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My Arm Doesn’t Need Healing

2010 December 1
by Julie Clawson

a post I wrote for the Christian Century blog

I was born missing my left arm below the elbow. This technically means I have a disability, though I find it hard to identify with the label. Missing my arm is simply what I know, part of my basic everyday existence. I know the limits of my ability, but I see no need to define myself by them. Similarly, I don’t mind being asked about my arm, just as I don’t mind being asked about a new haircut–I feel no need to be ashamed or apologetic for my physical form.

So it is always a bit jarring when I encounter people who think I should feel ashamed about my appearance. These people, when meeting me, look at my arm and immediately say, “I’m sorry.” From their point of view my life must be so miserable that I deserve their pity.

I have church friends (and yes, family members) who let me know that they have been praying for years that God would grow my arm. According to their view, if I only had the faith of a mustard seed then some sort of miraculous arm sprouting would occur. I’ve learned to take such responses in stride, knowing that their rejection of who I am says more about their insecurities than it says about me. But I struggle more when I hear such things from church leaders.

For instance, Rowan Williams, writing about the eucharistic interdependence of the corporate body of Christ, says that abled people should not respond in fright to handicapped people but instead realize that abled people need the healing of the handicapped for their own good–just as the handicapped need abled people’s wholeness for theirs. He calls this the outworking of the sacramental vision.

I could barely read any farther, as his words forced me to realize that he views people with disabilities as “other.” Instead of being allowed to be ourselves, we are reduced to a category of people who must be healed before we can be accepted as equals.

Few people would deny that it is hurtful to tell a woman she must become a man or to tell a black man he must become white in order to be a full member of the body and experience wholeness. But some people still assume that people who are differently-abled need to become like someone else in order to be whole.

Our faith celebrates the idea of the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, yet we reject physical bodies that seem different. It is one thing to say that our condition as human beings is broken. It’s another thing to assert that some people are more broken simply because they have only one arm, or use a wheelchair, or have different mental processes. We are all the broken body of Christ struggling to be in communion with God and each other.

God created me to be tall, to be a woman, to have brown hair and a left arm that ends at the elbow. I don’t need to be healed of any of that in order to be a member of the body of Christ.

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  1. December 1, 2010

    The quote you have at the top of your page, the one from Tolkien, along with your comment on the view of “people with disabilities as “other””, became very useful to me today. I’m working on a supportive housing project for “seniors”, persons younger people usually view as “other”, people as objects of compassion, but no longer fully people. Thank you. I’ve been struggling all day on writing the background for a mission statement and this really helped.
    Older adults never stop being human, just as one does not become less human when they turn 20, 35 or 45. Their circumstance and capability may change, but it is often the cage we create with our (paternalistic) compassionate care of “our seniors” that limits their ability to continue to grow and creatively respond to God’s call to fully, as best they can, reflect his image. It is what God asks of any us at any age. (I’m here by way of Trace James, and old Minnesota friend.)

  2. December 1, 2010

    (I posted this on the CC version, but thought I’d post it here as well) I apologize for its length.
    Julie,
    Thanks for your post–I’m sure there are many who share your sentiments in some way, and I think it’s true that in an attempt to overcome social stigmas, oftentimes Christians perpetuate a different one.

    However, I think it’s a bit unfair to interpret Rowan Williams speech as *defining* folks with disabilities as “other.” Rather, I think, along with beautiful souls like Jean Vanier and l’Arche, he’s making a more confessional statement about the way most people tend to view those who have so-called disabilities. We are conditioned to think of these so-called disabilities as visible brokenness.

    We are all broken people, like you said, but I don’t think Williams or many others who have made similar statements, are necessarily making the claim that people with physical or mental differences are *more* broken, or that they need to be healed in order to be part of the body of Christ, and certainly the context you gave doesn’t seem to be saying you need to be like someone else to be part of the body.

    Whether or not a “disability” is a sign of the brokenness in the world, in some cases it makes another person’s inner brokenness more visible, the very brokenness that many of us try to hide. Where’s the wrong in seeing that and being pointed to one’s own brokenness?

    I would end with a sort of “devil’s advocate” question. What is your theological objection to such a thing as a disability? What would be the problem with a “disability” being a sign of brokenness, not necessarily yours, but the brokenness of the world we live in? And lastly, I’m curious how such an understanding of disability fits with Scripture, where a consistent theme in the Gospels is of Jesus healing physical brokenness, and at points these healings being used to highlight the brokenness of those watching. The message of Jesus seems to be that outer brokenness does not indicate inner brokenness, but the kingdom of God brings healing to both.

    I raise these last points because to say, “God made me this way” is a very strong statement. It doesn’t make it wrong (and I’m not so much disagreeing as pointing out some tension), but the nature of a world where we are influenced by sin whether or not we choose it makes a little shaky to say such a thing simply from personal experience. In a parallel example (not equating the two), one wouldn’t say that God intended a baby to be born with AIDS or any number of diseases, not because God is unable to welcome the baby into the kingdom unless it is first healed, but because AIDS is not part of God’s good and whole design for the world.

