Wednesday, July 24, 2013

See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil: A Letter to White Americans

I’m relieved that the alleged racial slur from the mouth of George Zimmerman was false. Let me be clear: I’m glad, because if Zimmerman had uttered the slur we could continue to blind ourselves to the pervasive hold, however invisible, race has on our imaginations. We could have chalked Zimmerman up to a racist bigot who was different than the majority of the population and continued to hope in a colorblind system. Like most people, I don’t utter racial slurs, so I’ve spent most of my life blind to racial logics and operations for discerning the identity and character of others. But because Zimmerman never called Trayvon Martin a coon, we thought we could dismiss race as relevant to this tragedy. Indeed, most of us (non-black persons) are quite alike Zimmerman insofar as we justify the man in his suspicions or deceive ourselves by thinking that being suspicious of someone like Trayvon in this case has nothing to do with race. The connection is made, and now we’re all either justified or implicated.

Racial slurs are not the heart of racism, but simply the outworking of a racial logic birthed in the colonial moment. They are one type of expression that flows “out of a person’s mouth, [but] come from the heart” (Matt 15:18). At the heart of the matter is how humans created a new system to articulate the identity of others. These humans were the Europeans during the colonial event. Prior to colonialism, one identified other people and themselves in relation to space, the immediate land and all it contained that served as someone’s home. With the discovery of the new world, however, bodies and lands were severed from one another as Europeans sought to understand themselves and the indigenes inhabiting the new world. They developed a racial hermeneutic in which whiteness (the European self) signified the ideal identity and blackness represented the anti-ideal. The colonizers thereby discerned a person’s/people’s identity by their body. Though these operations entirely fail to reflect true identity, they are nevertheless fully real forces exercising real power over bodies and imaginations.

Of course, the subjection of bodies to this calculus manifested itself in the colonial moment quite visibly and violently, so much so that that abolition of slavery and deconstruction of state sanctioned segregation has led most (at least, white) Americans to believe race is no longer a systemic problem. But the racial logic that began visible, reasonable, and natural has now become invisible, at least to the system and those of us who haven’t been forced to be conscious of our bodies in the ways victims of the operation have. Cloaked thus, the reign of racial logic has become all the more dangerous. It is the demonic force that becomes more powerful when people ignore or don’t believe in its existence. We can no longer detect our racial calculus and operation of discerning the identity of others except through blips of slurs. But when we discern another’s identity by bodily aesthetics on this scale, which includes the ideational perception of attire that transforms garments into prosthetics of the body, we employ the racial logic.

The matter has become more complicated in this age of statistics and data. There are twice as many black people in prison than there are white and Hispanic people. Statistically, black people tend to be criminals far more than other racial categories. Given the data, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of bodies that do not appear to belong in the space where they travel. But this simply reinscribes the racial logic through a sleight of hand. Any black person that someone else suspects to be dangerous is liable to the “statistically” motivated interrogation. To justify this operation only perpetuates the right and power of one type of body (that embodies the ideal statistically) to judge and identify the body that the statistics condemn. Statistics didn’t replace the racial logic; they simply justified it and masked the operation at once. What enlightened Europeans knew objectively of black bodies is now reasonable enough to be suspicious of black bodies because data supports the racial reality.

But if statistics pragmatically support the reality of criminality around black bodies, then isn’t this simply an unfortunate reality necessary to maintain the safety and order of society? We might say it’s merely coincidence that black bodies commit more crimes than non-black bodies. But we must cease interrogating the other’s body and now reflexively interrogate ourselves. What sort of relationship does the racial calculus and its operation create between the self and the “suspicious” other? What does it mean to identify a particular appearance as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal? To articulate another’s identity according to a racial calculus is to place oneself in the position of judge. The judge determines what is right, normal, and acceptable. The judge also has the right to require another person to give an account of him or herself. Within the racial operation, certain bodies that most closely align with the ideal (prosthetics and all) have the right and exercise their right to demand an account from another body that appears suspect, dangerous, or criminal. This is not a reciprocal relationship. This system of identity allows the judge to never really address the other, but rather assert, “Oh, now I know who you are.” This operation requires the “perpetrator” to give an account of oneself according to the judgment of normalcy. The racial calculus inhibits authentic address between persons. In short, the judge possesses power to which the "suspect" must become subject. Zimmerman articulated Trayvon’s identity as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal and then, through pursuit, required Trayvon to give an account of himself.

