an appointment. We are constantly told in numerous subtle ways that we are "broken" or "damaged" and then in the same breath told that we are "brave" and "inspirational" when in reality to us it feels about as important as being tall or short. It is merely a physical attribute and life goes on. For a blind person, being able or willing to return the gaze of a sighted person is not an accurate measure of his dignity or self-worth. By the same token, to the blind person, the sighted person he is talking to seems undignified as a result of the noxious body odor or the grating, gravelly voice and repulsive manner of speaking even though he is meeting the other's gaze. I realize the above was used metaphorically, and thus am I also using it. Consider the actual source of dignity!

The disclaimer that "real blind people don't count" doesn't hold any water at all, because to talk about an attribute of our lives is to talk about us. You cannot propose a theology of dark skin without involving people who have dark skin, or a theology of Asian people without involving people who live in or come from Asia. You cannot talk about how God treats women in the abstract without it affecting real women and how people think about us and treat us and the ways we as people empower or disempower other people to live as Christians, or how apt we are to reject Christianity because it simply does not work as a realistic worldview.

An example of this is a discussion I read recently on social media between a group of mixed blind non-Christians and blind Christians who have experienced sighted Christians approaching them on the street and asking to lay hands on them so that Jesus can heal their blindness. The non-Christians in particular were incredibly repulsed by this experience, which unfortunately stems directly from the theology as put forth in the quoted post above.

Biblically, blind people are beggars, like Blind Bartimaeus, who come to Jesus asking to be healed, to be redeemed, to be given social standing and allowed re-entry into society. Blind people in ancient times were cursed; there is no denying that. They could not navigate or work at meaningful labor. They could not participate in civil government and were hardly better than lepers.

In third-world countries, blindness is the same today. Blind people are not offered an education and usually do not marry or have children. They are taught menial tasks such as basket weaving and are often a lifelong burden on their families or communities. They are poor, pitiful, in short, everything we assume blindness to be. My daughter, adopted from Ethiopia was "rescued" (cringe) from just such a life.

Contrast this with a blind person living in the Western developed world. Here, a blind person in ideal circumstances is taught to read and write using alternative methods. This blind person (we'll use the male pronoun for convenience and brevity) is taught to navigate using a white cane or guide dog (for example), and is allowed access to all public facilities and places of business. He can travel anywhere he wants to go by himself, and can hold a job is nearly any field. He can work meaningfully, marry and support a family, have hobbies, own and maintain a house, contribute to society, have honest dealings with other members of society and have a comparable quality of life to a person with perfect sight.
‘Lord I was deaf’. Images of Disability in the Hymnbooks
Before we began to refer to the metaphor of sight and blindness we had arrived at a discriminating criterion. This was to ask ourselves if the metaphor suggested a disparaging comparison with groups of disabled people. I would now like to suggest a more searching rationale for this. If sighted and hearing people use the imagery of light and sound to express their experiences in the world they inhabit that is natural and inevitable. However, if able bodied people make disparaging allusions to people who have very different experiences this may not only betray ignorance of those ways of life and is discourteous, but may reinforce a prejudice against disabled people that will in turn give credibility to the view that Christian faith does not offer answers to the search for equal opportunities: it may actually be part of the problem. In other words, when we consider the sliding scale of metaphors from those that refer explicitly to various impaired states through to those which merely use the various ideas of light and sound, sight and speech, we should distinguish between those that speak to our own world, the one we know and experience, and those that refer negatively to other peoples worlds of which we have no first-hand experience.

In saying this, I do not overlook the fact that there may be hymn writers who are themselves blind yet continue to use disparaging metaphors of their own condition. This is to be explained by the combination of a piety which does not adopt a critical stance towards the tradition, and immersion in the assumptions of a society in which the inferiority and the marginalisation of disabled people were simply taken for granted.