    Sorry for the length of my comment–your post intrigues me, so I’m grateful for your response.

    Brian Gorman

  3. December 2, 2010

    Brian –

    Thank you for being willing to voice your questions. I have to ask though if you have ever had culture or the church think of you as a lesser person because of what you were born as. From what I can tell you are a white male (and I have no idea if you are disabled or gay), and so probably haven’t had to deal with the messages that assume that you are somehow inferior because of how God made you. Certain people are privileged to be the “norm” while the rest of us are either subjugated for our otherness or forced to approximate the “norm” as well as we can. It is this suppression of the self and rejection of God’s creation though that represents the brokenness in our world – not the fact that we are not all the same.

    I have no problem saying we live in a broken world. I do think there are diseases that destroy people and cultures (like AIDS) that are in need of care and healing. And yes, Jesus healed people. I do at times have to wonder how much of that healing though was to help people exist in a culture that despised and rejected them. If they had been allowed to live as whole people without being forced to beg and suffer maybe he wouldn’t have healed them. I keep thinking of Isaiah 56 where eunuchs (who were generally barred from temple worship with the rest of the disabled because they were flawed/broken people) are told that in God they are welcome and blessed for God’s house is a “house of prayer for all peoples.” Culture and the priestly rituals might have despised and rejected the disabled, but God delivered the message that we are in fact included as we are in his family.

    Yes, we are all broken. But to say that the disabled are more broken (or more visibly broken) still assumes that position of wholeness (or “I am the norm you are other”) that Williams referred to. He was quoting Vanier in that passage saying that encountering the disabled help “normal” people see the poverty and vulnerability they have with the subnormal. He then wrote “Beyond such fright or disorientation lies the difficult knowledge that I need the good, the healing, of the handicapped for my good, as they do my good, my wholeness; and the dignity of being free to give to another is part of what a working Christian community can uncover in those who are marginal, useless or embarrassing to the secular imagination.”

    Williams is no more whole than I am. And I don’t exist to just remind him with my inferiority that he is spiritually broken as well. I am not against a theology of disability – as long as that theology is simply a different angle on understanding the world and God, and not a justification for why we are lesser people. Or a suggestion that we are subnormal because of sin. As Jesus said about the blind man – no one sinned to make him that way. I am a broken person because of sin, but I wouldn’t say that my missing my arm has anything to do with that brokenness any more than my having brown hair does. I know that makes some people who are uncomfortable being around being who are different or other even more uncomfortable, but I think it is something that has to be discussed in order for the church to more beyond condescension and fully include (as opposed to pity) the differently-abled.

  4. December 2, 2010

    Hi Julie,
    Thanks for your response. Even from your expanded context of Williams’ words, I still think he’s primarily addressing the limited “secular imagination” that has infiltrated the church in this area, though you’re right that he is quite obviously coming from a perspective that views “disabilities” as a kind of brokenness. That he is more whole than you, or that you exist just to remind him through your “inferiority” that he is spiritually broken is an unfair mis-reading.

    Yes, there is major work for the church to do in the area of full inclusion of differently-abled folk. I couldn’t agree more. In general, the church needs a more consistent “theology of difference,” which could/would include many people marginalized by society. People are differently abled, but they are also differently broken, and differently affected by the brokenness of the world. While a child born with AIDS is not the same as a child who will never walk, they both face similar marginalization by the world, and the church is to be a means of grace and compassion specifically because the world rejects them.

    You’re also right; I have not been marginalized simply for how I was born, so I will never know how (entirely) that would affect my perspective. Yet I have spent my adult life living with marginalized populations and I hope that as I become more able to understand and empathize with them, my ability to help the church bridge this great divide will increase.

    Peace to you, Julie.

    Brian

  5. December 3, 2010

    I am a musician who is almost completely deaf. I started losing my hearing when I was a teenager and things progressed until my hearing was just about gone. Last year I had a bone anchored hearing aid installed – a hearing aid that is literally bolted to my skull – and that has restored a small amount of my hearing.

    People routinely ask me why God would take away the hearing of someone who loves music as much as I do. The act like my handicap is some sort of ironic punishment. These folks are always surprised when I explain to them that I see my hearing loss as a blessing.

    You see, when I realized years ago that I was losing my hearing I decided to make the most of what I had. In the end I resorted to resting my front teeth on the upper bout of my guitar so that I could feel the sounds I couldn’t hear. It was so difficult that I wound up dedicating my life to making the learning process easier for other musicians.

    Being deaf put me into situations that shaped me in ways that allowed me to become a better musician – and a better man. It hasn’t been easy. There have been times when the pain and the isolation that comes with deafness seemed insurmountable – but when those times come I simply remind myself that I am simply being shaped to better suit whatever task the good Lord has in store for me.

    To me, going deaf was not and is not a handicap. It was a blessing.

