The Bible is an unwieldy resource on any subject. Its depth creates currents that pull us in many different directions, and the numerous voices, speaking from across hundreds of years from the ruins and richness of numerous empires, can sometimes sound more like a cacophony than a choir. When it comes to disability, Western societies have a history of reading disability as an aberration. This is not only the case when it comes to reading the Bible. But in light of this way of looking at bodily difference, it is easy for people to come to the careless conclusion that the “biblical view” is that disability is a problem caused by sin or demonic interference and solved by prayer and obedience to God. The most negative voices resonate the loudest.
I want to begin with the negative voices because I do not wish to sugarcoat these passages in the Bible or the impact reading them has had on people with disabilities. In the Hebrew Bible, physical injury falls within the domain of God. Deuteronomy 32:39 reads, “There is no god beside me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal,” and the Psalmist agrees that it is God who “forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Ps 103:3). Implicit here and elsewhere is a taut parallelism between sin and sickness. While Job is an innocent sufferer, many other Biblical figures seem to receive and be released from diseases as they fall and rise in the eyes of God.
The New Testament attitude both changes and reinforces the dominant religious model of disability. In the Gospel of John, the disciples see a man born blind and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (9:3) before proceeding to heal the man. The fourth Gospel’s statement that sin does not lie at the root of disability is an important shift, but the fact that God’s work is revealed in him through healing can be problematic. It can subtly reinforce the idea that disability and the experiences of the disabled have no intrinsic value in and of themselves.
This brings us to the healing ministry of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus is a kind of cathartic scourge. Every person who faithfully encounters him is healed of his or her infirmity. And, despite the shift from divine punishment to divine healing, sin and sickness remain intertwined in the Biblical imagination. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” says Jesus. It may be a simile, but the portrayal of Jesus as physician and sinners as sick is unsettling. Sinfulness implies failure and, in the Gospels, that failure is apparently a lack of faith. For, as Jesus himself says in Mark 9:23, “All things are possible for the one who believes.”
Ailments Shared by All
Time has both dulled and sharpened the blade of negative portrayals of disability in the Bible. The habitual use of imagery of sensory impairment for ignorance and stupidity means that we are inured to the way such language impacts those with sensory impairments. But medical advancements mean that this imagery is more acutely focused on those with disabilities. In the ancient world, every person who had broken a leg walked with a limp, and age and the absence of glasses meant that a high proportion of the population suffered visual impairments, if not blindness. “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear,” said Jesus to a crowd that likely included many people with age-related hearing loss. Sensory impairment was a reality for everyone, but modern medicine means that today such phrases seem more acutely focused on the experiences of the blind and the deaf.
There are positive ways to think about the portrayal of people with disabilities in the Bible. We could note that the God of Ezekiel’s vision uses a wheeled throne. It is commonly thought of as a chariot, but we could read it as a wheelchair. We could argue that Jesus is more focused on the sick, the possessed and the disabled. When he heals lepers, he draws those from the margins of society into its center; and when he proclaims that woman with the flow of blood has been made well by her faith, he reintegrates her into society. We could add that these individuals are—in contrast to the disciples—remarkable examples of faith. But we still have to contend with the fact that the New Testament’s shift to faith-derived healing can have a dark underbelly for those with disabilities. On one hand, there is hope for healing and at least one explicit statement that the disabled (and their relatives) are not to blame for their conditions. On the other, some of these stories reinforce the understanding that disability is a deviation from the way God intends us to live.
Everyone who faithfully encounters Jesus in the Gospels is healed. This can create the sense that a failure to receive a cure is a failure of faith. I learned in the course of researching a co-authored book on infertility that more than one Christian self-help book for the reproductively challenged recommends that couples start by looking at their own lives and the ways in which they have transgressed God’s will. Are we all, as broken human beings, in need of healing and divine assistance? Of course we are. But should the sick and the disabled be reminded to look to their sins more often than others, as if something about their experience of the world is essentially sinful? I’m not so sure.
This brings us to a central assumption in many readings of the Biblical stories about disability: the assumption that disability is something negative that we should want to have removed either now or in the future. It is truly this view that colors the way that we read the Bible and elicits the kinds of interpretations that I have described here. One of the key contributions that disability rights activists have made to our modern world is the observation that bodily differences are negative or positive depending on the context. A blind person is at a considerable advantage in a blackout; a top-form wheelchair user will always outpace a top-form marathoner over long distances; and, if happiness is the index by which we evaluate the success of our lives, people with Down’s Syndrome will (by and large) have more successful lives.
