Sunday, November 4, 2012

Disability and the Scripture, by David Gayes

David Gayes, a student at  Dominican University, prepared this piece for a junior seminar class.
I wanted to share it with my readers, because it so beautifully expresses how vital it is to view 
scripture through a new lens. David has graciously allowed me to share it on my blog.

Caritas Veritas 2012

Theologian Carmen Nanko-Fernandez asks "While our Christian tradition teaches that all
are created in the divine image, do our interpretations of sacred texts betray an option for 
physical and mental ‘wholeness’ – whatever the heck that is - as hidden criteria for the 
Imago Dei?”
I have thought about the issues of disability and scripture interpretation for a long time. I
have had to, because, truly when one has a disability, these points often are in your face. 
This topic is personal to me, and also represents what many other persons with differences 
I’m thankful to Professor Perry for giving the opportunity to more deeply explore this 
topic for a Junior Seminar class, as well as supporting me in presenting this topic today.
I hope this presentation challenges you to look at Scripture with a new perspective.
There has been a long history in western civilization of the Bible being read through the
dominant perspective – the voice of the white, western, heterosexual, able-bodied male. 
Recently, other perspectives such as African-American voices, Latino voices, women’s 
voices, and LGBT voices have been heard. Disability voices are newcomers to this 
conversation, and offer a new lens through which to look at our sacred texts.
Rather than looking at disability simply through a biological or medical model – as though it
is a “problem” within the person, disability studies draws upon literary studies, social science
models, theology, economics and other fields to look at disability as “a complex mode of
interpreting human difference, not unlike gender, race or sexuality.”
The conventional interpretations of Scripture show disability as “other”; as “separate” from
the rest of humanity. What are some of the ways that we show disability as other?
First, we conflate disability with sin, moral depravity, and evil. Our language and our
preaching are filled with sensory and physical metaphors which are used to imply distance from
God or to show insensitivity to the needs of others.
How often do we say we are deaf to God’s voice or blind to the needs of the poor or
paralyzed by our fears? Do we really mean to equate a sensory or motor impairment with all
that is bad?
Even our songs convey this message:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now
am found, was blind, but now I see.”
And, a more contemporary song:
“We are called to be hope for the hopeless so all hatred and blindness will be no more.
And, how often do we imply that if a person just has enough faith, he or she will be healed?”
The second conventional interpretation says that those with disabling conditions are
“special”/divinely blessed/especially holy people who suffer on earth and will reap their 
rewards  in heaven. This way of thinking rewards meekness and passivity, and allows 
for a withholding of essential resources such as housing, education, employment, and health care.
A third conventional interpretation of disability is that those with health conditions are here
so that the able-bodied can “do” for them, and thus, feel good about themselves. We see this 
every time we see a poor crippled child walk across the stage to plead for money for 
the Jerry Lewis Telethon. We can donate our 10 bucks, and move on.
On a recent trip that I took with a group, a deacon was relentlessly persistent in wanting to
“experience” my “holiness” as a “crippled” person, by pushing my wheelchair without asking 
my permission or receiving any direction from me. He could only imagine himself 
in the role of the helper, and could not recognize our shared humanity.
One gets pretty weary of being other people’s service project.
These conventional interpretations do not reflect the lived experiences of persons with
disabilities, and …… they serve to perpetuate oppression and separateness.
Jesus was interactive with and attentive to the voices on the margins. Like women, like
Latinos, like the poor, like the many others on the periphery --- the lived reality of people with
physical, mental, and emotional differences needs to be brought to the center and to become 
part of our interpretations of holy scripture.
Crucifixion disabled the body of Jesus. He would have had visible wounds such as clawed
hands and damaged feet ----- as well as hidden wounds, such as abdominal and diaphragm 
injuries. We need to acknowledge that the resurrected Jesus was not “cured.” The focus 
of Jesus’s first post-resurrection encounters with his apostles is his wounds. Jesus shows 
his hands, his feet, his side to his community.
What does it mean that our resurrected Jesus has a body that is not that of Brad Pitt; that no
advertiser would hire for a Times Square commercial, or that the Catholic bishops could deem
unbecoming for presiding at mass?
What does “wholeness” mean?
What IS the image of God?
What does it look like when we look at a Scriptural moment from a new point of view?
I have taken a passage from the Gospel of Mark and rewritten it from the lens of the
paralytic, showing this person’s perspective and agency. Professor Perry, a white able-bodied
heterosexual American male, will read the passage, and then I will re-read it.
(Professor Perry reads Mark 2:1-12)
What a day! What an experience! I am still trying to make sense of the day.
I had heard that Jesus of Nazareth was returning to Capernaum. Like so many in town, I
really wanted to hear what he had to say. I had heard so much about him – controversial,
barrier breaking, loving - a prophet in our times. My family, my friends and I excitedly 
talked about going to hear this Jesus.
The logistics were challenging. We had to figure out how I could get down the stone steps.
We decided to leave my wheels at home and use a mattress, so that it would be easier 
to be lifted through the doorway. We left very early, so that there would plenty of time 
to navigate the challenges of the city. However, we underestimated the crowds 
and the traffic, and arrived just as Jesus was beginning to speak.
The hustle and bustle was incredible. Lots of pushing and shoving, and frankly, rudeness, as
some elbowed their way to get close. We tried to get in through the door, but as I 
had expected, it was impossible. A hot, smelly, noisy mob scene!
This happens all time - so, we tried some of the things we usually try. First, we looked for a
back entrance. But, that was crowded and blocked as well. We returned to the front 
entrance, and asserted ourselves. I said “excuse me”; my sister said “excuse me”; 
a kind stranger said, “clear the way!” – but to no avail. We just couldn’t get in. 
Some people ignored us, some people gave us dirty looks, and some people just 
cut in front of us to  make sure they got closer. We could hear
Jesus a bit through the din of the crowd, but couldn’t make out what he was saying.
So, now what to do? We all really wanted to hear Jesus. But, it didn’t seem possible. I
suggested that my friends and family squeeze through the door without me. They 
could stand in the back and listen, and later share with me what Jesus said.
My friend said, “No way!” “We’re in this together!” My sister said she had been checking
the roof, and thought it would be possible to break through and enter that way. My 
wife said, “Yeah, let’s go for it. You know that yet again, we will have to 
break a few rules --- but we can do it.”
My initial reaction was not enthusiastic; it had already been a long day just to get this far.
And the heat was overwhelming. The roof?! No way! That would draw attention and 
create a scene! I would be seen as a poor pitiful man who could not be independent! 
I really just wanted to be in the back and anonymously listen to this prophet’s words.
But…it was make a grand entrance, or, miss out. I could think of no other way.
So, I agreed. My friends, family and a few helpful strangers opened the roof and lowered me
down on my mattress.
Sure enough, Jesus and the entire crowd turned and looked at me with penetrating, curious
stares. I felt, once again, like the circus freak. People in the crowd would look at me, and
then back to Jesus. The room became quiet, as people waited for the explosion 
of anger or pity that they thought would come from Jesus.
His response surprised not only them, but me too.
Jesus smiled.
“Well done!” he said to us. “You all showed tremendous creativity and ingenuity to get
inside. If only we could all be as creative, tenacious and compassionate. We would 
work together to break down the barriers that divide us.”
The room was silent.
Then Jesus did something else that surprised me. He came over to me, laid his hand on me,
and said "Child, your sins are forgiven." It was as if Jesus had known about the 
unkind words I had shouted at my loved ones. My soul calmed and I was at peace. 
I was loved.  My sins were behind me now.
Jesus turned to the friends, family, and strangers who had helped me gain access, and to
each one, said the same words, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Their faces and bodies also
showed the embrace of the love of God.
Eventually, I came back to the commotion of the room.
The crowd was pestering Jesus, saying that he should not have forgiven our sins. They said
he was blaspheming.
I was accustomed to intrusive crowds. I was not going to let this one ruin my intimate
encounter with God. I was still living in the deep moment of love and peace. Jesus’ 
voice sounded distant as he addressed his critics. He said something about, 
“which is easier - forgiving sins or walking?”
Then, he told me to rise, pick up my mat, and go home.
I didn’t come for a cure. I came to hear the preaching of Jesus. Yet, on this day, I
experienced love, forgiveness and a command to break barriers.
It felt odd to be used as an example. I am not sure I like it. I don’t want to be portrayed as
some kind as of wonder patient, the miracle circus freak. Plus, now I have to adjust to a new
physical body, a new lifestyle. I knew I would have much to reflect about this day.
I wanted to hear more of Jesus’ word that day, particularly his words about breaking
boundaries. I wanted to follow him and be his disciple. But, I trusted my God and left 
with my group amid some awkward stares from the crowd. I guess we all will have 
to be disciples in our own communities.
Conclusion: Let’s get rid of our human-made criteria for the image of God. Together, with the
beauty and truth that each one brings, we are all the imago Dei.

