Disability Theology at the Beach

mb8 Here is where I spent most of my day today. Powerful winds, warming sunlight, and the quaint bustle of a small beach town on the pacific coast. It was a good day, full of surf-watching and window-shopping with my wife. So. much. window-shopping. It was like each shop was fighting its neighbors for attention and space. It took a full day of me walking in and out of all the jammed-together shops in this strip before I noticed a trend. Almost every shop, store, and restaurant had about three to five steps leading into their doorway. Even the beach itself was divided from the town by a series of tall staircases. Once inside these beach-side establishments I also noticed that almost never was there a second entrance and almost always was there narrow aisle which would never allow one to pass through without forcing them to awkwardly shuffle against the body of some sweaty, salty, stranger. At one point, I turned to my wife and asked, “How on earth would a person with a physical disability, which prevented them from able walking, be able to come here?” She replied honestly, “I have no idea.”

Two Stories

Within this story, there is another story. And the story behind the story communicates a whole set of assumptions, values, ideals, and most noticeably, a serious problem. One way to look at the problem would be to use a more medical lens and identify the problem with any person with a disability that limits them from entering stores and climbing down to the ocean’s sand.“The problem is with the disability, or the disabled person” one might conclude. Alternatively, we could name the problem with what I might call a social-critical lens. With this lens we might identify the problem as lying with the assumptions, architecture, and unawareness of the community in this beach-town. “The problem is within the world—the very social economy—created by values of the people” one might conclude.

Which lens is better, or shall we say, ‘more Christian’? One way to help us answer such a question is to understand and embody a theology of disability which may help to liberate not only persons with disability, but furthermore able-bodied persons who have the privilege and responsibility of contributing toward a welcoming and inclusive society. Enter the field of theology and disability. This field is both new and evolving rapidly. It’s such a young project that one of the most foundational works on the subject published in 1994, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiesland, is already a bit outdated. However, as I hope to keep posting about theology and disability here at Restoring Pangea, The Disabled God is a great place to start exploring how a theology of disability can get to the story behind the stories like the unaccessible beach-town.

The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability

disab-bookIn her book, Nancy Eiesland regrets the ways in which the church has often supported the societal tendencies that suppose those with disabilities to be objects of pity and paternalism on the one hand while remaining physically inaccessible and inhospitable on the other. This pattern, which refuses to affirm the dignity of those with disability also betrays the fact that, like much of modern society, Christians have not been interested in responding positively to the self-understandings of the disabled community. Thus Eiesland is ultimately concerned with finding new ways of interpreting disability primarily through the narratives of disabled people and by Christ himself, who was disabled on the cross. Eiesland’s hope is that, by doing so, the church and society can become more inclusive in their symbolism and physical practices.

Eiesland considers those with disabilities to compose a minority group who have been shaped by exclusion (24). Though recent threads in disability scholarship might be hesitant to adopt such an identification, there is grounding to this claim based largely on the legislated actions taken by the US government in the 1960s and 70s which were executed to protect and integrate the disabled community into the larger society. Eiesland offers that people with disabilities undergo much of the same social stigma and segregation with which other minorities continue to struggle. For example, people with disabilities are subjugated to environmental segregation such as architectural barriers which create a separation of access and status (63). Furthermore, intermarriage between able bodied people and people with disabilities is discouraged by societal attitudes (65). Perhaps not surprisingly, disabilities are more commonly found among those in poverty and among ethnic minorities(64-65).This suggests a correlation between typical experiences of social marginalization and possessing a disability. Put positively, by establishing that those with disabilities fit the shared categories of many minority groups, Eiesland hopes the church may have a familiar framework by which it can begin to develop both liberating theology and a structural embrace.

The need for a liberatory theology of disability is great because the old ways of theologizing about disability have led to poor social ethics. Says Eiesland:

A theology of disability must be made a visible, integral, and ordinary part of the Christian life and our theological reflections on that life. As long as disability is addressed in terms of the themes of sin-disability conflation, virtuous suffering, or charitable action, it will be seen primarily as a fate to be avoided, a tragedy to be explained, or a cause to be championed rather than an ordinary life to be lived (75).

But what is a “liberatory theology of disability”? For Eiesland, the answer is found in the cross where physical body and spiritual symbolism are one. On the cross God is disabled. Even after resurrection, Christ’s disabled hands and feet remain impaired with holes. In resurrection then, Jesus shows that complete personhood is “fully compatible with the experience of disability…our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them” (100-101). God the survivor arises from the cross, not just God the overcomer. Eiesland suggests that Christ’s crucified body shows that a bodily limitation of power is “palpable not but tragic” (102). The risen Lord, according to Eiesland reveals that:

Resurrection is not about the negation or reissuing of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our nonconvential, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the imago Dei and that God whose nature is love and who is on the side of justice and solidarity is touch by our experience (107).

Indeed, an image of a resurrected body once crucified may make perfect sense to the many people who embrace the complicated blessing of their disability. doubting_thomas Eiesland ends her book with a chapter on the Eucharist. The ritual of Eucharist, which often includes a whole set architectural and language barriers for those with disabilities, may now be practiced in remembrance of the disabled God. For this reason, the chapter’s final pages include a liturgy for using a Eucharist service which reflects a theology of disability which may unite bodies of all kinds. “Do this in remembrance of me” may now take on a new set of assumptions, values, and implications for those who embody the theology of a disabled God.

Cruciform Bodies

This understanding of disability theology is only the tip of the iceberg. If fact, I think many of those involved in disability studies would take issue with parts of The Disabled God just as, for example, modern ethnic scholarship might both benefit from and critique its early literature. What such a theology of disability can do however is begin to answer the question: “Which lens, the medical or social-critical, is most compatible with Christianity?” By wondering if/how those with disabilities might navigate a small beach town, for example, is not to take pity or to notice one’s own physical or intellectual privilege/disadvantage. Rather, such a thought may reveal an opportunity to participate in the cross and to challenge the structures, systems, and ideas which undermine and oppress people who bear fully the image of the crucified God and risen Lord. 

-Michael Wiltshire

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  • Great post Michael. It’s got me thinking in a category from which I did not think before. Thank you.

  • Anna

    Love this post, Michael. It’s been my experience that few are willing to explore the nuances of disability and theology, and I wonder if that is the reason that there are so few people with disabilities present in our local churches. Thanks for writing and thinking about this issue, and encouraging others to do the same.

    Another quick thought… Thursday I was talking to a friend who is also an OT. An awesome OT, whose skills and knowledge far outrank mine. We were discussing the tired vaccination and autism debate, and though she leaned toward believing there was no connection, she said that if she had a child, and could choose between her living five healthy years, then dying of mumps (or some other disease preventable with a vaccine) or living her whole life with severe autism, she would choose mumps. I was so saddened to hear that someone who works with kids with disabilities daily, as I do, did not see the inherent value in a child’s life, even lived within the diagnosis of autism. The idea that “complete personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability” is counter intuitive and, quite possibly, revolutionary.

    • Michael Wiltshire

      Anna, thanks, so much, for adding this story to the conversation. Your story is heartbreaking to me. I really hope that the Church can help provide a theology and ethic that helps to challenge the assumptions of those who consider persons with disabilities to somehow be lesser. I think Christianity teaches well that all children do have inherent value and I hope that you and I can embody that belief as witnesses of God’s love.

      Again, thank you for what you’re doing for families and children with and without disabilities. I truly believe that you are doing the work of Jesus.