In the light of our new principle it is possible to comment on the situation of people with other impairments such as those who use wheelchairs for mobility. Biblical precedent such as the eschatological hope expressed in Isaiah 35.5 and some of the miracles in the gospels do encourage the hymn writers to refer to lame people. Lameness can be used as a disparaging metaphor for sin. Such expressions are as unacceptable as the explicitly pejorative references to blind and deaf people. Merely referring to standing up, however, comes into the category of speaking of the body’s symbolism which is natural to those who have legs and can use them. A wheelchair user should no more object to ‘stand up and bless the Lord, ye people of His choice’ than I as a blind person have any right to object to ‘the Lord is my light, my strength and my salvation’. True, the Lord is not my light, because I have no light sensation, and wheelchair users cannot respond to the invitation to stand up in the presence of the Lord. However, just as able bodied people should not thrust the demands of their experience upon others, so people with impairments should not demand that able-bodied worlds should conform to theirs. The principle is to rejoice in your own world without making disparaging remarks or setting unreasonable limits upon the natural life-worlds of others.

A limited range of disabilities are referred to in the hymnbooks. These are usually those that find a symbolic place within the vocabulary of the bible: blindness, deafness, being lame or having leprosy. We referred earlier to the hymn ‘Thine arm O, Lord in days of old’, quoting the line ‘the beggar with his sightless eyes’. This replaced the line, found in the older version, ‘the leper with his tainted life’ which has not reappeared in that particular hymn since about 1950. References to diseases such as AIDS and cancer are rarely if ever found in hymns, partly because they are contemporary conditions, and partly because they are not referred to in the bible.
Disability Theology
The most powerful discussion of God to arise from within disability studies comes from Nancy Eiesland's proposal of the Disabled God, in the book by the same title (Eiesland, 1994). Eiesland identifies herself as "a woman with disabilities, a sociologist of religion, and a professor at a seminary in the United States" (Eiesland, 1998a, p. 103). These three elements come together in her theology, which centers on what she calls "the mixed blessing of the body," especially as these relate to the lived experience of disability. From her sociological perspective, she is especially interested in theories and methods that empower and provide a foundation for political action. She uses the image of the Disabled God to support such political action, particularly through processes of resymbolization. She is also interested in deconstructing notions of normalcy. She writes: "My own body composed as it is of metal and plastic, as well as bone and flesh, is my starting point for talking about 'bones and braces bodies' as a norm of embodiment" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 22). Her proposal is a model of God that makes sense of her "normal" experience of embodiment, as well as one that supports and participates in the struggle for liberation of all people with disabilities.
Eiesland argues that traditional images of God, especially those that lead to views of disability as either a blessing or a curse, are inadequate. Within her own experience, she wondered whether such a God could even understand disability, let alone be meaningful to her. While working at a rehabilitation hospital, she asked the residents one day what they thought.
After a long silence, a young African-American man said, "If God was in a sip-puff, maybe He would understand." I was overwhelmed by this image: God in a sip-puff wheelchair, the kind used by many quadriplegics that enables them to maneuver the chair by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. This was an image of God as a survivor, as one of those whom society would label "not feasible," "unemployable," with "questionable quality of life" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 13).

Eiesland made a connection between this image and the resurrection story in which Jesus appears to his followers and reveals his injured hands and feet (Luke 24:36-39). She notes "This wasn't exactly God in a sip-puff, but here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are — disabled and divine. In this passage, I recognized a part of my hidden history as a Christian" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 14). Eiesland suggests that Jesus reveals the Disabled God, and shows that divinity (as well as humanity) is fully compatible with experiences of disability. The imago Dei includes pierced hands and feet and side. According to Eiesland, this Disabled God is part of the "hidden history" of Christianity, because seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. As Rebecca Chopp notes in the introduction to this work, "The most astonishing fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 11).
Strength in Weakness: The Bible, Disability, and the Church
From an able-bodied reading of the Bible, it is easy to assume God wants to heal every person with a disability. In the New Testament, every person who encounters Jesus blind, deaf, or lame is restored to health. But theologian Amos Yong wants the church to read the Bible differently, seeing good news for people with disabilities as they are, and not as God might change them.
Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation and the Theology of the Cross
There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”
Christians who aren't disabled have a much too simplistic view of Jesus' healings in the bible. And even the biblical authors had some of the same prejudices, equating disability with sin or portraying it as incompatible with following Jesus. Just because the bible has a certain view doesn't mean it's right- it could be ableist (or anti-Semitic, or sexist, etc). We need to learn about disability by listening to actual disabled people.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost (Matthew 20:17-28)

Next post: Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book (Matthew 21:1-11)

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