Disability and the Bible
By the Rev. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles
Kerry Wynn opens the essay “Johannine Healings and the Otherness of Disability” (Perspectives in Religious Studies 34 : 61–75, ) with this statement: “The two most common assumptions in popular theology that marginalize people with disabilities are 1) disability is caused by sin, and 2) if one has enough faith, one will be healed.”
Recently, scholars have shown concern about the manner in which biblical stories depicting characters with disabilities are interpreted, preached and internalized. What are the promises and pitfalls of these texts with respect to issues of disability? How are they freeing or confining? How do we conduct church in light of our attitudes related to disability? I love the church I attend, but neither the choir loft nor the pulpit is wheelchair accessible. Are yours? Every Sunday morning, I am perturbed by the question, “Why should using a wheelchair make it inconvenient or even impossible for someone to preach or sing?”
In “The Bible and Disability: A Commentary” (Baylor University Press, 2017), my chapter addresses disability as it relates to the Johannine literature and Revelation. A briefer introduction to the issues can be found in “Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), which compares and contrasts John 9 and 5 from a disability perspective. John 9 tells of an encounter with a man who was visually impaired since birth. The disciples seek a theological explanation, asking “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They wonder, as we often do, where was God’s hand in the situation.
For their part, the disciples, not unlike Job’s friends, deliver a pat, platitudinous — and wrong — “answer” to the question of why the man is blind — namely, either because of his or his ancestors’ sin. In keeping with the culture of their day, they automatically associate disability with sin. The story demonstrates that the erroneous popular theology is held not only by the disciples but also by the Pharisees.
It further reveals that one deemed “sinner” exemplifies the paradigmatic faith to which Jesus calls us. The man encounters Jesus, believes in Jesus, testifies about Jesus no matter what the cost and worships Jesus. Far from being a helpless person worthy of blame, patronizing or pity, the man is an exemplar, hero and leader of the faith. How often do we minister to people with disabilities rather than with them? How often do we tap them for leadership? John 9 raises issues that can help churches reflect on attitudes about persons who deviate from the “norm” and where they fit into God’s creative designs. Let’s consider just a few.
In disability studies, it is customary to distinguish between impairment (a physiological, medical phenomenon) and disability (a social phenomenon). Not all impairments cause pain or suffering. A society disables people with impairments when steps are not taken to ensure equal access for all members to society’s benefits, such as education, transportation, employment, navigable architecture and political power — entitlements typical people often take for granted.
Another crucial matter relates to the language of cure and healing. Cure refers to the elimination of impairment and, as with impairment, is experienced at the individual level. Healing may or may not involve a cure. Just as a disability is a communally imposed limitation, so, too, is healing communally based — liberation, integration and reconciliation to self, God and the community. The man born blind (John 9) was both cured and healed. The man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5) was cured but not healed.
Those of us who claim the incarnation — God embodied — need to consider which kinds of bodies are valued and which are not. What constitutes “normal?” Does such a body exist in real life? In disability studies, the term normate indicates the fact that “normal” is a made-up idea.
Day in and day out, churches convey messages about what it means that God became embodied (incarnation), the nature of the church (ecclesiology), God’s whereabouts in our suffering, our calling to witness to God’s justice [theodicy (theos meaning “God” and dike meaning “justice”)], and who is called to what in service to the gospel (vocation). We have the opportunity — no, the responsibility — to give light and voice to this oft-neglected aspect of the gospel.
The Rev. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles is professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Disability and Religion.
“The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God” by Amos Yong (Eerdmans, 2011).
“The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability” by Nancy L. Eiesland (Abingdon Press, 1994).
“Disability in the Johannine Literature [Gospel of John, 1–3 John, Apocalypse]” by Jaime Clark-Soles in “The Bible and Disability: A Commentary,” eds. Sarah J. Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Amos Yong (Baylor University Press, 2017).
“Disability Studies and the Bible” by Jeremy Schipper and Junior Nyasha in “New Meanings for Ancient Texts: Recent Approaches to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications,” eds. John Kaltner and Steven McKenzie (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
“The Gospel of Mark and Disability” by Jaime Clark-Soles in “Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology,” Volume 70, Issue 2, pp. 159–171 (Sage, April 2016).
“A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability” by Kathy Black (Abingdon Press, 1996).
“Love Embodied in Action — Ethics and Incarnation” by Jaime Clark-Soles in “Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John,” eds. Sherri Brown and Christopher Skinner (Fortress Press, 2017).
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.