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A theology of disability

February 9, 2013

Not long after posting on the resurrection of the body in 1 Maccabees 7, I read this post by Brian LePort on Candida Moss’s lecture on resurrected bodies,

Where Moss made it most interesting is when she shifted the discussion to disabilities. She emphasized that in the Jesus tradition part of the coming Kingdom of God was the removal of blindness, lame limbs, and other infirmities. Moss asked if our modern understanding of resurrected bodies without infirmities is similar to ideas like the Gospel of Thomas where a perfect resurrected body must be male, or that of the creator(s) of this mosaic where if feminine, it is upper class, light skinned, equestrian bodies. While the Gospels and the Book of Acts show healing as part of the Kingdom, sometimes we make the mistake of telling people with infirmities that their bodies are somehow further from resurrected bodies than our own. We perpetuate the idea that some bodies on earth are more like resurrected bodies than other bodies on earth. How do we know this though? Might resurrected bodies be something quite unique?

Moss postulated that infirmities may be part of our identity. Christians have worried about the height, the skin color, the shape, the age, and other features of the resurrected body. Some images of the resurrected body are very muscular, very fit, but are our ideals of the body true representations of the resurrected body? If not, is it possible that someone blind on earth, or someone with a mental health issue on earth, might take that with them into their resurrected body, but because the nature of bodies has changed something like blindness doesn’t prevent true sight, and what was seen as a mental health defect in this age is proven to be something unique and beautiful in the age to come?

Amos Yong has developed this same idea in The Bible, Disability and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, not without significant pushback. In this review, the author, himself in a wheelchair, writes,

[H]e deems disability as a difference to embrace rather than an inherently difficult situation from which we seek liberation. Yong thereby trivializes a lifetime of chronic physical pain as something to be embraced, not healed. His assertion – more emphasized in his other book, Theology and Down Syndrome – that persons with disabilities will retain their disabilities in the resurrected bodies amounts to saying that our present entrapments will remain for all eternity. This, he contends, is an understanding that focuses on redemption of disability rather than healing thereof and is thus more hopeful. In short, he considers it more hopeful to tell us that God has no intention of liberating us from these limitations.

The debate carries on in scholarly articles, a response by Ryan Mullins, and counter response by Yong here. Both of these men have siblings with Down Syndrome. The question is whether they will still have Down Syndrome in their resurrected bodies, albeit without the abnormalities in the internal organs. If those with Down Syndrome are resurrected without Down Syndrome, then they will be more different from their earthly individuality than others who are considered to retain their own basic human characteristics. However, if those with Down Syndrome are resurrected with the syndrome, will that not mean that they will continue to suffer from their disability in their resurrected being?

Down Syndrome is a particularly interesting example of a disability. Children with this syndrome often have a positive, social and outgoing personality. They can be especially engaging, enjoying social interaction. Of course, this is a stereotype, but it is how they are often perceived. It may well be relevant in considering why people would believe that those with disabilities will retain the basic nature of their disability in their resurrected bodies.

But let’s extend this to autism. About 10% of autistic children exhibit unusual abilities in some particular area, often drawing, music or mathematics. If they were cured of their autism in their resurrected bodies, would they also lose these special abilities? Aren’t these special abilities in some way related to their communicative disability?

If we set aside the entire issue of the afterlife, this question affects how we view people with disabilities in this present life. Do we see them as disabled and different in some way that sets them apart from others, or do we include them fully in the human enterprise? Do we enter into mutuality with those who are different from us in this way? I want to say “yes” to the notion of resurrected body without impairment and pain. But, I want also to say “yes” to the full humanity of those with labeled disabilities and their right to inclusion as full members of any community. In the ancient world, people believed that the resurrection body would fit an ideal, sometimes only male, or always 30 years old, always fit and perfect, and with a full  head of hair. That was the ideal. But can we now honour the differences without celebrating disability?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. jay permalink
    February 9, 2013 8:12 am

    What a wonderful thought provoking blog entry. Thanks

  2. February 9, 2013 9:21 am

    Suzanne:

    Thank you for this post. Personally, I don’t know what to do with Moss’s and Yong’s proposals. We did purchase Yong’s book that you mentioned, so I hope to do more reading on the subject. At this juncture I admit (1) I like the idea that we can give people a reason to embrace themselves in this life, rather than seeing others as somehow “closer” to eschatological perfection but (2) I dislike the idea that the healing actions that serve as signs of the Kingdom of God aren’t signs of the Kingdom of God as we imagined. Moss postulated that existence in the life to come may allow someone to retain the infirmity (e.g., paralyzed lower half of the body that prevents walking) without the disability (i.e., those things about this age that make the inability to walk something inferior to the ability to walk). I like that we are having this discussion though. At the very least, it may urge us to focus on the humanity of people with various disabilities that we often ignore or reject, consciously or unconsciously.

  3. February 9, 2013 9:26 am

    I always wondered about those ancient writers who believed the resurrected body would be perfect, because it seems to me that one of the few things we know about the resurrected body is that it will bear wounds that were borne at the time of death: “Come, touch the marks of the nails in my hands, and put your hand in my side.” These don’t seem to be merely scars, but actual wounds; although wounds that do not impair any (necessary?) function or cause (unbearable?) pain. The iconography of the Eastern church does a better job than the West of showing the crucified-and-risen nature of Christ’s resurrected body

    Of course, maybe that’s not a general statement. Maybe it will only bear some wounds, that have some critical feature in common with Christ’s wounds. Wounds that were the cause of death? That were suffered while living and dying in imitation of him? That were somehow constitutive of the person’s identity at death?