But if we don’t judge all black people to be suspicious, dangerous, or criminal, how could it be that we view blackness itself as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal? Blackness is not simply a skin color any more than white skin strictly biologically manifests the reality of whiteness. The ideas of whiteness and blackness work themselves into bodies, not vice versa. Particular appearances signify the reality of blackness, so that a judge imagines certain appearances, races, as symbolic of criminality, suspiciousness, and danger. In Trayvon’s case, his hoodie and sweatpants served as prosthetics of his black skin. This distinction is important. When we (embodying whiteness) know a black friend personally, there is no need to articulate his or her identity. Also, if a black person dresses and lives a life that appears "normal" and familiar in our estimation (suburb house, wife and kids, steady career, and “proper” attire), those artifacts serve as prosthetics of our whiteness so that we needn’t discern the character and identity of some unknown person. But Zimmerman didn’t know or recognize Trayvon, and Trayvon was wearing prosthetics that confirmed his blackness in Zimmerman’s eyes. So Zimmerman was immediately suspicious of and felt threatened by Trayvon’s body.

Much of what I’ve said thus far has questioned from our position instead of Zimmerman’s. I do this because Zimmerman’s position is our position when we believe his suspicions are reasonable. Zimmerman’s position is that of the judge who identifies the other through the racial operation of discerning identity (he asked, “What are you doing around here,” rather than asking, “Who are you?” The former evaluates with suspicion the answer according to a predetermined calculus, while the latter awaits the answer of the other for discernment), and reserves his/her right to require the other to be accountable to him/herself. Zimmerman saw Trayvon, judged his appearance (hoodie, sweatpants, and seemingly black [confirmed at closer sight], which symbolize “up to no good” and/or “on drugs”) and immediately linked it with those “fucking punk” “asshole” burglars who have been stealing in the neighborhood. Trayvon deviated from the norm that Zimmerman represented and upheld. Zimmerman didn’t need to use a racial slur to betray the prevalence of the racial hermeneutic. He didn’t have to use hateful words to criminalize, demean, and judge another person’s body through racial superiority (normalcy). He demonstrated as much through his paranoia at the sight of Trayvon and interrogating the teenager through pursuit. The court didn’t need to acquit a man (teenage) slaughterer (or even murderer) who used slurs or showed himself to be a racist bigot as we imagine to reveal that the system condones and is complicit in racial logics through its colorblindness. Zimmerman simply had to supply Trayvon’s identity and judge him as he did to confirm to victims of the racial identifying operation that race was at play. The court and jury simply had to say there was insufficient evidence of murder or manslaughter and deem Zimmerman’s actions reasonable to show black persons that the system cannot adequately address racism in its color-impaired state. The system still favors the norm of whiteness, because it’s too busy searching for racial slurs.


Note: "A Letter To White Americans" is not meant as an attack, but simply a qualification of audience given the language of "we" throughout the post.

For further reading on the nature of race or the role of race in America and the Zimmerman case, see:

J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account.
Anthea Butler, "The Zimmerman Acquittal: America's Racist God," Religion Dispatches.
Willie Jennings, "What Does It Mean To Call "God" A White Racist," Religion Dispatches.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sheep Among Wolves: What Does It Mean To Follow A Criminal Today?

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles … If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household … Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Jesus (Matthew 10:16-18, 25, 34).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.” – Written by Paul the Apostle (Romans 13:1-5) whom Rome executed a decade later for being a criminal.

Imagine you were following Jesus at the moment he told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To Jesus’ followers at that moment these words warned anyone who wished to be Jesus’ disciple that they would become criminals, criminals who would meet execution by the state. At this moment Jesus confessed that he would be what his disciples understood as a failed messiah. Is that what the cross means to readers today, many of whom live in America and couldn’t imagine the inside of a cell let alone being the object of state execution?

