A Practical Theology of Disability

By Fr. Alan Gibson cm
On Tuesday evening 25 June I, along with a few other parishioners and the Principal
from St Vincent’s Primary School, attended a lecture entitled “A Practical Theology of
Disability.” There were several things in this lecture that stood out to me and I have
decided to write as I believe the thoughts offered in his lecture have much to offer in how
to view the body, ways of communicating, time and offering and receiving hospitality. I
believe these things in turn inform how we are to act as a Christian community. The
following by no means does full justice to what was presented that night but my hope is
that something here may be of some help.
What does it mean to be human?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor who lived in Germany during the time of the
Second World War. He set up the Bethel Community which provided a place for the
homeless and people will kinds of disabilities. He viewed the Nazi’s vision of a super
human as a form of madness. For Bonhoeffer the task was not being seen as successful or
powerful but rather to be faithful to the tasks given. The tasks given to theologians who
write and reflect on disability s to always look at what does it mean to be a human being?
The right place to begin. Disability is way of naming things. This starts from the Book of
Genesis where Adam is given the responsibility to name things. The act of naming brings
into existence something new. This brings to the point about diagnosis. Once you get a
diagnosis you get a name eg. schizophrenic, manic depressive etc. This raises the
question who is diagnosis for? Specialists make judgements on the stories given to them
by the patient. The diagnosis is only meant for that group of people. Diagnosis is not
meant for others who are not mental health specialists.
What is disability? Disability is the diversity of humanness and the holiness of our
bodies. We are reminded in scripture that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. What
does it mean to be a human being living inside a human body? The soulfulness of the
body -we are embodied human beings held together by the breath of God. All human
encounters are holy encounters. All people are holy people inspired by God. That means
our bodies are holy. Attending to God’s creatures is in fact a mode of attending to God.
John Hull’s theology of blindness. He was blind himself in his 50’s. In adjusting to the
blindness he had to adjust to the way he saw himself. He realized he had to see himself
not in terms of what he had lost but rather in who he was. His body encountered the
world in a different way through his blindness. Initially he felt trapped inside his body.
The way he perceived colour became different as he now had to rely on people describing
them to him. Hands became a way of sensing the world. A sighted perspective is just a
perspective. It is just one way of sensing the world. The implications are what would it
look like if someone with a disability or dementia gave their view of the world and we all
took it seriously? None of us encounter the world in the same way.
The body
God chose disabled bodies to carry out the keys tasks of the kingdom. In Corinthians
12:7-10 Paul speaks about a “thorn in the flesh.” What is Paul’s disability here? Paul’s
theology is all about how God’s grace can heal in the face of all of this. Paul is saying
that it was through his brokenness that enabled him to do what he needed to do. A
disabled body is the source of our salvation. Resurrection came about through Christ’s
broken body on the cross. Write at the heart of our tradition in telling the story of Jesus’
broken body being redeemed is that all wounds are healed.
Most of our lives are ruled by time. There is something weird about time and the way we
use time. St Augustine spoke of a timeless God. When God created the world he created
time. The task is to bring time to its proper purpose. One of the things when working with
people with dementia is that one needs to slow down. Things that may seem insignificant
like small gestures and brief glances can be so important. We all need to recognize that
each moment is given to us and we need to value each second and each breath.
There is a picture of Pope Francis kissing the feet of a young man dying with AIDS. In
this gesture Francis offers to become a guest in the house of this young man. The
movement from guest to host was a reality in the life of Jesus. He both gave and received
hospitality. What would it be like to be a guest in the home of someone with dementia,
cystic fibrosis or profound disability? We need to be guests in one another’s homes to
understand people in a body vastly different from ours. We tend to think our spirituality
is personal but it is always something we do together. Through this we become more than
if we remained by ourselves.
We talk a lot about inclusion. It is enshrined in law. Under the Disability Act it is a legal
requirement that disabled people are entitled to be in the room. However there is no law
about caring once they are there. To be included you have to be there but to belong you
have to be missed. We need to form communities where people belong.
The task of the Church is not world transformation. That is God’s task. The task of the
Church is to be faithful to the tasks that God gives her;
-naming things properly
-giving hospitality
-accepting different bodies
-creating communities where people can be both guests and hosts.
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