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On Disability and Sola Scriptura

2013 January 16

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.

church disabledThe 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.


40 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013

    This is wonderfully written and oh so true. Thank you for sharing my response as well (I will share your truth as well). I wrote mine in response to all the talk of LGBTQ and of course the excitement of Monday was not picked up today with this very important subject. I shared my anger in such a way to invite people in. We will just have to keep up the good work.
    I did also clap after Shirley Ostrander asked her question, but I was far to the back, and heard you as well, and thought really only one? Really. Glad we can connect.

    Love your writing. Keep telling as it is.

  2. Terri permalink
    January 17, 2013

    I agree that disability, both visible and invisible, is the next “otherized” group of people. After that comment was made, and before Shirley asked her question, there was a conversation in the book table area where the assertion was made that it wasn’t possible for persons with disability to be the next great challenge because no educated person still believed those traditional biblical notions of disability. Even with FOUR women with disabilities telling our stories and those of our friends this person was still totally incredulous that such things could happen. He’s a great guy. Big heart. Works with yet another “otherized” group, one that all to often overlaps with our own, the homeless. I found a strange encouragement in the fact that he had never before encountered such a thing but also a huge frustration. As long as we don’t think there is a problem there won’t be a solution.

  3. January 17, 2013

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read lately. You are so right about the coolness factor some of The Others now enjoy (at least in some circles) and the witty sitcoms. I am so grateful you wrote this.

  4. Jimi Calhoun permalink
    January 17, 2013

    Spot on!

  5. Dan Hauge permalink
    January 17, 2013

    Hi Julie, I really appreciate this post, and I would totally agree that as a practical matter, people with disabilities are ‘otherized’ in a way that we are not addressing. I also accept your premise that the ancient biblical worldview does shape society’s assumptions and instincts about people with disabilities, and those assumptions need to be confronted head-on.

    I want to raise a bit of a question, however, in that I do think there is a difference in how sola scriptura functions in terms of addressing women and LGBT persons. While it is very true that structural discrimination exists toward people with disabilities in the church, I don’t see any pastors or theologians specifically appealing to scripture as the basis for such discrimination. I don’t see the kinds of arguments that people use (i.e. pointing to 1 Timothy 2 or Romans 1) being applied to people with disabilities (“see, this Scripture is our foundation which clearly teaches why people with disabilities can’t be pastors”).

    So while I fully agree with your statement that “The church still repeats the cultural mores of the biblical worlds”, it does seem like the nature of the debate is a little bit different, in that you don’t see conservative Christians expressly advocating for this discrimination based on biblical texts, as you do see when speaking to the equality of women and LGBT people. I guess this may seem like a superficial argument, since the issue you raise is one that we really need to get working on. But I wonder if that was part of what Phyllis meant in terms of it not being a ‘sola scriptura’ issue for the church today.

    Even as I write this, I recognize that assumptions of discrimination that are non-explicit and not fully articulated are often more powerful than discrimination that is, so this is all the more reason to highlight the issues you raise.

    • Bethany permalink
      January 17, 2013

      I’m wondering whether focusing on Jesus’ healing narratives in a certain way is a less direct way churches do use the Bible to say that people with disabilities are not acceptable as they are? It’s not as direct as the verses used to come against women in ministry or LGBT persons, but it seems to have the same kind of effect in terms of acceptability and inclusion.

    • Shirley Ostrander permalink
      January 17, 2013

      I completely disagree. I invite you to read Nancy Eisland’s book “The Disabled God” if you want to see how the Bible is used to marginalize PWD. Also, I suggest this article

      The marginalization is both covert and overt…the church has been so successful in the covert that they rarely need to use the overt any longer…

  6. Shirley Ostrander permalink
    January 17, 2013

    I am that woman and I am so very grateful for your post. I am a seminarian and I preach from a bar stool behind the pulpit. I don’t know how much longer that will be an option.