Copyright 2012 David Gayes


imfunnytoo said...

This is an amazing piece of work...I especially loved the lack of focus on some 'miracle cure...and the resourcefullness of everyone to find a way in... :)

Elizabeth McClung said...

When I saw the title I hoped for what I have had people get angry, turn away and curse me - for a look at the actual scripture. The gospels in particular and the bible as a whole is full of reference to often conflicting scripture. A Jesus who is so self absorbed his accidental healing of a woman who suffered for 12 years is ignored compared to his anxiety at being touched. Or the complete lack of empathy toward a very close friend, who sickened, suffered, and died, with Jesus still expecting them to act normally, with Lazarus. It is almost as if he doesn't understand what a lack of ability means to the body. Yet, he says that he comes for the sick, and heals lepers and others. Is it about love, or pragmatic escape from a terminal illness? Love is not what Jesus promised then.

In the same way, the idea of Jesus needing caregiving causes anger and outrage. Disability Jesus didn't have anyone bring a drink or carry a cross. And the sign to follow in scripture is not, 'pay $10' but 'whoever brings that drink, that food, that aid...'

I have enough experience with Christian organizations to know that those with disabilities are outsiders frequently, with minimal accessibility, particularly in the older churches. I have no desire for being 'healed' back to my old body in heaven, as it would indicate the greatest good God can do is to help us move backwards in life. Huzzah.

I have always understood that 'healing' comes in many ways - in the same way rape victims can heal, but don't regrow hymen but also that I don't really understand what Jesus meant by saying 'Go and sin no more' to someone born blind, or impaired, and have found no good explaination of it. But disability isn't new to the conversation, since Jesus said it was for this, amoung others, that made god a human - albiet a rather strange one.