Theology of Disability describes an attempt to decenter able-bodied Christians from our theological imaginations. I’ve only recently heard of this, and I’m excited to learn more. This post will hopefully be the first of several as I attempt to decenter myself from my vision of resurrected life and imagine a New Creation that, hopefully, holds space for the diversity of human bodies and identities and for healing.
“Disability” and Other Terminology
A note about terminology: I’m not fond of a lot of the language surrounding disabilities. I don’t even like the term “disability,” but I don’t currently have better language.
I understand that many terms are practical. Sometimes, it’s a matter of common usage; generally, people know what we mean when we say “disability” or “disabled.” Sometimes, it’s a matter of precision; disability literally means “not having an ability,” which often precisely describes a physical or cognitive reality. The same can be true for the terms able-bodied, neurodivergent, neurotypical, etc.
Neurodivergent seems far better than “abnormal,” but it still seems to center neurotypical behavior in a lot of conversations. Again, I understand that it’s precise; if there’s a majority neurological behavior, we can precisely call that behavior neurotypical and other behaviors neurodivergent, but I think it eventually becomes a matter of how nuanced we want to be.
Despite my disappointment with these terms, I don’t have other language, yet, so I’ll be using them, but I’m open to suggestions, especially if you’re part of disabled and/or neurodivergent communities. What language do you use, and how do you feel about that language?
Why Theology of Disability?
A friend asked me to write about praying for healing for people with disabilities. Specifically, praying for healing of disabilities without first asking if that’s something a person wants. We’d had conversations about heaven and whether a person necessarily has sight restored, for example, but for whatever reason, the topic of prayer hit me differently.
Did Jesus heal people who didn’t want to be healed? If we imagine a bodily resurrection of some kind, how do we imagine God’s approach to identity? Is it different if our theology is more rooted in the present reality vs an afterlife? How does disability fit into a present reality of the Kingdom or a Gospel message rooted in creation?
As these and other questions flooded my mind, I realized that much of my theological imagination has been centered around an able-bodied experience. I’ve been taught to imagine places like heaven as flawless in every way, and my understanding of “flawless” included whatever I imagined to be my own body’s maximum potential. I think this is the case for most able-bodied Christians, and I think we often do a good job of pressuring disabled persons into conforming to that thinking. At least, we do a good enough job to cause dissonance and shame, but more on that in a minute.
I then thought, “There’s no way I’m the first person thinking about this,” but I wasn’t finding “able-bodied theology” anywhere, because, I realized, all mainstream theology is able-bodied theology. After some searching, I stumbled upon “theology of disability” and Dr. Brian Brock, who, in his interview on Theology in the Raw, describes disability theology as living “in the space at the margins around what’s considered mainstream theology.” Brock goes on to explain why that’s problematic but also that there’s a shift happening toward “marginal, niche discourses.”
We could unpack that for days, but suffice it to say that this is where my journey begins. I want to decenter my able-bodied imagination of human perfection, hold space for a much more diverse view of what it means to be human, and discover what that does for my understanding of the Gospel.
The Shame of Disability
I mentioned that able-bodied theologies can nurture dissonance and shame for people with disabilities; that’s what I’m referring to as the shame of disability. While I believe that we can learn to resist shame, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that bad theology plays in our self-perception.
To be clear: there’s no shame in disability, period. It can’t be overstated. The shame of disability is a toxic byproduct of able-bodied theology (a.k.a. most mainstream theology). That said, what in the world am I talking about?
Let’s ask ourselves, “What does the perfect human body look like?” I suggest that most people would at least imagine the following:
- One head with two ears, two eyes, one nose, one mouth, 32 (aligned) teeth and a tongue
- Two arms, one hand per arm, and five fingers per hand
- Two legs, one foot per leg, and five toes per foot, etc.
Now, let’s ask, “What can that perfect human body do?”
- Walk/run/jump (without assistance)
- Lift/carry things (without assistance)
- See (without assistance)
- Hear (without assistance)
- Smell (without assistance)
- Feel by touch (without assistance)
- Taste (without assistance), etc.
If your imagination of a perfect human body matches the lists above, then you, like me, have an able-bodied imagination of human perfection. That’s what we mean when we talk about centeredness. The default “center” (i.e. starting reference) for how we imagine things related to humans (e.g. heaven, Adam and Eve, “the good life,” etc.) includes bodies that look certain ways and do certain things. Then, our language and ideas “place” people closer to or further from that center based on how much we think they differ from that “ideal” human body. That’s why we talk about the fringes or the margins of something — those places furthest away from the center.
Disabled people are marginalized in mainstream Christian theology because they differ greatly from the mainstream Christian imagination of perfect human bodies. Imagine what that teaches people who are living in such Christian communities. It continually implies to them how imperfect they are. Even if we say that everyone is imperfect in some way, that image of the perfect human body still emphasizes how much more imperfect disabled persons are.
