Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Disability Theology: When Miracles are Part of the Problem: A Guest Post by Charis St. Pierre

We may wonder why God who had the power to raise the body of Jesus from the dead did not exercise the power to perfectly heal the body, but that is not the point. The continued visibility of the wounds was necessary in order to establish the identity of the person . . . . The body of Christ is raised with imperishable scars, glorious scars, and in a state of wounded power”

Ten years ago a fellow Capernwray student laid hands on my husband Josh and prayed for God to heal his stutter. The young man insisted he’d had a great deal of luck in the past, a near perfect track-record of banishing illness and disability in the name of the Lord. So Josh sat quietly with the man’s hands on his forehead, nervously awaiting the moment when the prayer would end, eyes would open, and he would have to speak.

It’s an awkward thing, to be someone else’s failure.

Of course, that wasn’t the first time people had prayed Josh would be healed. Parents and pastors had been praying it since his childhood. The speech therapists had been praying it too, in their own way, doling out fluency exercises as alms in hope of an elusive healing and that didn’t come.

And always, there were the promises. One day, things will be set right. What was sown perishable will be raised imperishable. A world without death or mourning or crying or pain. You will not stutter in heaven.

Prayer by prayer, session by session, promise by promise, the message from church and society was exactly the same: Your body is broken. You are not the way you should be. There is something very wrong with your voice. It would be much better for you, for all of us, if that stutter would just go away.

Nevermind the disability activists who have been arguing for decades that what disables them is not their bodies, but a society that discriminates against those bodies it deems to be abnormal.

Nevermind the accounts of the many disabled people who do not want to be healed from their disabilities: those in the Deaf community who oppose hearing-aids, cochlear implants, or any other devices which treat deafness as a sickness to be cured rather than a culture to be celebrated; the autistic student who writes, “I would not survive being cured of autism. It doesn’t matter if you think there’s something wrong with me, if I wasn’t autistic I wouldn’t be me”; the men and women in this video who do not bring up their developmental disabilities when asked what one thing about themselves they would like to change; Josh, cuddled next to me on the couch one summer evening when I ask if he would cure his stutter if given the chance, who emphatically answers, “No.”

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio (1601-2)
And nevermind that the glorified body of the risen Christ still had a wound gaping enough for Thomas to stretch his hand into it. The firstfruit of God’s new creation was a broken body that stayed broken but was called perfect. Even at the resurrection, being made right need not mean being made “whole.”

Let me make a bold statement. God’s new creation will not be freed from racism because everyone is made white. It will not be freed from sexism because everyone is made male. Nor will it be freed from ableism because everyone is made able bodied. The solution to oppression is never found in “fixing” the oppressed, but in humbling those of us who oppress them.

Some disabled people want to be healed. Others don’t. But neither are served by a church that just assumes their bodies are a problem and healing is the goal. As long as we think of disability in terms of broken bodies needing to be fixed, we will think of exclusion as something that “just happens” instead of something we actively do. On the other hand, when we realize that disability isn’t caused by people’s bodies but by our own discriminatory practices, paces, languages, staircases, and inattention, we can start to bring about the sort of “healing” that doesn’t need to interfere with anyone else’s body at all. That sort of healing doesn’t start with praying for a cure, it starts with learning to listen.

Near Jericho, Jesus met a blind man and before stretching out his hand to heal he asked a very simple question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The very least the church can do is follow his example.

Charis St. Pierre does administrative work for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. She lives with her husband Josh and adorable puppy Scholar.

Caravaggio image is public domain, used from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_incredulity.jpg


  1. Thank you for the thought-provoking article Charis. We have become dependent on the able/unable binary at the deepest level. I wish I could say that it's as simple (!) as the oppressors needing to be awakened to what they are doing, and the oppressed demanding inclusion, but the truth is that if you don't fit into either the category of disabled or able-bodied you will be excluded and marginalised simply because your workplace performance will not match the needs of your position, or at least those of the person doing the hiring (who, ultimately answerable to the bottom-line, is usually quite risk-averse). Elder persons still needing to work but not able to do so as quickly as younger people are subject to performance-based dismissal and will have no relief once their means of gaining income is gone unless they can find an identifiable disability to leverage into state and/or medical-profession sanctioned compassion. Perhaps they can be drugged to a higher performance temporarily, or identified as needing special assistance in some way. People with characteristics that are deemed to be things they can control if they "really wanted to" are especially vulnerable. Tourette's Syndrome is a classic example but any characteristic found to be socially uncomfortable to others would qualify, including an "odd" personality. It comes down to people avoiding risk and blaming each other for any inability to be self-sufficient, with "disability" providing the single way we are allowed to not be such risk-averse judgementalists.

    Whether it's a physiological disability such as deafness or a mental characteristic that makes one unusual, it's not hard to understand how people often start accepting their disabilities as merely part of themselves, even becoming militant about it, given how they are received in a culture dependent on competitive economics. The meanness with which we treat each other, including those in the excluded middle as well as those who have clear disabilities, is in very large part rooted in fear of becoming one of the disadvantaged ourselves -- becoming one of the lepers. Jesus' example is mixed here: do we heal or walk-with (include)? Clearly healing has become the preferred option, not always for good reasons but perhaps usually for inevitable reasons. How can we achieve a culture of generous inclusion as long as we worship the idol of competition?


  2. There are unquestionably some important points made in this piece that the Church would do well to take into consideration, It is an error to assume that God wants to make everyone into a certain mold and that His character cannot be uniquely demonstrated through differences--which are often described as disabilities.

    I feel that one point is unclear, however. The statement "what disables them [disabled persons] is not their bodies, but a society that discriminates against those bodies it deems to be abnormal" is probably intended to convey a message along the lines of "disabled persons are not limited to the limitations that society imposes on them," but on a more basic level having a "disability" (e.g. lack of hearing) is not socially imposed. The thrust of the argument then seems to be that society as a whole can learn much from those with disabilities, so a person's lack of hearing (or what have you) should not be regarded as "broken" or "inferior" in any way. A minor point.

  3. Hi Anonymous,

    The Social Model of Disability (as well as more recent models of disability that critique the social model, which was prominent in the 80s/90s) that the sentence you are quoting refers/links to is actually arguing something far more radical than what you're suggesting here. The Deaf example you bring up is a good one. Deaf people define themselves as occupying a linguistic minority (i.e. american sign language) that is discriminated against by an "auralist" culture, or, a culture that assumes that communicating via speech rather than sign is natural/better/preferred, etc. From this perspective, being Deaf really can just be considered a form of human variation that need not be seen as a disability at all. Critical disability studies is interested in how *certain* forms of human variation are pathologized and understood as disabilities while other forms of human variation are not. I firmly believe that the church is lagging far behind in this discussion, still rooted in models that frame disability as objects of pity and charity.

    1. Hi Joshua,

      I think it's possible to go too far in the direction of redefining things as "variation" rather than "disability", because at some point we would cease recognising things as what they really are -- recognising people in their true fullness. Nevertheless, developing the habit of seeing variation instead of wrongness (which is how we currently see disability) is bound to be beneficial, and productive of greater justice.

      Perhaps the experience of being the object of charity and pity rather than simple inclusion is what it takes for many of us to shift our mental gears quickly. Other than that, I think we are looking at a long term social project, and instead of only seeing the church as lagging perhaps we should also spare some time to see it as an opportunity and begin expecting it to lead instead of merely catching up?