    I have seen John 5:1-9 (Man by pool at Bethesda) used to say those who are not well are that way because they didn’t want it enough, or didn’t have enough faith. Some have said the man was simply lazy. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus says “your faith has made you well”…these scriptures are used repeatedly to marginalize and oppress.

    Consider faiths that only accept/perform immersion baptism…how do you get a person in a wheelchair into the baptismal?

    Let’s also not forget that a council of churches spent a great deal of money to lobby for an exception to the ADA – and they got it – this means that, not only are they exempt from making costly changes to the buildings, they can legally discriminate against PWD. Gotta love the separation of church and state argument (as we know, it’s being used now to deny women birth control).

    I’m so frustrated about this! To reject that this falls under sola scriptura is to deny my (and many other’s) experience of it.

    Oh, because of the acoustics in the room, you probably didn’t hear everyone. Several folks clapped and at least one person cheered :-)

    Again, thank you for addressing this…it is nice to know I am not alone in this struggle!

    • January 17, 2013

      Thank you for replying and I am sorry we did not get a chance to meet at the gathering. And it is good to know that I was not the only one (yes the acoustics in the room were horrible, so I’m blaming that).

    • January 21, 2013


      I’m so sorry I missed your comment. It breaks my heart so many things slipped by me at the conference. When we get a chance, I’d really like to talk with you about PWD, the church, and Scripture. It may help me with my own journey.

      My own disability isn’t as obvious but one I struggle with very often. Your insight will be invaluable.

      Thanks again,


  7. Julie permalink
    January 17, 2013

    I sometimes I feel like I live in two worlds. I am a lesbian, queer. I work with profoundly disabled students. I find myself advocating for two things. However, advocating for myself as a lesbian in the LGBTQ community I find myself jumping throw hoops so that I can be heard. I find that it is not glamorous what so ever. I have paid a high cost for trying to use my voice and advocate for myself and community. I wish it were as glamorous as some think it is. I would say, if I were a white male writing about the LGBTQ community it would be a lot more glamorous. (snarky of me, I know, but true) Mostly what is the hardest thing, I have to prove to one group I am not going to hell. To another, I have to prove my voice is worth listening to, because…well…I still haven’t found out what I have to prove, but I know that I have to prove something.

    Now enter when I advocate for my students. My students cannot speak for themselves. If they can it comes across like moans, points, and one worded sentences. My parents don’t really speak for themselves, because their child is disturbing to others. They are loud. They have pitch fits in public that seem to be meaningless or for some unknown reason. My parents, like me when advocating for my rights, are plain tired. When I try to speak for my students I do not have to defend them through scripture to say they have a right to be known. I do not have to defend why they are not going to hell. What I advocate for is understanding. My parents have bent over backwards, but they are tired of putting their child in a corner (leaving them at home) while they go worship. I have one parent who finally found a church that accepts her child into the gathering. I just heard today that my student was ushering (as best she can) and shouting for the Lord. It made me smile. That is the rare story. However, the largest story are my students who are on the profound end of autism. They are disturbing. I have one student that is on a tape loop, “coming soon to dvd and blue ray”, “oh toodles!”, and then there is the pinching of breast or being over fascinated with blood that they will squeeze it out of their fingers then smear it on a wall or whatever else seems cool. See, these students just don’t fit into the nice neat messy worship we talk about. No, I don’t have to defend them in scripture, but I have to defend them, advocate them by scripture. They should be welcomed and gatherings should work with a family to help make it welcoming for all.

    Honestly, neither is glamorous. Both are painful, they just come with different pains.

    Sorry for ramble. It is hard at times to voice the two together. They both mean a lot to me for different reasons. I wonder when the emergent church will get real with LGBTQ issues, women issues, and with students, my angels, like mine. There are some great books out there and I have a friend in seminary who is specializing in emergence response to disability. I look forward to a better day, that day just is not there.

