Disability – The Bible and Perfection
To conclude my reflections on disability I want to focus on the issue that has been the biggest ongoing struggle for me to deal with, especially within the church. It is the concept of perfection – the idea of needing to be flawless before God. For most of my life, I thought that referred to spirituality, but I have recently been exposed to those who promote physical perfection as necessary for truly serving God.
To back up a bit, in our culture perfection (or at least the absence of any visible physical flaws) is worshipped. We all hear about the millions of dollars spent on cosmetic procedures and the obsession with having a sexy body. But beyond that such obvious flaws like missing a limb are becoming less and less tolerated. This of course ties in with the whole abortion issue. Parents are now bringing “wrongful life” lawsuits against doctors if the doctor doesn’t inform them with enough time to abort that their child will have a defect. Apparently giving a child with a defect a chance at life is just wrong in their eyes. I’ve had people argue to my face that abortion is needed in the case of birth defects. To one such person, I asked, “so are you saying I should have been aborted because I am missing my arm?” Her reply – “I wasn’t talking about you, you’re smart.” But the assumption by many in our society is that unless you are perfect you don’t even deserve to be born. I find it easy to disagree and fight that assumption in culture, but then I find it in scriptures and the church as well.
I had always heard the language of “pure and holy sacrifice” referring to the lambs led to slaughter. Then one day I read the stipulations for Priests making offerings to God -
Leviticus 21:16-23 “The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the LORD by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.”
Having been taught my whole life that “God made me this way” reading those words was hard. Missing a limb, being the way God intended a person to be, disqualified them from serving God. We weren’t perfect enough to for God. (granted women were automatically disqualified too, but that’s a different issue). Not only were we not perfect enough, we desecrate the sanctuary by our presence. Sure it could be assumed that after Christ came as a “perfect sacrifice for all” that such restrictions are lifted, but what really got to me was discovering that there are branches in the church that still promote these stipulations. In the Orthodox church you cannot be in church leadership if you have a physical defect (well except for the eye thing, they waive that one for people with glasses).
I honestly don’t get it. How does not being physically perfect disqualify a person from serving God? How does this make me any less holy than others? Sure there were tons of purity laws in the OT, all of which could be forgiven. But this was impurity for life. Reading passages like this and hearing about the policies of the Orthodox Church seem to me to fit more within the mindset of the Communists who sequester away the deformed children in Latvia or the parents who sue doctors for the “wrongful life” of their defected child. But while my worldview allowed me to accept such opinions from Communists and abortionists, I can’t seem to wrap my mind around how it fits in the Bible and the church. And so far I have yet to hear any interpretation of this passage that really makes sense. At best it just gets lumped in with all those other “Ancient Near-Eastern worldview” passages (like bashing babies’ heads against rocks) that basically just don’t make sense either.
So where does that leave me? I want my theology of disability to be that God made me to be me and uses me as I am. But the Bible seems to contradict that and tells me that I am unwanted and incapable of serving God because of my arm. I have chosen to just go ahead and serve God (as a disabled woman that obviously isn’t in the Orthodox church), but some days that choice can be hard to align with scripture.