disability, exclusion and the other (part 1)

Many voices have expressed their concern over texts of the Bible that lend themselves to oppression, exclusion and sexism, violence and colonialism. There is no denying that there are many problematic passages in the Bible, but one particular instance of exclusion has been lodged in my mind for a few weeks now. It is a passage from the Holiness Code section of Leviticus (chapters 12-26) and addresses the topic of disability among priests. I am not disabled, nor do I intend to speak for persons with disabilities. It is my goal here to explore an often overlooked passage and the implications it carries through the biblical text and a way that biblical attitudes toward disability have taken on a new life today.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and say: ‘No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. (Leviticus 21:16-23)

Amos Yong claims that is is “important to note that persons with disabilities were not barred from the priesthood or from eating the priestly meals, but only from offering the sacrifices.”[1] He cites a rabbinic tradition that interprets the restrictions in terms of disabilities “being so obvious or as causing behavioral peculiarities such that the people are distracted from the solemnity of the liturgy.[2] Yong goes on to claim that

…persons with physical blemishes were not only a specially segregated class in regard to the sacrificial offering, but were also subject to the laws of uncleanness . . . At best, persons with disabilities were marginalized from central aspects of ancient Israel’s social and religious activities; at worst, they were excluded altogether.[3]

This at worst mentality is often the one that we encounter when the text introduces individuals with illnesses or disabilities. Where are these individuals? How are they portrayed? What is their demeanor? These persons who are sick or live with a disability are deemed unclean and become outcasted from the dominant community (a beautiful exception to this is 2 Samuel 9, which emphasizes the elevated status of Mephibosheth regardless of his physical condition). Generally speaking, persons with congenital diseases or disabilities were understood to be bearing the physical and visible effects of sin. The Second Testament reinforces this negative view of disability through the destitute recipients of Jesus’ healing. Forgiveness of sins and physical healing go hand in hand as outcasted and socially dislocated individuals with disabilities become restored both physically and socially. The late Nancy Eiesland points out the “sin and disability conflation” in passages like John 5:14, where Jesus is recorded as telling the just healed man not to sin anymore so that nothing worse will happen to him.[4]

From universal to particular, erasing normativity

Deborah Creamer states, “Some people have their disabilities from birth; others acquire them later in life. Disabilities may be attributed to accident, illness, or genetics.”[5]  In the pre-scientific context of the gospels, disability was generally attributed to personal or generational sin or disobedience. This helps to explain why Jesus is recorded as forgiving sin in conjunction with healing disability. However, in the stories of healing performed by Jesus, the themes of both pity and rejection of diversity float to the top of the text.  Rather than Jesus challenging the community regarding their negative views of the other (as he does for the woman caught in adultery), he dis-otherizes the outcasts by restoring them to a state of being physically abled, or “normal”.

Does Jesus heal the ones who need it most? What does the healing of individuals say about discrimination and group exclusion? Please do not hear me–a fully abled male–saying that I do not see hope or value for persons with disabilities in the stories of healing. What I am saying is that there is more going on in the text, and other valid readings present us with problems that should not be avoided. I think a case can be made that the Jesus-following community that develops is also the community of normativity. This conclusion is one in which dominant Christianity still operates, and a conclusion that must be dismantled.

Personally, I have been strongly influenced by the work of Sallie McFague and her formulation of a theology of embodiment. Deborah Creamer puts McFague’s work into conversation with a theology of disability. If you are familiar with McFague, this may excite you, too. Creamer writes:

The notion that experiences such as disability (or any individual particularity) are part of the whole of life and are to be accepted as such does, in fact, make for a powerful theological starting point. Rather than seeing disability and other particularities as an exception to some norm this viewpoint can help us begin to see that all instantiations of human embodiment are aspects of the realm of the body of God . . . Rather than overlooking or dismissing particularity as part of the randomness of life, McFague’s model ought to lead us to a perspective where we embrace particularity as part of the relation or revelation of God in the world. Particularity ought to be a significant datum for theological reflection. Following McFague’s claim that “the body of God is not a body, but all the different, peculiar, particular bodies about us.”[6]

