On Disability and Sola Scriptura
And now for the disability post.
During the Q&A time with Phyllis Tickle at the Emergence Christianity gathering a woman who uses a wheelchair asked what I thought was one of the most important and telling questions of the event. She commented that even though emergence Christians talk about LGBT folks being the last great “Other” that the church needs to accept, in reality it is people with disabilities who are still otherized the most by the church and asked Phyllis what can be done about that.
I applauded her question.
That’s the thing to do in these sorts of gatherings. When someone dares to bring up the elephants in the room or be a voice for unrepresented voices one applauds if one cares.
I was the only one in a cathedral full of people who applauded her question. It was literally just the sound of one hand clapping.
Phyllis responded that disability is not a truly otherizing or controversial concern for the church because it doesn’t challenge the conception of sola scriptura, next question. I think Phyllis is spot on with her theory that the issues that challenge the church the most are those that shake up our perceived understanding of scripture. If we cling to sola scriptura and our interpretation of that scripture is that slavery is okay, women cannot teach in church, or that same-sex relationships are a sin then to accept those things is to disrupt our entire conception of the scripture. Given the philosophical framework of most Protestants and the lingering predominance of sola scriptura, I fully agree with her description of why such issues caused such turmoil for the church.
What I don’t agree with is that disability is not a challenge to sola scriptura.
I would argue that people with disabilities are in fact the most otherized group of people in the church. Whether it is dealt with well or not, most Christians would agree that racism is wrong and that we should love people of all colors of skin. Many churches would also say that sexism is evil and quite a few even allow women to serve as pastors. It’s trendy to engage in interreligious dialogue and LGBT advocacy is the undisputed cause of the moment. Not so much when it comes to welcoming and showing support for the differently abled.
Basically, we are not and never will be cool. While I fully acknowledge the damaging effect positive stereotypes can have – there is something to be said for the hip factor of Queer folk in advancing their cause. But no one brags about their cool disabled friend they go shopping with. We don’t have Pride parades that end up being the most fun event of the season. There are no sitcoms about witty and fabulous disabled people. Not that this is a competition, just the facts that we are hard to like. We are the awkward ones. We are the ones who are so used to the stares and the pointing fingers and the laughter that we’ve learned to brace ourselves as we enter most social situations knowing that we make other people uncomfortable. For better or worse we have never had the option of a closet to hide in to escape the taunts of the world. We are the freaks and it will never, ever, be trendy to advocate for us much less see us as something other than Other.
Secondly, standing in solidarity with us is costly, literally. If a church starts talking about offering programs for the disabled or even putting in an access ramp they quickly encounter the hard data of the cash it will cost them. Most decide that it is more fiscally responsible to just ignore us. Yes, I get that churches that chose to be welcoming and inclusive of the LGBT community know that there might possibly be a financial cost to that decision. But as members leave and take their tithes with them, the blow is softened by knowing that the loss of income came because the church chose the moral high ground over bigotry. It is easier to accept potential cost than swallow the price tag up front.
But beyond those factors, what I have discovered regarding why disability advocacy is not a cause emergence Christianity (or any form of Christianity really) cares about is that the traditional biblical notions about disability have not yet been challenged the way ideas about slavery, women, and Queers have. Instead of seeing people with disabilities as whole people to be equally welcomed in the body of Christ, there is still a ruling belief in the church that we are broken people in need of healing. We are people to be served and changed, not people to be included and fought for.
Think about the songs we sing (even last week at the Emergence Christianity gathering). The lyrics are all about the poor and the blind being made whole or about rejoicing that “I once was blind but now I see.” If we were singing “I once was gay but now I’m straight” or “I once was Native but now I’m civilized” there would be an uproar, but no one sees any issue in singing such about the differently abled. It is still permissible to assume an absolute normative and cast anyone who appears different as the incomplete other that must be healed and made whole before they can be accepted like everyone else.
The church still repeats the cultural mores of the biblical worlds. Those with imperfections of the body were barred from serving in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Even animals with defects could not be offered up to God in sacrifice. Only those who appeared normative, unblemished, could be accepted as pure and holy sacrifices to God. People with disabilities could not even enter the Temple to worship, but had to remain in the courtyard of the women and the Gentiles. The imperfection of our body made us unacceptable to God. Over time Gentiles, women, and slaves came to be seen as whole persons made in the image of God and therefore worthy of service, but the stigma of incompleteness remains on those with disability.
Phyllis was partially right in her response. Disability isn’t an issue challenging sola scriptura. But that’s because there has yet to be a vocal and vibrant call within the church to challenge ancient cultural assumptions that continue to cast us as Other. And honestly, I don’t know if there ever will be given how “uncool” we are and how costly it is to welcome us fully. That one could even state that how the church conceives of disability isn’t an issue is quite telling of how little attention is given to us at all.
It’s uncomfortable to be the sole person clapping for this cause in a room full of people who generally seem committed to being as welcoming and inclusive as possible. And it’s indicative of how far we still have to go.
See also J.C. Mitchell's response.