  6. December 3, 2010

    Hi Julie,
    I’ve read your site and Emerging Women for a time, not sure if I commented before, so Hi.

    I totally get this post! I like this thought that you wrote about so well … “I’ve learned to take such responses in stride, knowing that their rejection of who I am says more about their insecurities than it says about me.”

    I needed to be reminded of that – thanks!

    6 years ago, I was severely injured in an accident and now my leg has a stark deformity. I lost about 70% of the soft tissue and skin between my knee and ankle. They grafted skin (from my upper legs) onto my calf, but the muscle and soft tissue could not be replaced, so my calf looks nasty … there’s a gaping indented area and the grafted skin is wrinkled and uneven. Thanks to surgeries and endless physical therapy, I walk well and have even returned to running (which the docs said I would never do again)

    While I’ve learned a lot from my accident, injuries, pain and limitations, I don’t view it as a blessing … I view it as an accident with consequences that I need to learn to live with and it’s my choice to become better or bitter. I now live in the tension of celebrating how well I’m doing while being honest about my disappointments. (took me a long time to get to this place, because in some Christian worlds it is not okay to talk about disappointments)

    I have people that want to pray for me … actually one wanted to meet weekly and pray until a ‘creative miracle’ happens and my leg looks totally ‘normal’ again. Like I’m somehow not okay until my leg looks like it used to.

    Yes, I would love for my leg to look like it did — it is a disappointment to have this leg/pain/limitations for the rest of my life … but I don’t view it as something that needs to be fixed to make me whole again. Plus constantly praying and waiting on a healing to happen is a disappointment that I can not live with. Yes, I know Jesus did miracles like that … but show me one person today that has had a missing or amputated limb grow back or a leg like mine taken back to what it was. I prefer to focus on what I have, not on what I don’t and I live life … “Doing what I can with what I have where I am” (Roosevelt)

    Brian … you are wise to recognize that even though you’ve worked with marginalized (?) populations you won’t totally understand what it feels like to be viewed as different.

  7. June 29, 2011

    Hi Julie,

    I have enjoyed reading your blogs for a long time and thought I would finally respond. I truly appreciate the unique perspective you bring to the table. Just like you, I was born with a physical condition that is obvious to others. I was born with severe scoliosis as an infant and have a significant curve in my back. However, I have been very lucky to do the things I am capable of doing and it feels very awkward to refer to myself as having a “disability.”

    Growing up, I tried very hard to fight that label. I developed an attitude that I am going to prove other people wrong. I took great pride in it; especially seeing the faces on other kids as I beat them on the tennis court. However, I found that trying to prove others wrong all the time has a major side effect. I became very bitter at the world and people in general who would think less of me because of my disability or the ones that take pity in me. I struggled with being around people in social situations because I always felt they were judging me because of my disability and the way I look.

    It was not until after college that I started to change. To get a chance to be a teacher, I took a special education job even though it was not my field (I wanted to teach history). To make a long story short, this changed my life. Being around kids with intellectual disabilities and special needs opened up to me a world of true love and something greater than myself. I began to see that all people have something to offer. In a profound faith experience, I finally accepted the reality that God love me and accepts me for who I am.

    Before accepting God’s love, I never wanted anything to do with church. Out of fear, I did not want people to pray over me to get my back healed. Ironically, the first church I regularly attended was a Church of God because they had a dynamic college and career group and even ended up teaching the middle school youth group as a youth leader. I made quite a few friends, but I could not get past the mixed messages that would make me cringe when it comes to faith and healing.

    Several people in leadership would take me aside and ask me if the church could pray for God to heal your back. Some even stated that God told them they should pray for me to get my back healed. Despite the bitterness inside me, I was reminded that God love me for me and accepts me for who I am. I tried to respond in a loving way that God made me for a purpose to minister to people with disabilities and their families and since God loves me and accept me for who I am, my back does not need to be healed. One leader even asked me a rhetorical question that “wouldn’t God be more glorified to others if He healed my back?” I respectfully disagreed, but the awkwardness at the church grew more intense.

    The tipping point came I went with the youth to a revival conference. At the conference, I saw a young man who was in a wheelchair with that look of extreme pain and bitterness at God for not healing him. My heart filled with compassion and went over to this young man and wrapped my arms around him. It was one of those moments where I felt God’s love and presence so vividly. The only words I said were “God loves you and accepts you for who you are, man!” Within a few weeks, I was attending another church.

    In the last 10 years of my faith journey, I have wrestled with many questions related to faith and a theology of disabilities. I even took a year off of teaching to live in a L’Arche community and do crisis counseling for a non profit supporting people with disabilities and their families. I realize I don’t have all the answers to my questions. There are days I get so frustrated when I experience or hear about people with disabilities get treated as a second class person or pitied. The bitterness inside me can at times get the best of me. However, I am reminded that God loves all, included the ignorant and arrogant. At the end of the day, I am still reminded simply that God love us and accepts us, all of us, flaws and all.

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