The corporeal is for people with disabilities the most real. Unwilling and unable to take our bodies for granted, we attend to the kinesis of knowledge. That is, we become keenly aware that our physical selves determine our perceptions of the social and physical world. These perceptions, like our bodies, are often nonconforming and disclose new categories and models of thinking and being. – Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Abingdon, 1994.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of resources on theology, the Bible, and disability. When Nancy Eiesland wrote The Disabled God, however, theological conversations about disability were not nearly so common. That year was 1994, and Eiesland was a PhD student in Ethics at Emory University. Many fine books on theology, Bible, and disability have been written since. Two that come to mind are Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Baylor, 2010) and Hans Reinders’ Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008). I could list many others as well. The Disabled God, however, was truly groundbreaking. Some might even call it the fountainhead of this theological movement.
Eiesland died in 2009. She was forty-four years old. I didn’t know her, but I think she would be very pleased with the ways in which the conversations around theology, Bible, and disability have progressed. If you’d like to read more about her life and work, click here.
One in five people lives with some form of disability. Some churches do a really great job of being in ministry with people with disabilities. Many others do not. I think there are a few reasons for this:
1. The presence of people with disabilities in our communities forces us to face the fact that, if we live long enough, all of us will deal with disability in some form or another. As Americans, we are very reluctant to deal realistically with our own vulnerability. For many of us, it is much easier to live in a state of denial than to confront the hard realities of our embodied existence.
2. While it is important that our churches develop healthy attitudes regarding people with disabilities, attitudes by themselves won’t be nearly enough. It is not simply a matter of getting rid of our own prejudices, but making structural changes to our lives together to accommodate a wide range of people with disabilities, from autism to blindness to impairments of mobility.
3. It’s often the case that the kind of theology we teach in our churches can’t accommodate or account for the presence of people with disabilities. Our understanding of God, as well as our theological understanding of human beings, has to be one that faces realistically the facts of disability and human vulnerability. A theology that does not clearly and actively engage the hard realities of life is all but useless.
I hope you’ll join us at United’s Light the Fire! conference, May 8-9 at Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio. The conference will focus on our ministries with people with disabilities as these relate to church renewal. If you have ever wanted to learn more about how to implement ministry with people with disabilities in your churches, this will be a great place to learn.