    One more thing, I have said this time after time, there will always be an “other.” We finish with women, we go to LGBT, finish with them, we go to disability, and then we go to the next. We will always wrestle with minorities. We will always find someone we are ignoring and not giving enough attention to. It is how we work through these things that will define us.

    • Rebekah permalink
      January 18, 2013

      Jules, there is so much truth in this:

      “there will always be an “other.” We finish with women, we go to LGBT, finish with them, we go to disability, and then we go to the next. We will always wrestle with minorities. We will always find someone we are ignoring and not giving enough attention to. It is how we work through these things that will define us.”

      I sense a lot of frustration from people I’ve interacted with on this point. I get frustrated myself at times. Just when you think you’ve dealt with your own privilege and exclusion of others, you find there’s another layer to it. Another group of people you’re ignoring. Another way in which you are denying the image of God in another. I know in my cohort in atlanta there was a woman in a wheelchair who frequently could not attend our meetings because most of our homes were not accessible, some of our church buildings were not, and even some of the bars we met in were inaccessible. And every time I’d plan a meeting and Ann would remind me, “but what about Annette?” I’d grumble and think “Oh yeah. I forgot about her.”

      It’s a hard thing to be confronted with your own privilege, and yet we gain so much when we do. Think of all the beautiful and wonderful people we miss meeting and learning from when we choose to ignore the marginalized.

  8. Harold permalink
    January 17, 2013

    This is a very interesting discussion, and an important issue to me. I belong to a church which is rightly proud of its assertion that it welcomes everyone. But the church building is unwelcoming to people who have trouble with stairs, and the culture of the church is unwelcoming to most who have not grown up with it.

    I would include people with invisible disabilities, people living with mental illness, people who lack resources as those who fail to be welcomed by my church.

    I am sorry I was not at the emergence christianity event; I don’t know much about it. What I do know is that it is serious spiritual work to honor and reverence the personhood of every single one inside and outside of our doors.

  9. January 17, 2013

    Julie, once again I’m grateful for your voice. So glad you’re speaking these truths.

    This seems to be happening a lot lately. (Me finding myself thankful for what you bring to the conversation.) Not that I’m complaining :-)

  10. January 17, 2013

    Like Mike, I also find myself grateful… *again.* I’m embarrassed by how often I read something you’ve written and my jaw drops because you put something in my head that I never even considered, though clearly should have. It happened twice in this post. I just need to tell you that. You’re writing has been very important to me.

  11. Davey permalink
    January 18, 2013

    I am reluctant to leave this comment. I attend church pretty often, and we meet in a place that is fully handicapped accessible. My wife is reluctant to attend. Her disability is not easily recognized. She feels that people will look at her as being fat and lazy, and not bother to get to know her. The acceptance of a minister who is from a very sports-centered background does not help.
    So, shouldn’t she feel accepted?

    • January 18, 2013

      You are right, our culture is quick to judge difference instead of understand that. I know this well since I have a daughter who has Aspergers, ADHD, and an off the charts IQ. Most people just think she’s a bad kid and let her know that. Unless I want to go to one of the super-conservative Texas megachurches, there are no churches near me that know how to accommodate her (her school certainly doesn’t, and I’m still trying to figure it out too). So even though my primary disability is very visible, I get that often it is far harder for those whose disability is not easily grasped by judging and clueless others. And it hurts.

      • Wisdomchaser permalink
        January 22, 2013

        Thank you Julie. I am raising my grandson who has aspergers and ADHD. This morning I was on another Cristian blog and they were talking about someone not making eye contact and how insulting it was. I told them this is sometimes one of the sign of autism and then mentioned my grandson. I got all sorts of ignorant comments and at least one was pretty condescending.

        When he was little I stopped going to church for quite a while because no one was able to deal with his issues. Last year he was suspended from homeschool PE because of his behaviors. I had a really difficult time going back this year. At least at public school he had an IEP and they had to pretend they were taking care of things. Homeschoolers don’t have to and they don’t. Sorry, I need to let all that go. Hope you don’t mind my venting a little.