The troubling reality Christians must confront today is whether we believe the cross Jesus bore and the fate he and his disciples met are still relevant in our society. We’ve transformed that instrument of state power and punishment, inextricably bound to the body of the criminal, into a figurative endeavor expressing the Christian’s need to renounce vice. It’s common to link the cross to the denial of the self as Jesus does, but we’ve interpreted the meaning of the cross for the life of disciples today in light of our understanding of what is the self. The argument typically goes that Christians must be willing to sacrifice their desires—selfishness, greed, envy, passion, etc.—in order to follow after Jesus, specifically in private relations. But when we unfasten the cross from the body of the criminal, discipleship also takes on a new form. In effect, we have severed the spiritual life from the social. Either the cross Jesus spoke of is irrelevant for the life of a disciple today because we assume society no longer embodies the power to which Jesus spoke truth, or we’ve reconstructed the cross so law-abiding citizens can carry it as a badge.

My professor Willie Jennings captured what perhaps lies at the heart of our problem when he wrote
The great illusion of followers of Jesus—especially those who imagine themselves leaders—is that they can live a path different from Jesus and his first disciples. They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked, or at least tolerated—or even ignored—by those with real power in this world … Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality. Christians of the modern West have never really grasped our deep connection to the criminal mind, our mind.
Can we truly understand the form and content of discipleship without remembering the true criminal face of the cross?

These issues and questions have recently revealed the site I plan to focus on: criminals and martyrs. Christian martyrs are effectively criminals. And martyrs have often exemplified in the Christian imagination the epitome of the disciple of Jesus, that is the one who obeys Jesus’ command to pick up one’s cross and follow after him. But the martyr has also become a point of contention, something to protect. Following WWII, for example, there was much debate surrounding the martyr status of Dietrich Bonhoeffer due to his participation in the conspiracy against Hitler. As Christians, English-speaking and German, discovered the depth of Bonhoeffer’s complicity they wondered how he could maintain his integrity as a Christian while conspiring against Hitler. Eberhard Bethge, best friend of Bonhoeffer, explains that the very circumstances necessary to Bonhoeffer’s status as a martyr simultaneously constituted for many a menace to Christian identity. Such tension results from the struggle for Christians to reconcile the perceived righteousness of the disciple with the body of the criminal.

This is not simply a concern for Christians living in some nation or time where Christianity is explicitly illegal. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves by thinking that Christianity can maintain its integrity as witness to Jesus—the Word that fundamentally disrupts social powers, categorizations, and orders—if the principalities and powers assimilate or tolerate Christianity. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the Church measure its faithfulness in proportion to social rejection and persecution by social powers. Nor am I baptizing criminality as a new righteousness by which Christians may take the role of judge over and against others. But we must confront the reality that Christians only ceased to be criminals when they wielded the power of the state. 

No society has ever (nor will) embodied, enforced or legislated justice and peace to a degree that no longer warranted speaking holy words of truth to power. As such, we cannot anticipate to be welcomed by power if we faithfully witness to a reality that calls power into question. On the one hand, the Church should be suffering some form of rejection/oppression by those in power regardless of the society, or question whether or not it is truly being the Church. On the other hand, the Church must make certain its suffering comes from politically and socially engaging its place as witness to Jesus, rather than suffering for politicized ideological loyalties or being downright mean or indifferent. Society’s conventions in the penultimate age do not tolerate the Lord whose kingdom is not of this world. If the cross is inextricably bound to the body of the criminal can Christians carry the cross while perceiving themselves—their Christian identity and imagination—to be fundamentally differentiated from criminals? How do Christians presently imagine the criminal theologically and socially in relation to the disciple? How might the body and mind of the criminal inform the content of discipleship?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Disappearing Act:

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Dickens’s story is a Christmas classic. It reminds us to keep Christmas by looking to the needs of others just as the Creator looked to the needs of his creatures. During this past Christmas (Dec. 17), Durham City Council unanimously decided to keep Christmas by passing a prohibition on begging. I reminded of another Christmas story with a similar situation, but this town didn’t need legislation to accomplish its goal. It was sometime around 4 A.D., when a pregnant mother with her husband needed a place to stay the night. Her husband, Joseph, begged the townsfolk of Bethlehem for somewhere to stay. An innkeeper offered one place that was out-of-sight, a stable for animals. Since Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, his neighbors probably heard that Mary got pregnant before she lived with Joseph. Many people call that a whore, and most people prefer to ignore or avoid undesirables like that. The same desire seems to be at work 2000 years later in Durham. Scrooge felt the same way when he told Tiny Tim not to beg near his office. Perhaps we need the same change of heart Scrooge had.

