In my previous post I attempted a different take on how the church often treats persons who identify as LGBT by peering through the lens of disability theology. The healing stories about Jesus prominently display what Nancy Eiesland called “disability-sin conflation.” That is, the clear connection between individual or generational sin and an individual’s disability. Persons are simultaneously healed and forgiven of their sins. Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man in Mark 2 is a prime example. When the paralyzed man’s friends lower him through a roof as a last ditch effort to bring him before Jesus, Mark has Jesus exclaiming before the crowd, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” When the religious elite among the crowd accuse him of blasphemy, Jesus asks whether it is easier to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Stand up and take your mat and walk.” Today, operating with the same assumptions about sickness or disability is both theologically and scientifically wrong, but this thinking still creeps into the theology of dominant Christianity, especially in regards to same-sex attraction. Within evangelicalism it is assumed that people who identify outside the realm of heterosexuality bear a disease, are emblematic of sin in the world, and must be healed of their sexual afflictions before they can be fully welcomed into community and participate in the body of God.
Rebecca Chopp writes, “From codes of purity to acts of Jesus’ healing, the implicit theological assumption has equated perfect bodies with wholeness of the spirit.” Following the biblical model of disability-sin conflation implies two assumptions: (1) that the disabled individual lacks, as Chopp notes, wholeness of spirit, and (2) that the disabled individual must be made normal to experience the full life of community. These assumptions make bold claims regarding who is in and who is out based on the grounds of normativity, whether it is in regards to heterosexuality or to being able-bodied.
The question that surfaces through all of this discussion is this: What do disabled persons created in the image of God tell us about God? Moreover, what do the particularities of embodiment tell us about being human and being in the image and likeness of God? We need an inclusive theology that embraces diversity and difference as expressions of the multivalent image of the Triune God. One of the most striking notions to come from disability theology is a challenge to the images/metaphors of God that we construct. Chopp beautifully proclaims,
“The most astounding fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body, is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission. Indeed, the centrality of the Disabled God to Christian symbolic logic is a powerful image of resistance to oppressive constructs of ‘normal embodiment’ and an image of transformation for all persons created in the image of God.”
Chopp’s words on the Disabled God as our primary image are powerful and offer an important and much needed alternative to the dominant view, which we might be able to call the Normal God. The Disabled God deconstructs our concepts of who and what is not only normal, but also whole. With this image in mind, it is in our brokenness that Jesus meets us and limps alongside us into God’s being, rather than in our ability, holiness, or purity.
So how do we read the Gospels in light of this? I believe that Ched Myers offers a positive reading for these difficult healing texts. In Binding The Strong Man, Myers writes:
Mark’s Jesus seeks always to restore the social wholeness denied to the sick/impure by this symbolic order [unjust socio-political-religious structure]. That is why his healing of the sick/impure is virtually interchangeable with his social intercourse with them. To one ‘leper’ he offers a declaration of wholeness (1:41), to another simply the solidarity of table fellowship (14:3). Both acts defy the symbolic order that segregates those lacking bodily integrity; both challenge the prevailing social boundaries and class barriers. This is why Jesus the healer was a threat to ‘civic order.’
[Marks healings] ‘challenged the very structures of social existence . . . healing an exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced. Depending on one’s status in the dominant order, one either perceived them as socially deviant (worse, heretical) or liberative.
In closing, I’d like to reflect briefly on the scene from Mark 2. The faith of the four friends reveals an intimate social/relational shift that provides the foundation for the healing of the paralytic. The paralyzed man was not lowered through a roof by four Good Samaritan types, but by four friends. These four friends are modeling the type of social transformation that needs to take place, and the opposite of dis-otherizing. The four have put behind them the socio-religious taboos of disability and the reciprocal functions of friendship, and instead operate under the implication that the image of God has not left their friend, nor has it ever left anyone. Rather, the image of God may leave our field of vision, but has never left. For the four friends, the fear of becoming unclean was overcome by their desire for inclusion and of love for their friend. This act could not have been done had they not overcome the fear of the other and recognized the humanity of the paralytic. They acted out of love rather than fear. I’d like to believe with 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love casts out fear.”