She argues that the particular experiences of human beings––in all their diversity and differences––must be included in our God-talk and our understanding of the God-human relationship. What does this mean for how we do theology or imagine community and praxis? As I have been reflecting on disability in the Bible and reading theologies of disability, it is impossible to miss the glaringly obvious parallels between the language of disability theology and the experience of LGBT persons in the church. I am by no means associating same-sex attraction with disability––please don’t read that into this––but I am observing similarities in the way that Christianity approaches both the particularities of disability and the LGBT experience. Creamer exemplifies this trend:

Consideration of disability has found consistent treatment in the realm of pastoral care: how do we take care of people with disabilities, support their families, and address issues of suffering and healing? This pastoral focus may be influenced by the modern medical model (where one’s life is referred to by diagnostic category) which is deficit laden.[7]

One page later, she writes:

While many people with disabilities have found welcome in the church, many others still wait outside the gates . . . The community of faith has failed to honestly engage with people who have disabilities, to seek out and listen to their stories, and instead tends only to speak to or about them or does things for them. If they are not ignored altogether, people with disabilities have been talked to or talked about, not not included as key partners in the conversation of faith.[8]

The dominant Christian tradition approaches the LGBT community in the same vein. They are talked to or talked about without being included in the conversation, and they are viewed as in need of healing because they do not embody the heteronormative experience.  Some are indeed welcomed, but many more are still waiting outside the gates. In the foreword to Eiesland’s book, Rebecca Chopp notes that “from codes of purity to acts of Jesus’ healing, the implicit theological assumption has equated perfect bodies with wholeness of the spirit.”[9]

Carrying the analogy further, the refusal to acknowledge the particularity of the LGBT experience and instead operate under the universal notions of heterosexuality denies the body in the same way the particularity of intersex persons challenges binary concepts of gender. To identify outside of heteronormativity is understood as a blemish, to borrow from our Leviticus passage. Following the pattern of Jesus, instead of learning to love the LGBT (Other) community or the disabled (Other) and heal our discrimination and exclusion, the Church attempts to dis-otherize them. This happens by mitigating disability and not engaging it theologically and by reducing same-sex attraction to a disease that one can be healed of and consequently be accepted by those who are “normal”. That is, to heal them and make them acceptable to church communities and ultimately, make them acceptable to God because they are blemished, imperfect, abnormal, broken. The body of God becomes the idealized abled body of normativity rather than the broken-yet-resurrected body that all of us live into in our particular bodies and experiences. These two groups of Others differ, however, in the ways each is currently perceived by the dominant population in the States and in the Church; the disabled are viewed with pity and LGBT persons are viewed with fear. In light of these perceptions, I’d say that socially speaking, the sick and disabled of the Bible are close relatives with the LGBT community today on the grounds of fear, exclusion from society at large and, to borrow Eiesland’s terminology, disability-sin conflation.

Toward praxis

How do we read new life into the healing passages that affirm our differences and make room for wider inclusion and mindfulness of persons who fall outside our socially constructed norms? What images in scripture can we look to in order to affirm the Other? Further questions arise for me. Is dis-otherizing (taken as an action performed to or for an other so as to make an outcast acceptable) inherently bad? Are there instances where dis-otherizing someone is a positive thing, as opposed to challenging our own understandings of inclusion, relationship, power, and privilege within the realm of acceptability?

––––––––––––––––––––––––
1. Amos Yong, “Disability, the Human Condition, and the Spirit of the Eschatological Long Run,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 11:1 (2007), 7.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 9-10.
4. Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 72, 74.
5. Deborah Creamer, Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 7:3 (2003), 61.
6. Deborah Creamer, “Including All Bodies in the Body of God,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 9:4 (2006), 11. 
7. Creamer, “Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” 5.
8. Ibid., 6.
9. Eiesland, The Disabled God, 11.
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