Friends at the Divinity school have brought some of us other students together to protest this ordinance, namely through letters to the city during the Lenten season. We invited other students to participate, too, should they desire. There have been some questions as to the point of this protest. The goal of this protest is not to allow for the continuance of begging so that the Church will not take care of people in need. Nor do protesters believe that it is the state’s or civil community’s duty to take on this “burden” to the exclusion of the Church. We take issue with the city’s solution to the begging problem and the motivation behind this prohibition. Prohibiting begging is not a solution to poverty, nor does it seek to “protect” someone who is begging in high traffic areas. Wanting to keep undesirables out of sight by making begging illegal motivates this prohibition.

As Christians, we cannot support this “solution.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well in Discipleship
"God’s own Son was dishonored and humiliated in order to honor the Father. But the Father, refusing to be separated from his Son, will likewise not be separated from those whose humanity the Son assumed as an equal and for whose sake the Son bore his humiliation" (124). 
We cannot accept any “solution” that requires separating certain undesired bodies from desirable bodies in public. The prohibition amounts to indirect segregation by prohibiting undesirables among us to not perform actions that will remind us of their existence. The protest laments a failure to regard the existence of others as grace rather than burden.

Monday, February 18, 2013

God Died So Humans Could Live: How Nietzsche Killed A God Who Needed To Die:

If God is at the root of slavery, then slave-owners traffic in an economy of lies. But as with any effective lie, serpents masterfully mask their idolatrous words as convincing icons of truth. In his essay on freedom, belief and language in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Michael Lackey argues that Nietzsche liberates the “subject” not simply by killing God. True liberation requires renouncing faith in grammar. As such, God is not the slave-master; rather, the real masters disguise themselves as his priests by inserting their will in divine discourses articulated to rule the imaginations of the faithful. Such is the case with words like “consciousness” and the “subject,” which reflect someone’s will framed in language more than stable anthropologies. This means that authentic freedom and identity are not possessions to be known, but unstable performances conducted through a lifelong cycle of deconstructing counterfeit “subjects” constructed by priests’ wills to power articulated in divine discourses about God and metaphysics.

Individuals can only kill God with words, according to Lackey, because of the nature of belief. Whereas the pious believe they exercise freedom by willing to believe or not in different concepts, Nietzsche positions freedom in opposition to belief (in grammar) altogether. For Nietzsche, using language itself is a performance of faith, because when one speaks words or articulates concepts, she must believe 1) that there is an existing reality signified by language and 2) that such language adequately captures these realities. To the extent that a person believes in language, she limits her imagination and experience (freedom) by vocabulary. But how adequately can language frame reality? What is the nature of mediation?

Middle Nietzsche rejected the existence of a one-to-one correspondence between language and reality, and late Nietzsche rejected any correspondence entirely. Against correspondence, he argued that language users implant their will into things by naming them. As an act of faith, therefore, language is either the innocent ad hoc invention birthed by ignorance for the sake of communicating or a willfully devised duplicity parading around as sacred truth. The former evolves into the latter when a “subject” buries her will in a newly articulated vocabulary and claims that her vocabulary faithfully mediates reality. Therefore, when an individual believes that signs faithfully signify referents, faith subjects the believer to the will of the one who names. Lackey explains,
This [subjection] is so because the directionality of linguistic dependence has been effectively reversed—it is not the pre-encoded referent which limits the linguistic sign but rather the originary language uses who, in fixing the semantic coordinates of language, coerce language users to see and experience the world as they deem fit (750).
Whether or not a pre-encoded, pre-discursive reality exists, limits come from the language of liars claiming to be priests. Language is the performance of faith that binds a person to the will of the speaker. Freedom “as such” precedes discourse; it resides with the one who slays the serpent before it speaks a word with its silver tongue.

