Page 2 – The Bible, Disability and The Church – Amos Yong
Yong’s own engagement with how the church views and includes persons with disabilities began early in life, as he helped care for his brother who has Down syndrome. This relationship, together with watching his brother living out his faith fully and enthusiastically, opened his eyes to the way in which persons with disabilities are often viewed in the church. This engagement opened his eyes as well to the fact that persons with disabilities, including people with intellectual disabilities have gifts and charisms to bring to the community of faith.
His engagement with his brother and others with disabilities led to his reengaging scripture. We know that there are numerous stories, often healing stories that include persons with disabilities. According to the Gospels, for instance, Jesus heals the lame, the leper, the epileptic, the hemorrhaging woman, persons who were blind and deaf. I myself have interpreted these actions as restoring persons to wholeness, but in making this interpretation, have I stigmatized persons with disabilities as being less than whole? Yong refers to such interpretations as reading the text from a “normate” position. That is, a perspective on the text from the vantage point of what society considers normal or able-bodied.
But in helping us look at this question of perspective, we need to look at the language we use. He points out that in our day there are attempts at avoiding discriminatory language. This we use terms like physically challenged to avoid negative connotations, but he chooses to retain the language of disability, in part because it’s accessible to most church goers, but in doing so we should avoid the “linguistic trap of reducing people to their disabilities.” But, having said this, disabilities are part of the person. With that in mind he spends time near the end of the book with how we envision the resurrection body. Do we assume that these “disabilities” cease to mark the person? He notes that Down Syndrome is part of who is brother is. In speaking of disability, he includes a wide spectrum of realities, from physical to intellectual. The discussion is complex, but Yong approaches it with grace and sensitivity. His focus is not on why persons have disabilities, but rather on raising our awareness of disabilities so that our churches can be truly inclusive and welcoming. This is a book written for the church, inviting it to think a new about the question of disability. It asks us to consider whether disability is some intrinsic evil that needs to be eliminated, either here on earth or in the age to come? But in writing this word to the church, he focuses his attention on the way we read Scripture. In the course of four chapters, we move from the Old Testament to the gospels, through the letters, and finally to eschatologically focused texts.
He addresses the holiness codes that stipulated who is considered fit to join the community in worship. Disabilities are often seen as blemishes and thus prohibitive. Holding to a high view of scripture he wishes to redeem these texts. There are, however, other texts, such as the passage describing Jacob’s limp, which is a mark of his spiritual encounter with God and not a blemish, or David’s care for Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan who has a disability. There are discussions of Job and prayers and laments found in the Psalms. What he notes is that we need to move beyond just looking at what the Bible says, and recognize the complexity of perspective that is found in these pages, a complexity that can help us better understand what it means to have a disability and how that affects one’s place in the congregation.
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