I recently applied (successfully, praise God!) for the job of Training Resources Developer with Through the Roof, a charity whose mission is to change lives through disabled people; a mission it accomplishes by providing life-changing opportunities for disabled people, and equipping churches to do the same. As part of the interview process I had to prepare a presentation which included a Biblical theology of disability.
I have been teaching disability awareness in schools and colleges for many years, but I had never before sat down and thought through the Biblical basis for what I was so passionate about. Here are some of my thoughts – not all of which could be included in my presentation because of time, but all of which I wrote down and thought through as part of my preparation.
When we look at the Biblical basis for anything, our first starting point has to be Jesus. He was the most inclusive person ever to walk this earth. He embraced the other gender (women, obviously!), people of other ethnicities (such as the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter he healed), other faiths (such as the centurion who undoubtedly worshipped Roman gods) and those of other social classes (such as tax collectors and prostitutes). Some have even argued that, in Roman culture, it’s highly likely that the servant healed by Jesus was also the centurion’s gay partner. Certainly Jesus had no hesitation in welcoming unreservedly people whose behaviour he could not and did not sanction, such as the woman taken in adultery, or the young ruler whose greed held him captive to his money.
In particular, Jesus always saw beyond the disability to the whole person. That’s why he did not allow the woman who touched the hem of his garment to slink away anonymously but called her forward publicly, honoured her faith, and ensured that she was not simply physically healed, but made whole. Whereas the church has at times seen disabled people as a collection of body parts – blind eyes in need of sight, perhaps, or cerebral palsied legs in need of healing and strength. I am personally convinced that healing is a part of what Jesus’ atonement won for us, and I am committed to praying for people to be healed, and expecting to see God’s power at work in them. I am also convinced of God’s sovereignty and that He doesn’t have to deal with everyone I encounter in the way that I tell Him to!
The trouble is that often, in our eagerness to see disabled people healed we, the non-disabled members of Christ’s church, have overlooked their current worth and potential, and have given them the message “you’re not acceptable the way you are” – and I’m certain that Jesus never made anybody feel that way. On the contrary, in one of His parables, Jesus mentioned disabled people as those who should be given pride of place at the feast table in His kingdom. As we read the Gospel accounts of his encounters with disabled people, it’s easy to picture the delight on His face as He set them free not just from their physical limitations, but from the limiting self-image their disability had imposed on them, and showed them the glory of their true self as God had first created them to be.
There are some Old Testament stories, too, that should inform our attitudes towards disabled members of our communities. When David became king of Israel, he looked for someone of the house of Saul to whom he could show kindness for his friend Jonathan’s sake. The only surviving member of Saul’s family was Mephibosheth. At the time of the overthrow of Saul’s house, his nurse had picked him up to run to safety but had fallen with him in her arms, leaving him with a permanent disability. David welcomed him as part of his household, and for the rest of his life he ate at the king’s own table. It struck me as I read this passage in 2 Samuel 9 firstly, that David did not pity Mephibosheth because of his disability. It was who he was – Jonathan’s son – that dictated David’s response to him. His disability was irrelevant. Secondly, when David discovered that Saul’s only living relative was a disabled man, that didn’t alter his intent towards him. He honoured him exactly as he would have done if he had been a strong warrior. And finally, the whole story provides a wonderful metaphor for the church, with disabled and non-disabled people seated side by side, with equal honour, at the table in God’s kingdom.
I also looked at the story in 2 Kings 7 of four men with a contagious skin disease who were living as outcasts from the community of Israel. At a time when their own people were reduced to such a level of starvation that they had actually resorted, in their desperation, to cannibalism, these four men discovered the enemy camp deserted and full of food and other spoils and provisions. Rather than keep this good fortune to themselves, they said, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.” So they went and shared their good news with the rest of their community. This strikes me as a very powerful metaphor for the church, with disabled people not seen as outcasts or victims to be pitied, but as active contributors to the life and health of God’s people.
I also thought about St Paul’s vision for the church. In Colossians 1.28 he sets out his mission statement, “To present everyone complete in Christ.” Every time someone new comes through the doors of our church or expresses a desire to add themselves to us, we should be asking, “What does this person need, to become complete in Christ?” It would be silly to ask what do disabled people need to become complete in Christ – a bit like asking what do the blue-eyed, or the left-handed, need to become complete in Christ? The answer is that we are all individuals, each with our own relationship with God. As with anyone else in the church, a disabled church member needs people to get to know them, to learn what their gifting is, where they can serve and build up the church, and what their weaker areas are, where they could use support and encouragement from the rest of the body of Christ.
Legend has it that in Mediaeval France the Catholic Church taught that people with learning disabilities were placed by God in communities in order that people should be able to reverence and honour them as they would reverence and honour Christ Himself. These people became known as “Chréstiens”, Little Christs. This word – at first with no derogatory connotation – came into the English language as the word cretin, which sadly, like so many other terms surrounding disability, became devalued, and degenerated into an offensive insult.
It is very important that as we seek to allow disabled people to play their full part in the life of the church, we make sure to use inclusive language. When I was the Disability Advisor at a College of Further Education, I attempted to ban the use of the term “special needs” because it seemed to me to be just another way of isolating disabled students and making them feel different from everybody else, and because I had heard children in the playground at my daughter’s school hurling it as a term of abuse at one another. The origin of the term “handicapped” is in dispute, but one possibility is that it dates back to the days when it was thought that disabled people were fit only to beg for a living, and would sit patiently hoping that you would place your hand in their cap with a donation for them. For this reason, handicapped is felt quite keenly by many disabled people as a demeaning term, and I would like to see it eliminated from our vocabulary as Christians. If this seems like “political correctness gone mad” it’s worth considering the words of Jesus, that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”. It’s the language we use casually and unthinkingly that reveals the attitudes we really harbour in our hearts towards one another.
In preparing my presentation, I reflected on a book I read many years ago, the autobiography of Rev Alyn Haskey who I was privileged to meet a few times before his sad death last year. In his book he described an incident when he was training for ordination. All the students were in the dining hall when the fire alarm sounded. They all jumped up and evacuated the building leaving Alyn, who could not propel his own wheelchair, sitting at the table. A few minutes later one of his fellow students came running back in very upset and said, “I’m so sorry Alyn, I forgot you were in a wheelchair!” Alyn observed that it was one of the best moments of his life, because people had stopped seeing his wheelchair and were seeing him for the person that he really was.
So for me it’s going to be a real privilege to serve the body of Christ in my new role by helping churches to see the wealth of gift and beauty that God has placed among them in the form of many disabled people.