Page 3 – The Bible, Disability and The Church – Amos Yong
The Gospels and Acts, of course, are full of healing stories, which often involve questions of forgiveness. He pushes on the idea that healing comes as a result of forgiveness of sins, as if it is sin that leads to disability. From a disability perspective, we need to push back on such ideas. He also asks the question as to whether physical healing is a prerequisite to discipleship. But consider the story of the eunuch – he becomes a disciple, but his status as a eunuch isn’t reversed. Perhaps the most powerful point of this chapter is the conversation about Pentecost. He reminds us that the “all flesh” receiving the Holy Spirit includes people with disabilities.
From Paul he takes a “theology of weakness.” He notes Paul’s own confessions about a “thorn in the flesh.” While we don’t know exactly what this “thorn” was, in some way or another Paul seems to have a disability. This theology of weakness includes Paul’s discussion of honoring the weaker member. From this Yong discerns the possibility that the weaker one is essential to the church and due greater honor, and they are equal recipients of the Spirit’s charisms. Indeed, they are indispensable to the life of the church.
In the final chapter, Yong looks at the issue eschatologically. He raises the question of disabilities and the resurrection. Whether or not you believe in a physical resurrection, this is a fascinating discussion because it reflects on how we look at persons with disabilities in the here and now. If there is no place for disabilities in the new creation does that mean that something about a person’s identity gets lost in the eschaton? Is such a vision of a “disability-free paradise” ultimately oppressive to persons with disabilities? Yong answers: “a disability perspective would insist that some impairments are so identity-constitutive that their removal would involve the obliteration of the person as well” (p. 121). Examples include dwarfism – Zacchaeus – and Down syndrome. Even blindness and deafness become for many persons with these disabilities formative of their identities and character. Will this be lost in the eschaton?
In answering these questions he notes first that in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15, there is transformation and continuity. Thus, our sizes and shapes and forms are part of this continuity. In addition, Yong points our attention to Jesus’ own resurrection body, which according to John’s Gospel retains the wounds from the cross. Could this be Jesus’ way of entering into the experience of persons with disabilities? And thus these impairments are redeemed, not removed.
This is a powerful meditation on Scripture. Even if you don’t read the text the same as the author at every point, you will be transformed by reading it. It will help form a new perspective on how the church views and welcomes persons with disabilities. It raises an interesting question as to the way in which we view healing. In many cases, the healing that’s needed isn’t the physical cure of a person, but a healing of attitudes that stigmatize and ostracize persons with disabilities. With the intention of addressing negative interpretations of biblical and theological images that are embedded in Jewish and Christian cultures, we are led toward a more redemptive and welcoming interpretation. The hope is that the church will be transformed, but also the broader culture.
Yong’s attempt to lay out a disability reading of scripture takes its place among other readings of the scripture that seek to liberate those whom society has marginalized. As is true with feminist and liberationist readings, whether Latin American, Asian, or black theology, it reminds us that context matters and vantage point matters. Since most readers and interpreters begin with normate readings, it’s important to read the texts anew in the light of the experiences of others.
Since this book is well written, thoughtful and accessible, it should find a ready audience in the church. Yong doesn’t take an adversarial position, but rather with grace and humility, he invites us to enter the text of scripture and read it with new lenses. The author honors Scripture, even reveres it, and yet he finds ways deconstructing the way it’s read. He invites us to experience healing so that we might share in the blessings of fellowship with those we so often consider disabled. Our efforts are enhanced by the inclusion of discussion/Reflection questions at the end of each chapter. Therefore, we have the resources to begin the conversation. Take and read, and be transformed.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com