But what is so attractive about language? At the heart of this faith is anxiety of instability. Emotion exercises tremendous power/authority over those who wish to seize security as a subject buttressed by God and metaphysics—by analogia entis. In overblown rhetoric, Nietzsche prescribes suicide for pessimists and the execution of God for “subjects,” because both acts constitute an affirmation of life—a life freed from subjection to the wills of others. Like, Luke Skywalker, the prototypical orphan searching for his identity and place in the universe, we must search our feelings in order to recognize and break our bondage to those conceptual masters from which we stabilize our identity/”subject.”

But if language limits freedom, how can individuals overcome the subject without replacing one master tongue for another creedal language? What does Nietzsche’s goal—liberation of the individual—entail? Lackey writes, “Nietzsche wants to deconstruct the sovereignty of all words, including his own, so that individuals will become creators themselves—they will put their will into things, rather than seeing in things a will” (752). So long as individuals perceive correspondence between words and an established ontological reality, they continue to be either the herd animals subject to the wills of ranchers or the decadent serpents using their linguistic guile to seduce others into “slavery.”

The idea of the “subject” is particularly misleading: “If consciousness is nothing more than a lordly ruler’s will to power, then in coming to know our ‘selves’ as beings with consciousness, we know, not our own ‘natures’, but someone else’s will to power, a will which has gained ascendancy in us through language” (752). In short, identity is unwieldy and elusive. Nietzsche writes, “We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge—and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves … So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves” (752-753). Freedom, then, is outside belief in stability (God and metaphysics) framed in language. Rather, individuals exercise freedom instead by “discover[ing] how one has been constructed by other people’s wills to power, because it is in understanding how one has been constructed that a person can begin the process of overcoming one’s currently constructed self” (753).

As perhaps the first deconstructionist (after Jesus), Nietzsche believes this performance must be a lifelong cycle of deconstructing each new construction of the “self.” Freedom is not a static possession but a performance, because “wills to power, effectively concealed in the guise of language and values, insidiously work their way into our bodies, encoding us, whether we know it or not, so that we become the involuntary carriers of other people’s verbal projections” (753). Masters use these communicative tactics like naming slaves and marking their bodies in order to stabilize social relations (identities) and rule social imaginaries. The goal, then, is not to seize a (impossible) final construction that simply re-inscribes these relationships, but to recognize greater freedom with each deconstructive performance.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: How to Make Friends and not Estrange People

Leviticus 19:33-34 – "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God."

Leviticus 19:24 – "There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God."

I recently spent nearly two weeks in Palestine enjoying the hospitality of my friend, Dennis Sobeh, and his family. I considered posting while I was there, but for security reasons I refrained. Now after four hours of security questioning at entrance customs, one and a half hours at Qalandia Checkpoint and three hours of security checks of my person and luggage to leave Israel, I believe I can safely reflect online about my trip.

You may think I’m joking or paranoid, but customs first held me under suspicion of being a political activist, because I was traveling alone to Ramallah, West Bank. The last person to question me about my reason for traveling said he wouldn’t be so kind if I wound up in his office again. When I returned to the airport they took every precaution: checking the taxi, my luggage, my luggage, my person, my luggage, and my person again at different checkpoints in and out of the airport. As such, I decided to avoid any potential links between anything that could smack of political criticism/activism of Israel and me.

These events drastically differed when I was with Dennis. His family and friends treated me as one of the family and as the guest of honor. People were interested to learn about me and made certain I had whatever I needed. When I traveled alone to Jerusalem (Dennis’ family is not permitted to travel to Israel like most Palestinians living in the Palestinian Territories) I stopped by a shop to introduce myself to my friend’s uncle, Sammi. He made sure I had anything I needed as soon as I explained that his nephew from Illinois, Alex, told me to stop by.