    There’s an awful lot of room for speculation here, but there’s not an unlimited amount. I’d like to see a theology of a resurrected, disabled body connected in some consistent way to these ideas.

  4. February 9, 2013 12:29 pm

    This is quite an interesting article, and while I am not an expert on theology or scripture, it is something I enjoy learning about. As for the idea of having a fully healed body on the other side, as a disabled person (born with spina bifida, paralysis from the waist down) I could not imagine myself with a fully healed ressurected body in Heaven. It would seem to me, that I wouldnt be myself and furthermore it would make me think that there was no purpose to being disabled in this life. I believe there is, and it’s not necessarily meant to inspire others, but if it does.. fair enough. Though I have not quite figured out what that purpose is and I probably never will, besides helping those who are like me in whatever way I can. As scripture says when speaking of the blind man the disciples questioned Jesus about in John Ch 9 where Jesus says that this man was born blind so that the works of God can be shown through him, so would it be reasonable to say that the body is the same in the ressurected life for the same purpose? and of course I realize this blind man was actually healed, but it doesnt seem to me that this healing.. in this life is necessary, which is why i find it patronizing when people in the church would like to pray for me to walk, they mean well, but are misguided but also that topic is meant for an entirely different discussion.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 9, 2013 11:30 pm

    Brian,

    “At the very least, it may urge us to focus on the humanity of people with various disabilities that we often ignore or reject, consciously or unconsciously.”

    Yes, this is what I want – that we can all treat each other as fellow human beings.

    Victoria,

    “I’d like to see a theology of a resurrected, disabled body connected in some consistent way to these ideas.”

    I think this is somewhere in the articles by Amos Yong and Ryan Mullins.

    Drew,

    Thanks for your comment. I love your blog! I remember someone praying for me to recover from a rather severe allergic attack, and questioning my faith since the swelling didn’t go down. It’s really a bummer when people intrude like that.

    I love my work with Down Syndrome and autistic kids. And sometimes they are just so darn cute for who they are. But sometimes, they do hurt. However, I do love having them in a regular class with regular kids so it is just a natural part of life that some of us are more different than others.

  6. February 12, 2013 12:44 pm

    Aren’t those disabilities a part of the fall, and in the new heavens and earth, those things would pass away? If I deal with chronic depression my whole life, in heaven I won’t have irrational thoughts or a body that doesn’t have the energy to worship God 24 hours a day. I think there will be renewal of some sorts. Not necessarily perfection as in we’ll all look like we could be on the cover of a fitness magazine, but certainly renewal. And we should be able to walk through walls.
    Jeff

  7. February 12, 2013 1:03 pm

    I am sorry, but I refuse to believe personally that my disability is a result of the sin of mankind in the so called “fall”. We see in scripture (now I am no expert) that the Enemy, or Satan can throw humanity massive curve balls to knock our faith in God, like in the story of Job, but to say that a disability is the result of the “fall” or sin of humanity is like saying its that person’s fault for being the way they are. To say that it is sin or the “fall” that caused a person to be the way they are physically or mentally is incredibly damaging and could, in my mind, turn people away from faith and send them rollin’ at warp speed away from any teaching to do with faith. It also implies that every disability must be cured or “fixed” in this life simply because it may not be “God’s original design”, when in reality it is much more encouraging and right to say to that person, there is a purpose for this, we may not understand it but He loves ya just the same and whatever that “disabling” situation may be it can be used for something positive, the choice is then left to that person.

  8. February 12, 2013 5:24 pm

    Oh no, D.B. I’m afraid I’ve been misunderstood (seems to happen to me a lot) and I agree with what you say. I feel terrible. I’ve been on the receiving end of what you’re saying and I didn’t mean it that way at all. What I meant was, just as people die and decay–not because of sin–so do people become sick and have infirmities and chronic conditions that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the fall of creation along with original sin. But it’s absolutely not because of sin that we have chronic conditions. Please see a couple of my recent blog posts on mental illness. Sorry for plugging my blog, but it shows how vehemently I’m against seeing that as sin. I know this type of response from people can cause great stress and that’s the last thing I’d do to anyone.

    I also believe there is a purpose in everything and everything good or bad is part of God’s will. I believe that when God talks about creating someone in Psalm 139:13ff that He knows at that very time what problems a person may have. He created us in whatever way He sees fit in order to glorify Himself. He knew I would have chronic back pain and mental illness. I go to that passage when I’m very down. Knowing that God knows is very comforting.

    I better stop there before I say anything else that might get misconstrued because I’m not very good at explaining myself. My views on “the fall” have been in flux lately as far as how much it affects disability type things and this new topic for me got me thinking.

    One other thing. I don’t think we’ll be ‘disabled’ when in heaven, but may bear the marks of it in some way. I’m not sure. But I still think we could walk through walls.
    Jeff

  9. February 12, 2013 5:30 pm

    Understodd, Please forgive me for seeming confrontational. One thing that always does make me laugh when thinking about this subject is the fact that, If I am to be “disabled” in Heaven, and that is, to be a person with spina bifida, who uses a wheelchair to get around.. will there be spirit wheelchairs in heaven.. and that whole “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zepplin was singin about.. well.. I hope there is an elevator HA! Man, if God doesnt have a sense of humor, im screwed haha.

  10. February 12, 2013 5:41 pm

    You made me laugh, d a r n i t. Thanks for being charitable and I’ll be interested to see how you get around in heaven. Since we’ll have wings (not really), those should help out if your spiritual wheelchair isn’t too heavy.
    Jeff

Trackbacks

  1. A theology of disability: part 2 « BLT
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  5. Christianity, Disability, And Nonviolence #TheNewPacifism | Political Jesus

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