  12. January 18, 2013

    As as advocate for the disabled, I agree. (There is a low percentage of churches even with a disability ministry- around 5%). Unfortunately, though, disability is not perceived as ‘outside’ the church because -at least in my experience- people with disabilities are not shunned as sinners -like other ‘outsiders’, but too awkwardly-if at all- embraced…and that is not perceived as being outside. Unfortunate!

    Because of this disconnect we have with this population, I have been writing to help people recognize that there are more similarities between people with disabilities and people without disabilities in order to better help us to see such points as you have made.

    If anyone would like to visit my site, it is at

    Thank you for clapping in the midst of silence on this issue!


  13. Cameron permalink
    January 18, 2013

    Thanks for this.

    I’m about as privileged as it gets — white, straight, male, educated, able bodied and everything else you can imagine. It’s really easy for me to forget that not everyone is as privileged as I. Others in my situation do too, and sometimes it shows.

    Some years ago the church I attended was surrounded by ‘halfway houses’ that were full of mentally ill people who had nowhere else to go after the mental health institutions were closed down in our state. I suggested to our pastor that we were perfectly located to somehow bring the Gospel to these folk, but he refused, saying that the church isn’t built on such people. That stung. (I replied that the church is supposed to be built on Jesus, but I was just a smart-arsed 17 year old. What would I know?)

    Just a few years ago I had a similar conversation with another pastor who complained that her church was ‘full of ants.’ Can’t build anything on them apparently. We need leaders!

    Then a couple of years ago I was preaching in a church I was pastoring. It was very small, and I’d been to all sorts of conferences about church leadership and the like. While I was preaching I was apparently supposed to be casting a vision or something. These two previous conversations I’d had over the years came to mind, and I saw the people in my church in a new light. There were only about fifteen people there. One had cerebral palsy. Three needed walking frames and/or crutches. There were two Vietnam vets who carried deep physical and mental scars. Another person had anxiety issues that cause all sorts of interesting problems. Yet another guy had severe epilepsy and brain damage, probably resulting from the severe beatings he received growing up on the streets. And those were apart from the more mundane infirmities that come naturally with age.

    As I looked, I saw that it was good. According to the wisdom I’d been learning at my conferences, these people were broken and useless. According to God, everything was right.

  14. Matt Kq permalink
    January 18, 2013

    Would you care to comment on the genocide taking place against children who have Down Syndrome?
    (A genocide veiled under the banner of “choice”).
    Seems to me this should be part of this conversation.

  15. Sharon G. permalink
    January 18, 2013

    It’s discussions like this that played a huge part in my decision to walk away from this nonsense and become a “None” Of all the places in our crazy world, “church” should be the last place we hear things like this. I have friends of all persuasions and, believe me, the hypocrites that call themselves Christian are oftentimes the most un-Christlike. And these imbeciles are everywhere. I could regale you with examples, but here’s one that almost made my head explode. Looking for bathroom cabinets yesterday. When we asked the employee (and I use that word lightly) if he knew anyone who could rip out the old and install the new, he said, “Do you go to church?” Sorry, but excuse me? When my husband and I, in unison, said, “No,” he replied, “Well, there’s lots of good people in churches and maybe if you went to church you could find one to help with this project.” Almost on par with the meeting described above – just stay home and bake chocolate chip cookies and all will be right with the world, your controlling husband will be happy and your children will be well-behaved, smart and respectful. Unbelievable.