Having been treated so differently got me thinking about strangers for the rest of my trip (I had only been there 2.5 days when I went to Jerusalem). How should we treat strangers—as security risks or as guests of our hospitality or both? Miroslav Volf reflects upon the treatment of strangers in his Exclusionand Embrace: Theological Explorations of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation.
The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil” (29).
We don’t get to choose whether or not we will encounter strangers. We only choose how to respond—exclusion or embrace. But embracing the stranger is no simple task. We must consider whom we are making space for and embracing. What is a stranger? Is it someone unfamiliar to us, someone who doesn’t belong?

When the stranger’s identity confronts ours, we position their identity in some intelligible context and respond accordingly. The Israeli customs connected my identity to the Arabs I was to visit and to previous foreigners who traveled for political demonstration, so they greeted me with suspicion. My hosts connected my identity to their son’s and so accepted me as one of the family. If we fear the other’s identity, then we exclude and estrange. If we are comfortable with the other’s identity, we welcome and embrace. The hospitality demanded by YHWH’s law and by Jesus’ command to love the neighbor and enemy, however, requires us to reverse this action. We let our perception of the stranger determine our response. Rather than letting the context of the stranger’s identity determine how we treat her or him, we must be willing to embrace regardless of the connections of a stranger’s identity with what we ‘know’ about him or her.

So what does this embrace look like? This radical hospitality takes its form from the crucified God who makes space for a world in contradiction to him. Jesus came to his own, but they treated him like a stranger (John 1.11). Estranged, Jesus made space in household for the world. Jesus’ hospitality looks like treating strangers as friends. Rather, it means turning strangers into friends. This is the goal of making space for others’ identities and embracing them. To follow Jesus then means we don’t get to pick our friends—we simply bear the responsibility of embracing a stranger and gaining a friend.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Theology of Disability (Part I): The Problem of Disability

The most stringent power we have over another is not physical coercion but the ability to have the other accept our definition of them.” – Stanley Hauerwas

No one asks the hard questions quite as well as Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.
Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one . . . little girl . . . and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears—would you consent to be the architect of those conditions? Tell me, and tell me the truth! (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov).
Ivan's words are the protest of atheism (protest atheism) against God for the existence of evil and suffering, particularly innocent suffering. Protest atheism is the response to theodicy—a word coined by Leibnitz that describes the attempt to justify God in the face of evil and suffering. Humans have always wrestled with the presence of evil and suffering, because neither seem to fit, they don’t appear to have a purpose. As such, theodicy attempts to resolve this conflict. Both theodicy and protest atheism nevertheless fail us as adequate responses. Theodicy inevitably justifies the presence of evil and suffering in order to get God ‘off the hook’. Protest atheism, though helpfully pointing out this problem in theodicy, rids us of God.

If this is a post about theology of disability, why am I going on about problems of evil and suffering and our typical responses to these issues? Most thinking about disability until recently has taken the form of a theodicy. Why would God create someone with disabilities? Perhaps disability is the result of sin, a punishment, or simply a tool God uses to bring about good. It’s difficult for us to understand why God would create someone with disability. The reason for this is that we assume that disability is a tragedy. But is it tragic? No, this is not a rhetorical question. Why do we consider disability tragic?

Theologian Thomas Reynolds writes in his Vulnerable Communion,
A community’s perception of disability is the inverse projection of its own framework of normalcy. Disability is a factor of the cult of normalcy. An image is cast onto those whose lives disrupt the status quo, manifesting a lack or deficiency of what is construed as standard, ordinary, and familiar . . . Accordingly, disability is deemed an agential defect, a tragic dysfunction or illness in need of allaying and curative efforts. And because it is presumed to have no overt purpose, no satisfactory social meaning, disability is alleged to involve frustration and pain. This is precisely why persons with disabilities are seen as victims, patients, or liabilities. The real tragedy, then, is not intrinsic to disability; it is socially imposed. It lies in how disability functions as a socially sanctioned category based upon the experiences and expectations of non-disabled persons, which in effect coerces disabled persons into playing roles inadequate to their own experience and which distort their sense of themselves as persons.
Society’s normal defines the abnormal. Of course, disability often includes physiological and/or biological factors that lead to loss of bodily function. But we call such persons disabled or handicapped to qualify their personal capacities (or incapacities) to be human in and contribute to society. Defining disability thus inevitably defines a person’s identity as sub-human, because they lack wholeness.

