Monday, May 23, 2005

Our duty and our joy

This was the title of an excellent CME presentation yesterday dealing with the Church’s attitudes to disability, which Mark has already covered on his blog. I came worrying that it would be all ramps and loop systems (which, though excellent in themselves are unlikely to be anything over which I have huge control, specially in my current context) but my fears were groundless. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t get One Pedestrian out of my mind as I know that many of our well-intentioned thoughts and fumblings towards a theology of disability would probably seem deeply unsatisfactory from her perspective. On my own doorstep, I was disturbed by the realisation that our church, while not bad at the physical practicalities of access, was probably not yet ready to welcome anyone who fails to conform to perceived norms of appropriate behaviour during worship. Heck, they find it hard enough when the Curate forgets that they prefer to kneel for the Eucharistic Prayer! By the end of the day, I found myself praying that God would, at top speed, send us a family with learning disabilities to challenge us to move beyond our comfort zone.

I was inspired , too, to revisit the work of John Hull, who had spoken to us during ordination training. He has much to say about the negative images of blindness prevalent in the Bible, and startled us with his announcement that he neither expected nor longed to recover his sight in heaven. His website is full of challenging stuff…I wanted to weep when I read
When I studied the New Testament as a sighted person, it did not occur to me that you, Jesus, were yourself sighted. We were in the same world, but it did not occur to me that being sighted was a world. I thought that things were just like that. When I became blind, then I realised that blindness is a world, and that the sighted condition also generates a distinctive experience and can be called a world. Now I find, Jesus, that I am in one world and you are in another.
(John Hull: Open Letter from a blind disciple to a sighted Saviour)
By inhabiting a specific culture, Jesus seems to have become trapped by its particular constraints. Hull contrasts his attitude to the blind (and, by extension, to others with disabilities) with his attitude to women (not among the 12, but nonetheless affirmed and given the joyous task of witnessing the resurrection) and other outsiders…tax collectors and sinners. The blind, deaf and lame are the recipients of ministry but not included among the disciples until they are healed. It seems almost as if Jesus had bought into the medical model of response, which sees disability as a problem to be fixed, rather than an essential part of the identity of the blind or deaf person….
So the blind disciple comments
On an individual basis you are sensitive and tactful towards blind people, and while acknowledging their condition of economic deprivation, you insist upon their inclusion. Nevertheless, you did not include a blind person in your closest circle. In your presence blind people felt the hope and discovered the reality of the restoration of sight but you did not offer to blind people courage and acceptance in their blindness. You would have led me by the hand out of blindness but you would not have been my companion during my blindness.
(Hull: source above)

I'm left wondering if there are disabilities and degrees of damage so extreme that it is only through healing that the person can truly be freed to be themselves? I cannot presume to answer that...Hull arrives at a resolution when he understands that Jesus too experienced blindness in his last hours. Blindfolded by the soldiers who whipped him, plunged into the great darkness that filled his time on the cross, he shared even this element of the human condition. Meanwhile, Urban Army quotes Mother Teresa, anxious that we should avoid giving
“people a broken Christ, a lame Christ, a crooked Christ deformed by you”. In the light of Hull's views, this could open a whole new chapter in the discussions....


Mary said...

Thre is no doubt that behavioural disorders are extremely challenging for us as churches, whatever our tradition. We have experienced this with two families, each with two autistic children, each very different from the other. Inevitably some of this got tangled up with the usual angst about "why can't parents keep their children under control" from those of us with older or no children, and difficult issues for other parents about apparent double standards. Both families eventually left, but all I can say in our defence is that one has now come back and in fact came on the weekend away. I can't say it was easy, but there was enough awareness and understanding this time round that we didn't need to seek public absolution when the speaker yesterday talked extensively about accepting and giving unconditional love as a defining characterisitc of the Trinity....

Gordon said...

Thanks Kathryn for some really stimultaing thoughts.

I shared some thoughts on Blind Bartimeaus last week and was struck by the words of Jesus "What do you want me to do for you..!"

I wonder if the miracle was more to do with offering 'choice' to the marginalised who rarely had choice? Which would add a different dimension to the assumption that Jesus' mission was a mission of fixing it.

Perhaps the wholeness came in the power of choice rather than sight.

I don't know I'm just rambling...!

Friday Mom said...


I came to your blog through Dylan's Lectionary Blog. I'm very interested in a theology of disability. I have a step-son who has cognitive disabilities, and I'm a PhD student pastoral care, writing about the experience of human freedom for those with cog. disab. There is a good book entitled The Disabled God that offers a liberation theological perspective on the issue of disability.

I am most concerned with the question of how churches change when they begin to truly accept persons with disabilities as full members with the same rights and responsibilities as other members. Your reflections here are quite interesting. We have discussed whether or not we would seek a therapeutic solution for my step-son's disability if one should one become available. We see that he offers so much to the church as he is. It is a rare church that seeks to affirm the gifts of all of its members.