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.


  1. But we are all morally disabled more or less. To the extent that the church defines itself as being only made of up "normal" people, it denies Jesus' mission to seek and to save the lost. Jesus comes to make us whole, when we start out on that journey, we recognize that we are full of holes like Swiss cheese.

  2. I agree that the fall has rendered humanity sinful. However, we have to be aware of what we mean by disability and especially how we relate that to the fall. Is disability the result of a broken creation or was it a possibility before the fall? Delving into disability studies has far reaching consequences for how we conceive humanity (imago dei), God and his creation and new creation purposes.