Shamefully, the Church has appropriated this understanding only to imbue it with theological meaning—normalcy reflects God’s intention for humanity. Reynolds explains, “Among Christians, disability is commonly represented as something to be healed or gotten rid of—a fault, a lesson in lack of faith, a helpless object of pity for the non-disabled faithful to display their charity, a vehicle of redemptive suffering, a cross to bear, or fuel for the inspiration of others” (28). In every case, a person’s disabilities eclipse the person’s identity as a human being, because their being is disabled.

The problem with disability is not so much that it exists, but that we don't know how to accept it. Before my studies I thought, if I thought about disability much at all, that disabilities were a part of the fallen world. This line of thinking too easily ignores the human identity of others. I can conveniently consider myself normal and be content. But what’s the alternative to thinking about disability if not as theodicy? We must ask whether disability represents an incomplete humanity or a different way of being human. Have we fooled ourselves about what is essentially human? Theology of disability is about identity. Have we reduced the identity of a person with disabilities to the sum of their incapacities—as we call them? Does disability reduce one’s humanity? I suggest that disability refuses the 'normal' definitions and 'normal' thinking we’ve previously employed for thinking about life and humanity. Disability requires us to rethink what we believe it is to be human. This will be the topic of part II.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Real Humanity: Regarding Others in Their Suffering

In my last post I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer on how to regard others. I’ll share the quote again, but in a better translation from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection.

The danger of allowing ourselves to be driven to contempt for humanity is very real. We know very well that we have no right to let this happen and that it would lead us into the most unfruitful relation to human beings. The following thoughts may protect us against this temptation: through contempt for humanity we fall victim precisely to our opponents’ chief errors. Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do or neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings—particularly to the weak among them—is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papersfrom Prison.

Following Bonhoeffer, I said, “The Church always ought to regard others the same way that God regarded humanity in Christ. The Father did not regard the world according to what it did or didn’t do, but according to what it suffered.”

Bonhoeffer elaborates on the nature of contempt for humanity in his Ethics. He explains that both the wicked and good human fall into contempt for humanity thus: “We exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, [while] God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings.” The wicked despise humanity by taking advantage of its frailty and temptability for their benefit. The good despise humanity by withdrawing from others in disgust at the other’s frailty and temptability. In a sense, Bonhoeffer is saying that we require others to meet a standard of super-humanness (inhuman), which we ourselves couldn’t meet, before we will love them by entering into community with them. True love acknowledges real humanity and wills “to enter into and to keep community with them,” regardless of the price. It is a love that does not find the significance of one’s humanity in successes or failures, but in God’s love for a real humanity.

Contempt for humanity boils down to a desire for perfection that finds its way by leaving behind humanness—finitude, contingency, and frailty. God considered it worth the price to live with and die for real humanity. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ did for us . . . While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5.6-10, NRSV). Perfecting this humanity is not ceasing to be human in deification. Jesus’ perfection came through suffering, which means that perfection was humbly remaining contingent to God in faith. Even in the resurrection, humans are still human. Perfected humanity is not self-sustaining individuality with no regard for others. It is complete vulnerability to God and in a community of brothers and sisters that exists in trinitarian love that gives itself for the other in forgiveness and truth. Too often the goal of perfection is based on an idea of human potentiality devoid of human reality. No goal for humanity can leave behind a human because of the risk their frailty or temptability presents—the risk their humanity poses.

So, if we were to rephrase Bonhoeffer it would look like this:

When we regard others according to what they do or neglect to do (according to their successes and failures) we are passing a judgment upon them that measures their humanness according to some standard beside real humanity. To regard others according to what they suffer confronts us with the other’s real humanity. God did not embrace humanity outside of true humanness. Only a love that will exist with others in their real humanness can hope to experience the reconciliation and newness of life in Christ.