This week, I participated in a webinar about theologies of disabilities led by Tom Reynolds. He is an associate professor in theology and vice principal at Emmanuel College in Toronto. Through his experiences with his son who lives with autism as well as living with his own depression, theologies of disabilities has become an academic passion for him.
With the common definition of theology as faith seeking understanding, he talked about disability generally as the way bodies navigate time and space and experience both social impairments, like barriers to form community because of attitudes and fear as well physical impairments like someone’s ability to walk may be restricted or non-existent. Tom commented how definitions of both theology and disability are numerous, covering broad contexts and experiences.
Tom named how theology has and continues to harm people with disabilities, many of whom already experience marginalization. When asked if participants were impacted by this harm, 90% of us (including me) raised our hands. These examples ranged from praying for healing and attributing blame on the individual when not experiencing a cure, to discounting a child’s agency by only speaking to the parent, to attributing depression to one’s lack of faith. Although those who raised our hands remain involved in ministry and the church, this harmful theology can often lead people and their families to leave the church.
Much of the harm comes from the church’s understanding and interpretation of healing from the narratives in the New Testament. Some readings interpret disability as a flaw in need of remedy / cure. In his work, Tom shifts the focus of the problem away from the individual bodies to community and society. The healing and restoration happens then within community as it strives to become whole. These interpretations are embedded in our language when people are said to be deaf and/or blind to the ways of God. It is far better to use alternative language such as people’s pride/arrogance/stubbornness that hinder our relationship with God. The list could go on.
There also is a growing arena of liberating theologies of disabilities which can act as an ally in redistributing power. The work of Nancy Eisland and Judith Snow express a God who is in solidarity with humanity in our suffering and our joy. Tom speaks and writes about a vulnerable God who practices self-emptying for the other and lament not for the disability but rather for the oppressive structures and attitudes people face, and the motivation to engage in God’s mission breaking down barriers to belong in community where everybody serves together.
These conversations are filled with possibilities for deepening relationships and transforming community. Reynolds said the mission of building communities of deep belonging can be messy and failures and new insights will grow. This event gave me hope as we named the harmful ways of interpreting disability through scripture and the journey we share in in which all in the Body of Christ are needed.