Finding general agreement on any area concerning Christian belief and practice is almost impossible. But on the topic of how Christian communities across the theological spectrum deal with disability, there is much agreement. In facing this issue, those of us who find the Bible entirely reliable and true have a significant advantage over those who do not.
For example, Justin Reimer, founder and director of The Elisha Foundation and Deborah Beth Creamer, liberal theologian and author of Copious Hosting, are about a thousand miles apart on how they understand God and disability.
But within a span of two days, I experienced them agreeing:
Both observed that issues related to disability are frequently left to those who are directly experiencing disability rather than the entire community of the church.
Justin shared a story on Saturday of a mother of a child with a disability who advocated within her church for services for children with disabilities. The proposal was approved – and this young mother was then put in charge of providing those services. This, of course, makes it harder for that young mother to experience church; nobody is serving her needs.
On Monday I found Deborah Beth Creamer agreeing that this is a problem, this time from the perspective of disability theology and scholarship:
When religious studies or seminary courses engage disability at all, it is often in a separate unit or discussion (often at the end of the semester), an addendum or afterthought. Those of us who work in the area of disability theology are often considered to be dealing with “special” interests (reminiscent of “special” education), and are typically (and uncritically) assumed to have a particular connection to these issues—not because we have/are flesh, as Betcher might claim, but because we must have a “personal” (read: nonacademic) experience with disability/impairment. These sorts of claims and positionings are frustrating, not only insofar as they negate complexity and ignore the fleshly realities that Betcher so helpfully names but also because they position disability as a theme and experience best left to closets, corners, and other closed spaces. Deborah Creamer, “Embracing Limits, Queering Embodiment: Creating/Creative Possibilities for Disability Theology,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, September 1, 2010, p. 124
To combat this isolation, most people concerned about this issue (including me) make a logical appeal to those who are not interested: just look at the massive numbers of people with disabilities around us! Estimates range from 10 – 20% of the population living with a disabling condition. In the United States in 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 41 million Americans were living with a disabling condition. Together, disabled Americans would be the third largest ethnic group in the United States, slightly behind the number of Hispanic/Latino Americans (46.9 million) and slightly ahead of African Americans (36.7 million).
There is a better argument, but only for those of us who believe the Bible is entirely reliable and inerrant. This argument would not work for theologians or pastors who discount or dismiss the notion that God has provided us a book that says accurate things about his character and his abilities and his creation.
Here’s that argument:
God cares about disability. There are hundreds of references in the Bible to disease, disability or physical differences. Some of those references directly proclaim God’s sovereignty over disability, including his purposefully creating some to live with disability in this life. Others are illustrative of core principles. Still others are, on first look, very difficult to understand and initially troubling.
All say something about who God is.
Thus, if you care what God has to say about a subject, and understand that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then you should be interested in disability. Disability is a significant theological issue and it profoundly affects many people under your care.
I am quite aware that pastors and leaders are faced with an almost impossible number of issues on a regular basis, and that disability tends to be a niche issue. That should not change how we view or behave towards our leaders. We should strive to be known, as a group, as reasonable, submissive, gracious and kind to those in authority as pastors and elders.
So, let us be both humble and bold about asking people to care about this issue with us. We do not have to use guilt; we can invite people into this massively important issue to God, for his glory, and for their good.