  16. January 18, 2013

    Thanks for raising the issue, Julie. But it made me wonder, haven’t we had this conversation in the church before? There are sectors of “the church” that has been in dialogue around this issue for a good while. When I was in seminary in the 80s, we had a class on disability, read “The Disability Rag,” watched “Children of a Lesser God,” heard debates that were raging in some states over cocholear implants (with some in the deaf community feeling like it was tantamount to cultural genocide). Also, aren’t there sectors in “the church” where it is “hip” and “cool” to be a part of this community? – Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier made it so in the L’Arche communities. Spending a lot of time with a disabled teen often has me wishing and praying he could be healed; does this have to be a sign of discrimination? I can understand the desire among blind folks to be fully included, but I also understand the desire for the blind to see. For me, these issues are not the same as sexuality or race, where there is no compelling reason folks in different categories can’t fully participate in all aspects of church life. Some disabilities – such as severe emotional disturbance or developmental delays, do prohibit full participation. That’s not to say we shouldn’t welcome, we should simply recognize the difference between discrimination and limitations on the capacity to participate, and the desire among some for those limitations to be taken away, with healing for the blind, the deaf, the “lame”, etc. It’s a sticky wicket, the dance between pride among marginalized cultures and the opportunities to change and join the mainstream culture. It’s a dance many people with disabilities do, and it’s not an easy one.

    • shirley ostrander permalink
      January 29, 2013

      Back when you describe the churches having this discussion, they were also lobbying for an exemption to the ADA.. they got it and continue to hold this exemption in spite of the recent update.

      There is a difference btwn accessible and friendly. Additionally, this discussion about the church is more complex than having the appropriate ramp. It includes this idea that a person with a disability needs healing…that somehow we must change and that our primary focus is about healing. God has called me to ordained ministry just like I am. God apparently doesn’t see a need for me to be changed in that way…it is the church that needs to change.

  17. Matt Shafer permalink
    January 20, 2013

    I think this post brings up really important and almost always overlooked issues. It’s really wonderful to see so much enthusiasm for the discussion of the problems with how the churches comport themselves towards the disabled. And i understand (and admire) the way this post is speaking from a really deeply personal place.

    Unfortunately, I think this post is really seriously marred by a couple things.

    First, broadly, I’m bothered by the apparent need to couch the conversation in terms of the claim that “people with disabilities are in fact the most otherized group of people in the church.” I think that claim, well-intentioned or not, vastly oversimplifies the complexity, diversity, and intersectionality of the structures and actions and communities that constitute the churches. Christianity isn’t one big monolithic entity that coherently or systemically acts in the same ways towards the same groups everywhere. To imply otherwise and to say that there is in fact a particular group that is the MOST OTHERIZED of them all, period, is just incredibly dismissive of the real experiences of people with all sorts of identities.

    Second, and more specifically, I’m really bothered by how you talk about gender and sexual minorities in this post. You writes that “LGBT advocacy is the undisputed cause of the moment” (you must live in a really awesome place for this to be true); that “there is something to be said for the hip factor of Queer folk in advancing their cause” (this pretty strongly plays into what queer theorists would call “homonormativity,” i’d say;, and that the disabled “don’t have Pride parades that end up being the most fun event of the season” (there’s lot of historical ignorance here about the origins and development and purposes of pride events). Most bizarrely of all, you deeply trivialize the reality of what it’s like to be deathly afraid of coming out when you say that “for better or worse [the disabled] have never had the option of a closet to hide in to escape the taunts of the world.” The first three quotations are, at the best, off-color and belittling; this last one is almost violently oblivious to the lived experiences of those who don’t identify as straight (including myself) and of those who are in the trans* community.

    I think it’s really important to talk critically about disability in the church. But please, let’s not do this in a way that’s blind to intersectionality and the complexities of kyriarchy. To do that isn’t just dismissive of the experiences of others; it also works to make solidarity between different communities harder.

    • Matt Shafer permalink
      January 20, 2013

      An addendum: One of the most troubling parts of your analysis of the relative position those with disabilities and those who are non-straight and/or trans* is the implicit denial of how their marginalized statuses are *related* and interconnected. It ignores both the literal overlap between the two communities (lots of disabled people aren’t straight, etc etc) — and it ignores the fact that many Christians do in fact think of non-straight and trans* persons as people with an illness or a disability from which they can and should be healed.

