Moving Toward a Better Theology of Disability

Jill_VandeZande_web

Although I graduated from WTS five years ago, when I heard that my alma mater was launching a certificate in disability and ministry, I wanted to enroll. I would love to learn how I can cross the bridge more effectively between the world of those who live with fully-able bodies and minds and those who do not. What a rich area of ministry!

This certificate program is important because the theological conversation around disability needs to change. It is rooted in shame rather than hope, love, acceptance, and redemption. I have cerebral palsy. Because of this, I wore my shame like a cloak for the first 28 years of my life. “I caused this. I’m broken. I cause my parents so much extra work/money/time. I’m imperfect. I don’t belong in this world. This is too difficult. Why would God do this? God must hate me.” And on and on and on. Even a person well-adjusted to life with disability will deal with these toxic thoughts.

What message does the church offer? In my experience, the church responds to disability in one of three ways:

  1.  God made you this way because he knew you were special enough/strong enough to handle it.
  2.  You have a disability because of the sin that exists in our world. You are an example of what “original sin” can do.
  3.  God made a mistake. Something happened (perhaps Satan tried to destroy you), but God stepped in just in time.

I’ve had all three of these justifications said to my face.

For those of us who have disabilities, we (wish we could) respond like this:

  1. I am not strong, nor am I special. If this is what strong and special looks like, you can have it.
  2. Why am I an example of original sin? I didn’t do anything to deserve this. (Many who have physical disabilities—like me—were born with them).
  3. I thought God didn’t make mistakes. And I thought he was stronger than the devil. Is God imperfect or weak?

Obviously, the church’s theology on disability leaves a lot to be desired. There has to be a way to approach disability from a theological perspective that does not involve shame, sin, or mistakes.

I borrow heavily from theologian and sociologist Nancy Eisland [paraphrasing], “Somewhere within God exists the possibility for disability. God is so huge, who are we to say what is encompassed within the character of God? Therefore, we cannot say that disability is a sort of imperfection or mistake. It is something deliberately, intentionally given to us by God.”

This statement may be hard to swallow for both able-bodied and the disabled. Disability looks like a mistake to us. But is it a mistake from God’s perspective? I choose to believe that my cerebral palsy (CP) was given to me with purpose. Indeed, I am certain that CP has formed me for the better. How then, is my CP a mistake?

Further, if one is going to espouse the idea of disability from original sin, then one also needs to make sure it is abundantly clear that in Christ, our disability has been fully redeemed. We know that Jesus redeemed the world and saved us from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. We believe that he brings hope into seemingly hopeless situations. Many of us bear witness to his inbreaking power. Why do we think that the human body or mind is off-limits to God? Can’t his power reach that far? I’m not speaking exclusively of miraculous healing—although God is certainly able to do that if he chooses. I’m talking about the glorious mystery that occurs when a person or family thanks God for the difficulty of disability; when they find hope in times of desperation; and when the glory of God shines brightly in an imperfect physical or mental existence. That is redemption only God can bring. It is no less a miracle than being fully healed.

This is the theology of disability the church needs to adopt. The world only offers a message of shame, and to a large extent, this is what the church has offered too—except we cloak it in religious language, or we try to make it better by saying, “But you’re made in the image of God too.” Too? Oh, thanks for making room for me. No. People with disabilities are made in the image of God. Period. There is no too.

The perspective of a person with a disability is needed and valuable. Back in seminary, I brought my disability into a couple of sermons. Later, someone said to me, “It wasn’t really necessary for you to talk about your CP. You make it sound like that’s all you ever think about.” I was taken aback and felt a split second of shame and doubt. But disability is the filter through which I view the world. As much as someone (or I) might like, I cannot get away from it. This classmate was in no way mean-spirited, but he made me realize that some find my CP uncomfortable and would rather pretend it doesn’t exist or influence my life in any way. In that instance, I heard that my perspective wasn’t important and didn’t matter.

People with disabilities are not going away anytime soon. In fact, with the aging of the population and the rise (and associated risk) of multiple births, they are increasing in number. The church must reexamine its theology of disability, and then must use that theology to do a better job of connecting the worlds of the able-bodied and the disabled. The GCDM is a step in that direction. I applaud WTS for this important new program.

-Jill VandeZande ‘10

Campus Staff Minister

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Bakersfield College, CA