Even if these examples seem unpersuasive to some, but we acknowledge the intrinsic dignity and importance of every human life created by God, then we should recognize the ways that the negative valuation of disability affects people’s lives. The way that society disables people can be structural: for instance, sidewalks constructed without sloping curves make life unnecessarily difficult for wheelchair users. Biblically speaking, Leviticus prohibits people with skin abnormalities from visiting the temple and obtaining access to God. They can also be interpersonal. I have noticed that during the occasions in my life when I have used a wheelchair, people talk more loudly to me; when I have had intravenous lines in my neck or arm, people will not stand or sit close to me for fear of some contamination; and, because I do not have children, fellow church-goers, colleagues and students sometimes assume that I am morally compromised. The assumption that disability is negative can also be life-threatening: when it comes to rationing our medical resources, those with disabilities can find themselves at the end of organ transplant lines and abandoned in hospitals during hurricanes. In situations that empower us to be utilitarians, we are more likely, as Francis says, to throw away the disabled.
Writing about disability is a sensitive task and one that should take the perspectives of (other) disabled people into account. Several years ago a student named Lisa (one of my favorites; not that I have favorites, of course) came to see me. Lisa has a proprioceptive deficiency caused by what is commonly known as “tethered cord syndrome.” She had read an article that I wrote about the resurrected body in which I argued that we should not assume that we will be “healed” of our disabilities. Lisa was upset. She had been led to believe that if she prayed to God, God would heal her; then, when he didn’t, she was told that when she went to heaven she would finally be “normal.” And there I was stealing even that hope from her. I did not want to limit her right to envision the resurrection in a way that was meaningful for her. We went back and forth for a while talking about Irenaeus, Augustine and the New Testament before finally I said something that she later told me made a difference to her. “Lisa,” I said, “I don’t know how we will be resurrected, I just want you to know that God loves you the way that you are.” For Lisa that proved to be the pivotal point.
Lisa went on to write an extraordinary paper about the Eucharistic body and proprioception that made an argument that I had never encountered before. Her essay inspired me to look at the New Testament differently and to see places where she already embodies, quite literally, the commandments of Jesus. In Matthew 6:2-3, Jesus delivers the well-known instruction to his followers that “when you give alms, do not let your let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” We are all familiar with this statement as part of an injunction about almsgiving, but it also envisions a highly specific embodied activity and state, a state in which the individual is unaware of the activity and spatial movement of parts of their body. Individuals with proprioceptive deficits already have bodies that operate in this way. Lisa’s body already encodes the values endorsed by Matthew 6:2-4. While the passage might be focused on almsgiving, her body is already prepared for and oriented towards almsgiving by virtue of her impairment. In the way that broad shoulders and long arms may give a person an advantage in the swimming pool, proprioceptive deficits are embodied examples of a moral advantage when it comes to almsgiving. We do not often read the New Testament in this way, but perhaps we should.
But I digress. The question is not: can I find Lisa, or myself, or any other disabled person in the New Testament, but rather: can we find ourselves as ourselves in heaven? Can the view that God loves the disabled as they are be Biblically sustained? Or is healing a necessary prerequisite to admission to the Kingdom of God? To be sure, Isaiah presents us with a vision of heavenly healing in which the blind see and the lame “leap like deer,” and Revelation describes heaven as a place where God wipes tears from our eyes and suffering no longer exists. Nevertheless, not everyone is healed—especially when there are other examples of “unhealed” bodies. As theologian Amos Yong has shown, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 leaves the disciples to spread the good news without undergoing any bodily change. It is possible to envision a resurrected body in which impairments are present but—like non-impairments—somehow glorified.
Paul tells us that the resurrection of all believers will parallel that of the risen Christ. If we want to know what our bodies will be like, we should start with that first resurrected body: the body of the Savior. Of the four canonical gospels, only the Gospels of Luke and John go into detail about the nature of Jesus’s resurrected body.
In the Doubting Thomas episode in John, Jesus invites Thomas to place his hands on the marks of the nails he received in the crucifixion. Even in his glorious resurrected body he remains scarred. Moreover, Jesus’s wounds are an integral part of his identity. It is by his wounds that he is recognized as Jesus himself. It is only his infirmities that permit Thomas to identify him as his Lord and God. In the case of Jesus, the brokenness of his body forms a critical part of his identity. These may be, as Augustine would put it, glorified marks, but they are still there. We might argue that, for this author, it is the marks in his hands and side that mark him as God rather than ghost. If God incarnate is known in the resurrection by his glorified impairments, why would we not hope for the same? And if impairment is present and important at the resurrection, then impairment is present and important now.