    • January 21, 2013

      I was speaking from my lived experience and by no means was betlittling or ignoring history. I said that there is danger is positive stereotypes, but was simply stating the facts about perception of the cause. It is not a competition, and I am just as involved in the LGBT conversation with stakes there as well. So I know the difference. Yes, I set up the comparison because it does bug me that certain issues get all the news or get their programs or panels filled at conferences while other issues are treated as awkward and uninteresting. That does a disservice to the voices within both issues – even as it has made same-sex issues something that cannot be ignored whether people want to or not. Like it or not, people are far more interested in talking about sex than wheelchairs. That does not mean it is done in a healthy or safe way, but the conversation is happening.

      • Matt Shafer permalink
        January 21, 2013

        Julie, I know that your intentions here are excellent, but I think you really need to carefully examine the way you talk about gender and sexual minorities.

        For example, you write:
        “It is not a competition” — Then don’t make it one! Don’t try to establish which group is really the “most otherized”! That only causes hurt to others.

        “same-sex issues” … “talking about sex” — The problems faced by gender and sexual minorities aren’t just same-sex issues, and they don’t just have to do with sex. To treat them as if they do excludes so much of the conversation (most obviously, it leaves the trans* community out of the picture, but that’s only the start).

        I understand that you care deeply about the problems faced by the LGBTQ community in the churches — that’s why i’m going to the trouble of trying to explain how i think you’re actually perpetuating some harms to them (us) without realizing it. Like it or not, you DID “belittle or ignore history” in your post, even though you didn’t mean to. You didn’t just state the ‘facts’ about general ‘perception’ — you stated the facts about YOUR perception in your own particular context, but did it in a way that made it seem to at least some of your readers as if you thought that that perception held true everywhere.

        I think the problem with the way you’re carrying on this conversation is that you’re trying to speak strictly as an expression of your lived experience, but you’re doing it in a way that expresses formally universal claims rather than experiential claims. You say things like “people are far more interested in talking about sex than wheelchairs” — but that’s only true for *some* people in *some* circumstances. Clearly, it is true for the people around you in many of your circumstances; but in other contexts, the opposite remains the case. When one turns one’s own experiences into a proxy for the experiences of everyone everywhere, one inevitably excludes and marginalizes others without meaning to; I fear that that’s what you’re doing here.

        I hope that you can understand what I’m trying to say here, and understand that I’m not questioning your experiences, nor seeking to deny the importance of the real injustices they demonstrate; rather, I’m trying to make it clear that the way you have chosen to represent your experiences has made it seem that you think they are universal, and in representing them this way you have made others feel marginalized and “othered” in exactly the way that you’re speaking against.

        • January 21, 2013

          I get that you disagree and I thank you for your comments. I think you are projecting previous opposition onto me and making some sweeping assumptions about what I am trying to do. I get that the issues are very complex, but sometimes there are uncomfortable dynamics that need to be addressed as well. I was trying to do that and it got uncomfortable. To me its about having the conversation, not shutting it down. There needs to be more discussion about all of this, period.

  18. Matt Shafer permalink
    January 21, 2013

    At every point here, I’ve focused on particular phrases and terms you’ve used that I think are harmful in specific ways. I don’t think I’m at all projecting previous opposition or making sweeping assumptions about what you’re doing — I’ve actually explicitly said that I know your intentions are good and in agreement with my own. I strongly support your broader project here, and can tell that in general terms we pretty much agree about things.

    Unfortunately you haven’t seemed to be at all open to hearing about the ways in which your choices of words and phrases are marginalizing in certain ways. This is really strange to me, because I can see that you really care about the marginalized and the oppressed.

    The bottom line here is that despite your best intentions, your way of speaking is hurtful to me as a queer person of faith. The way you talk about the LGBTQ community makes it clear to me that I wouldn’t feel like you’re an ally I could be completely comfortable around. If that doesn’t bother you, there’s not a whole lot else I can say.

