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Christianity and Disability: Thinking Theologically about Brokenness

by Sharifa Stevens on May 16, 2013 in Articles

Lesley and her family usually seat themselves near the front of the sanctuary. When the music starts, Lesley lifts her hands, her head moves, and her eyes shine. She praises God without worrying about how she looks. Sometimes Lesley will involuntarily make noise. Lack of mouth-muscle control means she cannot speak, and she often drools. She is cognitively present, but she’s imprisoned by a body that refuses to submit. Often folks have trouble understanding her. To do so takes effort, and many people just don’t have the time to learn how to know her. She is surrounded by a circle of polite distance. Leslie has a disability.

“Disability” is an unruly word. Its broadness covers people who are quadriplegic, autistic, clinically depressed, or suffer from chronic illness. Nearly 57 million Americans are categorized as disabled, according to U.S. census data. It is unruly in how diverse it is; disability does not discriminate by race, class, age, or sex. Any man or woman who lives long enough will join the ranks of the disabled.

Local congregations, neighbors, and families are reflected in these statistics. A circle of polite distance is not an option for the body of Christ. Rather, we need sound theology accompanied by compassionate practice.

Anthropology: The Imago Dei and the Fall

“The Imago Dei is about who you are, not what you do,” says Dallas Theological Seminary’s director of Alumni, Greg Hatteberg (ThM, 1992, DMin student). He has been married to his college sweetheart, Lisa, for almost thirty-three years. And they have been living with her full-blown multiple sclerosis since 1999. “Lisa is a picture of the peace that passes understanding.” A former gymnast and track athlete, she now spends most of her days bedridden.

“One day Lisa said to me, ‘I’m sorry I’m not the wife you married.’ I told her, ‘It was your eyes and smile that drew me in. Your spirit, your love for the Lord.’ She demonstrates the tension of the image of God and the fallenness of humanity.”

Genesis 1:26–31 chronicles God’s commission of humanity to bear His image and represent Him to the created order, to rule, and to “be fruitful and increase in number.” After the Fall, humanity’s ability to fulfill God’s commission became marred. Thus, our bodies decay, underperform, and die. Our ability and willingness to reproduce or be industrious is thwarted. We don’t “rule” quite right.

According to professor of Theological Studies Dr. Glenn Kreider (ThM, 1990; PhD, 2001), “Clearly there’s a different connotation of ‘rule’ that one hears in a fallen world than one hears in a pre-Fall world. Yet even in a redeemed world, every person will not reflect God in the same way. God is reflected through brokenness in a different way. There are benefits and additional abilities that come from specific areas of brokenness, including disability.”

Greg asserts that society recognizes the decay of the Fall and longs for the healing from it, without dependence on God. We are an airbrushed society trying to rehabilitate our bodies while neglecting our souls.

Sometimes we blame the soul for the body’s condition. In the Gospels, we read that Jesus responds to questions about a man who was born blind: is it because of his parents’ sin? His own? Jesus

replies that neither this man nor his parents sinned, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1–3).

Some might say that disability is a spiritual gift given to a person to bring him or her closer to the Lord, or to teach dependence. Dr. Kreider challenges mistaking disability for a gift: “How can we ever call something that’s a result of the Fall ‘good’? Disability is not good. Brokenness is not good. But God does things through brokenness and in the midst of brokenness, and He uses brokenness, and His strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Ecclesiology: All Body Parts Matter

Joel Megli (ThM student, Dallas campus), his eyes sparkling, tells stories about bow hunting, music, and growing up in a farming hamlet in Australia. But he also talks about the day that changed his life. The day Prince Charles and Lady Diana were wed, he was run over twice by an industrial tractor. The accident left him with limited mobility in his legs. He was three years old.

Joel’s legs haven’t stopped him from traveling from his home in Australia to pastoring in Canada to mission trips in South Sudan and China. He’s even worked for a roofing company. “People around me saw the best in me,” Joel recalls. He sees this as a distinctive of the church—to see the best in all people and to involve them in the community. Joel recognized that with every trip and job, people recognized both his limitations and his capabilities, and they set him up to thrive.

Society, and at times the church, values people according to their ability to independently function and produce. Knowing this, Joel says, “Our biggest fear is to be a burden. That’s why our hearts are so broken for the disabled.

“But if I am a part of a group [that upholds me],” he continues, “my ability to function in society isn’t the issue so much, because I’m not judged by my productivity.”

Maybe we as a believing community have been asking the wrong questions. When we begin to ask according to John 9:3, “How can we see the works of God displayed in this person?” we might begin to recognize the Imago Dei.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we read that the apostle Paul compels believers to establish a community defined by something other than convenience, comfort, or favoritism—by mutual honor and cooperation in Christ. Paul wrote of our interdependence, saying “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (vv. 21–23).

Lesley is one of the body’s members. And she is an indispensable worshiper among us. If mere comfort compels us, how many Lesleys will the church miss out on? How many Joels won’t get to participate in the life of the church?

Eschatology: Hope for Healing

Another way to define “disability” is what will be healed in the kingdom of God. When Jesus announced His public ministry in Luke 4:16–21, one of the characteristics of His reign was to recover sight to the blind. Jesus could well have been talking about healing spiritual blindness, but He physically healed the blind, the sick, the lame, and the demon-possessed as He demonstrated that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The ultimate proof of His power was manifested in resurrection: first He raised people such as Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son at Nain, and Lazarus from the dead; then He Himself was raised with an incorruptible, glorified body to live forever, while incredibly still bearing the scars of crucifixion (John 20:27).

Jesus’s resurrection confirms that God means business about redeeming us, wholly. In God’s eyes, we are all disabled, and those in Christ are being redeemed, and shall be redeemed. We are still the Imago Dei. Body and soul are in bondage to the effects of the Fall; body and soul are subject to brokenness that distorts God’s ideal; but ultimately body and soul will be made utterly and eternally whole.

So we wait with the hope of Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” We wait for the day when Lesley will speak, Lisa will walk, Joel will run. But until that day, we must lend our tongues, our arms, and our legs, because these saints represent the Imago Dei among us, and we belong to each another.

Sharifa Stevens (ThM, 2004) is a freelance writer living in Dallas, Texas. She contributes regularly to Manna Express Online.

Ways to Honor the Imago Dei

  •  Treat each person with dignity.
  • Humbly acknowledge the person’s distinctive features.
  • Never limit the individual’s personhood to his or her distinctive features.
  • Avoid using disability descriptions that serve no purpose. These can be limiting. For example, think about why you would want to mention that a person is blind in a conversation in which the ability to see is unimportant.
  • Honor the person first. Note the difference between labeling someone as “the deaf woman” and “the woman who is deaf.” One conveys the primacy of personhood; the other, the primacy of differentiation. Taking care in our speech is not about political correctness; it’s about honoring people.

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