A theology of disability
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?