    • Matt Shafer permalink
      January 21, 2013

      (the above was intended as a response to your last comment — i clicked on the wrong comment form and it posted separately instead)

      • January 24, 2013

        I believe you are correct and yet also wrong. The point of this post is about the anger felt in that room by a few of us. In full disclosure I am an ally to both LGBTQI concerns, but a much more vocal ally for people with disabilities. Raising a son with a disability, and starting a church that is inclusive of all especially of all abilities. When you read this post and do not see her points about a group that has been swept aside by both conservative and progressives, or only offer help for “the least of them.” you are missing the point, we are allowed to be angry, and those your comments have been to highlight we should not be. While you are correct with some of the points, it is important to take away the bigger point, people with disabilities, are bullied, patronized, and considered less than human by most people. I even had a conversation with someone yesterday that was at least honest, that people with disabilities make them uncomfortable. I felt I had to be pastoral, but in the area I am in, if that was said about homosexuals, I know I lot of people who would have berated this person. (and that subject came up earlier and that was not an issue). I just ask to allow for people to be angry, do make your points, but try to see through your anger as well. It is not easy, but we really are all in the same boat. (anyways that is what I blogged about from my experience, which Julie did link above). It is hard, and if you were in my shoes you would understand the anger we felt at that moment, and it should be expressed, but yest it is not a competition. As you said her intentions are excellent, and Matt, you too need to be aware of how you hurtful how you typed about how it is important that we be “talking about disability in the Church,” and not people with disabilities. That may seem small but that is the point, my son is not considered even important enough to be considered a person, but just an issue. I share that because I truly read your words as important and if you are asking a writer to do that, I ask the same of yours.

  19. Thomas permalink
    January 25, 2013

    Cognitive “disability” is extemely challenging to Sola Scriptura, specifically, because Sola Scriptura necessitates personal interpretation of the Scriptures, which requires intellectual prowess. Those with “disabilities” that impair cognitive functioning are less able to interpret the Scriptures.

    Protestantism, with its heavy emphasis on the ability to read (at a relatively high level), interpret multiple literary forms, and analyze incredible amounts of data to draw doctrinal conclusions, is inherently discriminatory towards those who lack education and/or a HIGH level of cognitive function.

    Did Christ intend that only the intellectuals should be able to know His Truth?

    • January 25, 2013

      That is true, and why I think music and liturgy are as relevant too. Thomas You said that well, thanks.

  20. January 28, 2013

    As always, equal parts grace and truth. I read a lot of blogs, learn from a lot of people. This post keeps drawing my mind back. As a pastor of a church with several differently abled people, I’m humbled and challenged deeply by this post. And yet your rhetoric and tone are inviting and teaching, transformative even. We are so not the cool ministry in town. But this made an impression on me regarding how essential it is that we push farther faster than we have, and to do so full well knowing that genuine ministry isn’t in the least concerned about cool.

    I appreciate you giving me and my congregation this perspective as we love and learn from those in our midst with disabilities! Thank you.

  21. February 6, 2013

    As a disabled Christian I would say that their are two separate issues at work in the church today. Firstly, there is a lot of wrong thinking, mostly thanks to the “health and wealth gospel” message. People frequently say to me that I either need to pray for more faith, or that I must have some unrepented sin in my life to cause my suffering. I instead believe that in is not a lack of faith or my sin, as Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to overcome both of those, but that the glory of God might be revealed in me.

    Secondly, and this is more general to all mankind, there is a lack of knowing what to say, how to respond to someone different. There is that uncomfortable moment when you meet a disabled person when you have to figure out-can they shake hands, understand what I am saying, etc. (depending on their level and type of disability). People shy away from uncomfortable situations, and instead of trying something and being embarrassed, they avoid the person altogether.

    Thanks-great article!