An able-bodied person might be able to live most of their life not thinking about their body; if I can check all the boxes above, to some degree, it’s not much of a leap from my current body to how I imagine a resurrected body. The more obvious a person’s physical disabilities, the more of a leap it is from their current body to that imagined resurrected body. To put it another way, I’m not struggling with the tension between “God knit you together in your mother’s womb” and “you’re not ‘normal.'” Dissonant ideas can cause this tension and promote shame.
Here are some examples of theological ideas and their dissonant counterparts followed by some of the questions that can cause shame.
- Idea: We’re created by God, who loves us and formed us in the womb.
Counterpart: Somehow, we didn’t come out the same as “everyone else,” and I’m taught that’s a bad thing.
Shame: Why did God make me this way? Do I deserve this? Who sinned: me or my parents? Etc.
- Idea: Everything in Heaven will be good; new creation/resurrected life restores things to how God intended (i.e. Genesis: God saw that it was good).
Counterpart: Disabled persons are implicitly farther from that heavenly body than everyone else.
Shame: If the heavenly body is good and my body is “farther” from that heavenly body than everyone else’s, doesn’t that make me even less good than everyone else? Is my body inherently more fallen than others’?
We could go on, but I hope those get the ball rolling for us on thinking about how centering able bodies can lead to shame around disabled bodies. Moreover, the responses to those questions of shame don’t always make it better. For example: “We all have fallen bodies.”
It’s easy to talk about how we’re all in this together if there’s nothing about us that people consider a disability. It’s like a white person saying all lives matter in response to black lives matter or a rich person telling a poor person that everyone experiences financial struggles in some way. Are those things technically true? Sure, but they also deflect from the real issue; they side-track the conversation in a way that dismisses real tensions.
As an able-bodied person, I’m not experiencing my “fallenness” (if you subscribe to the Fall) in the same way as a disabled person. Even if the Fall is actually the reason why disabilities exist (and that idea might be able-body centered from the start), there’s no tension there, for me, as an able-bodied person. It’s harmful to build theologies around the assumption of uniform human experience, because it ignores the reality of human diversity.
Celebrating Human Diversity
I think the human race, as a whole, is getting better about acknowledging and celebrating human diversity. I don’t think we’re good at it, yet, but I think we’re getting better. The same is true for Christian theology. Conversations around mainstream theology (at least in the West) are still predominantly controlled by able-bodied, neurotypical, white, heterosexual, male voices, but I’m hoping that’s changing. I’m at least changing it for myself as I dive deeper into a theology of disability to see what God reveals about my own self-centeredness. Come along, if you’re interested.
And, yes: part of this journey will be exploring that idea of praying for healing for folks with disabilities.
“…we’re seeing a kind of flipping over of the dominant discourses. It used to be that there was normal theology and these marginal, niche discourses and [it’s] just in the last five or six or eight years that ‘marginal discourses’ have become the dominant discourses.”Dr. Brian Brock, interview with Theology in the Raw
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.
3 thoughts on “Theology of Disability”
As a totally blind woman, who was also born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, JRA, I was eager to read this post and welcomed your words with gladness. I am 65, and at my age, besides the blindness I have constant chronic pain, a fused knee, an artificial knee, two artificial hips, very limited range of motion in every other joint in my body. I am a christian, but I felt the sting of discrimination all my life. the hardest to bear was in the churches, where I should have been equal. Yes, the world is more tuned in to diversity now, but, mostly that doesn’t include disability. if you read diversity, or non-discrimination statements, from universities, to federal and state offices, often, they list every other group, and leave out disability.
By the way, disability is the correct term, as far as I am concerned. It is the term the Disability rights movement uses as well. And we are still trying to achieve the acceptance and enforcement of our rights. Trying to find fancy ways to say disability, without saying disability, comes off to many of us as ableism, because the people who come up with the terms, are not disabled themselves. As a blind person, I don’t like any alternate term, visually impaired, sightless or whatever. after all, my best friend uses glasses to read, and that, to me is a visual impairment, but she certainly isn’t anywhere near being blind. I am blind, and that’s that. Nothing bad or shameful in it. On the other hand, using words like “blind” to mean things like ignorant, faithless, not intelligent and so forth, are offensive. Whenever I sing Amazing Grace, I change the lyrics of the last line in the first verse. I will never sing, “was blind but now I see”, because it implies ignorance. I do sing “was bound but now I’m free”. Same thing for words like deaf and dumb, or using the word dumb as it is used in society, or the word retarded, wheelchair-bound and so forth. Their usage in common every day speech implies something less than perfect in the person they are talking about. I believe with all my heart, that I am perfectly and wonderfully made. why the lord chose to have me be born with JRA and become blind from it as well, I do not know. It is the hand I’m dealt, and I am not ashamed, afraid or angry about it. Anyway, long long comment, but I enjoyed the post so very much! This kind of discussion has been needed for far too long. Thank you!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for your thoughts, Sherry, and for sharing a little about your experiences. I’m sad to hear that church communities have been part of the discrimination, but I’m also not surprised. I agree that this discussion is a long time coming, and I’m glad to live in a time when more and more people are willing to have it. Thanks, also, for your thoughts about terminology. I’m especially appreciative for your point about the term “blind” and the way it’s used as a negative metaphor. That’s something I want to think on some more.