  22. John Jay Frank permalink
    June 4, 2014

    Finding Christ in Christianity
    by John Jay Frank, June 4, 2014

    John asked Jesus if He were the Christ (Matt. 11:3-5). Jesus did not say yea or nay. He said, look at how I relate to people who do not see, or hear, or walk well and decide for yourself. When others see the way our churches relate to people with disabilities; how we exclude, segregate, hinder, ignore, condescend and sentimentalize over them, would they say we are followers of Christ?

    We mislabel the Parable of the Incapacitated Traveler, calling it instead the Parable of the Good Samaritan because we, like the lawyer in the story want to justify ourselves. The Church has those who do good, kind deeds like the Samaritan, and those who do not, like the priest and the Levite, but often churches behave like other characters in that story; the thieves who beat, robbed, and incapacitated the traveler. To incapacitate means to deprive of ability, to make incapable, to disable. Disability arises from the interaction of a person’s impairment with barriers we create which we could easily make accessible, but do not. We incapacitate people who could hear and see our message, access our facilities, and participate in our church by the way we use our computers, sound systems, and by our architecture. We block access to a message we consider essential for eternal life.

    We could enable instead of disable by printing and projecting larger text with better colour contrast and with no background pictures or designs, and by using large print signs indoors as well as outside, and by building accessible Web sites, and by installing doors that a person who is frail or uses a walker or wheel chair could open. We could install a hearing loop to our sound systems for those who use hearing aids and lower the overall volume and electronic effects so that people home from the hospital after another round of chemotherapy could endure our worship, and we could advocate for Sunday bus service instead of relying only on kind volunteers. We could be more like Christ instead of like the thieves (Luke 10: 25-37).

    Jesus asked the leaders of the synagogue if it were lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath. They were silent. Their standard was not whether the activity helped anyone with or without a disability. The only thing that mattered to them was what the law and tradition said was a lawful Sabbath day activity. Jesus pointed to a higher standard. (1)

    Many of us adhere to lower standards. We apply technology based on expedience (that is seeking advantage regardless of consequences), efficiency (the most useful output for the least input), and popularity (acceptance by the general public). A higher standard, the law of love, means doing good and not doing harm, but commercial values are the church’s Sabbath day laws today. We do what works, what the general public likes, in order to reach the most people for the least cost. Today’s marketplace rules ignore and exclude those whom Jesus specifically told us to bring to our feasts of Worship and the Word (Luke 14:13). And Jesus was grieved and angered at their hardness of heart (Mark 3:1-6).

    The application of the Word of God has not changed over the centuries because of new technologies. The Americans With Disabilities Act and other laws in the United States and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and other similar laws in Canada exist because of hard heartedness and ignorance. Those are the common causes of disability discrimination in our churches and they are denounced in the Bible. We only fool ourselves if we believe our disability discrimination is just the best way to reach young people. We are offering them a Christianity without Christ; without Him whose feet and hands were disabled for us. This must be challenged for the good of those hurt and for the sake of those who cause the pain (see Matt 25:31-46). We could thus help not only the 20% of us with disabilities, but also the 80% of us without disabilities – if we prepare in advance and do not wait to be asked for help.

    The heart of the good news includes the message that a relationship with God is possible for a wider range of people, but certainly for more of those whom the Lord highlighted by words and deeds. He made a way for people who were not able to see, hear, talk, walk, or think well. From our classrooms and pulpits we must teach a greater understanding of normal human variation and how we can reach out and be inclusive. We cannot assume by our silence, our structures, or our technologies who is or who will become a Christian, or who wants or needs to participate in our church gatherings. Wherever the church unnecessarily disables and harms people by blocking their participation she can turn, bind up, bear with, restore, and include. There will still be ample opportunity for good works by individuals or groups, and for simply enjoying church, or even some elite activities in church, but we can better preach the good news to all people if we create accessible churches, activities, literature, ministry and missionary outreach.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. On Disability and Sola Scriptura — Open Gathering
  2. Life With and Among the Marginalized: Wisdom from Jean Vanier « Storied Community
  3. Short Spiel on Disability and Religion « Abilities of the Arts

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