“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Friday, March 04, 2011

Theology awakened by disability

There are those who worry about developing theology through various lenses of disability, or gender or ethnicity. I agree with their concerns. Theology should stand on its own as after all it is about understanding who God is. However, if my understanding of who God is results in me NOT loving all of his human creation then I don't understand who God is. I would worry that any conclusions that grow out of that flawed starting point are suspect. They are particularly suspect when I see the way the Christian world interacts with people it may deliberately choose not to love. We may not need a "disability theology" but we definitely do need a theology awakened by disability.
A student in a class at CBU wrote me the following recently.
When I interviewed this pastor about the efforts he has engaged in to bring persons with disabilities and their families into their fellowship, his response seemed incorrect, so to speak. He stated that he has been called to make disciples of the people, not to have a special ministry for individuals with disabilities. He indicated that nowhere in the Bible does it state Christians are to do so. I reminded him of all the times Jesus modeled the correct way to respond to the disabled, by reaching out to them and going against the status quo. He stated that why didn't Jesus reach out to all the disabled then. He did admit that everyone is equal, in that we all need Jesus. However, he said that marketing for the disabled to come to church is not correct.
I truly do understand that I am out of my depth in talking theology and I understand concerns about interpreting theology through various lenses. My point is that if I can develop a Christian, theological perspective that does not include love, that supposed understanding of God is flawed. How do I know that theology is flawed? At least in part through the experience of persons with disabilities with the Christian church. I would say I am looking for evidence of theology being acted out in the lives of people. In Matthew 15, Jesus speaks of the religious leaders of His time saying, "These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." I don't know how I can get more basic in understanding God then to say "God is love." If I don't even have that as a starting point for theology there is little left to worry about, right or wrong.

Those who gain entre into Christian colleges and seminaries with programs that engage disability, bring a corrective I would argue, to the theological positions they have often been built upon. I have often said that I believe this work is one of the most important things we could be doing in the world! What is it that we are changing in them? It may be as simple as teaching them about love. We are pointing to foundational theological positions, however, what is it that this awareness is stemming from? Is it not the experience of persons with disabilities? If churches and theologians and Christian colleges were responding in love to people with disabilities we would not need this corrective? That bringing disability to the Christian world is such a incredibly mission critical exercise, to me, points to our theological problems as the Christian church. Our awareness of those problems, in part, grows out of our understanding of the experience of those with disabilities.



Blaine Clyde said...

As I read your blog today the first thing that came to my mind was
1 John 4:19-21 –

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

While hate might seem like a strong word, I believe that people’s attitudes and actions towards people with disabilities often times looks like and sounds like hatred. We cannot say we love God, but then be selective about the people we are around (or who invite to our churches). God commands us to love our brothers and sisters. This includes people with disabilities. Our horizontal connection with people is directly connected to our vertical relationship with God. John says in the book of 1 John that there is no way you can separate those two things. When it comes to understanding the theology of love it is my friends with disabilities that have given me a deeper understanding of what it means to love. My understanding of God’s love is richer because of my friendship with many diverse groups of people, including my friends with disabilities.

Anonymous said...

People are still not fully aware and many of them chose not to be aware that people with disabilities are people. They have the same needs as those who do not have disabilties. I got to say it is sad when a church or a church leaders shows such lack of awareness, lack of caring. Church is the place where you expect to belong and be wanted. It is the last place anyone should not be wanted. People have to open their eyes and see that we all need God therefore the church should be open to all no ifs, ands , or buts.

Sarah Slayman said...

It amazes me that a pastor would consider a including people with disabilities as a separate ministry. Why does it have to be them and us. I will say until a professor introduced me to special education, I had no previous experience with people with disabilities. It takes continual education and it has to come from the leaders. Leaders of churches, leaders of schools, community leaders and it needs to be purposeful. Vanier talks about humanness and what it means to be fully human, and that is to love and have a mutual dependency on each other. And it begins with experiencing Christ's love and sharing it with people with disabilities.

Anonymous said...

Postmodernist thought says that the only thing that is real is what we experience. I wonder if this pastor realizes how he has been influenced by this idea. Historically there have been very limited numbers of people with disabilities in the church so his reality has become that the church is not a place for the disabled. How sad that he has chosen to believe that lie of experience when the truth of Christ's compassion for our suffering is clearly demonstrated in the pages of God's Word.

Anonymous said...

One thing that comes to mind is, "how would you like it if the shoe were on the other foot?" No one wants to be excluded. Right? The way to get past all these negative stigmas is to become educated and involved. I pray for those who do not know any better.

Neil said...

I thinks it's Hans Reinders that says that he not attempting to write a theology of disability, but an anthropological theology that fully includes those with disabilities in the life, community and faith. Where in much of theology inquiry, disability is either missing - or simply dismissed

George said...

The present generation of pastors get so caught up in developing ministries. The minute a new social issue or cause comes to the attention of the pastor and his staff, it is almost an automatic response to create a new ministry for it. That is why we have youth ministry, young adult ministry, singles ministry, prison ministry, homeless ministry, and so on and so forth. The thought is that if we group all people in similar situations together then they will be able to relate and learn together. After the ministry is formed, it takes the will of the leaders of that ministry to suggest to its members that they should also be attending the larger worship service. Rarely is it the pastor who encourages them to attend the service as a whole. People eventually become complacent in these ministries and will only go to them on Sundays for their spiritual development.
This is in no way the Biblical way to do worship on Sundays. We are not called to go our separate ways and learn and grow as a separated body of Christ. No, we are called to all come together as one body and edify one another. This is why I believe churches need to be doing things the exact opposite way. Our first response to a social cause is to invite everyone to the main worship service so they can experience the love and teachings of Christ as a complete body. After that is made our priority, then we can develop a separate ministry to further the growth of those members with more focused teaching. I understand that most churches are not welcome to the idea of getting everyone together in the main service because it is a distraction or it is different than what they are used to. So in those instances, it may be the best choice to develop the ministry first just so you can open the door to acceptance. However, I think churches really need to rethink how they do ministries these days.

Anonymous said...

I think this pastors remarks are a prime example of how the church is lagging behind secular institutions in our society with regards to inclusion, tolerance and outreach. The premise of exclusivity behind a statement like “marketing for the disabled to come to church is not correct” is alienating to many, even if the statement is made in a benevolent manner. If the pastor has truly been ‘called to make disciples of the people’, this should include everyone and outreach is the necessity of said calling. You can’t cherry-pick the harvest looking for the disciples most complimentary to your fellowship and you can’t be sedentary and wait for the people to find you. The church has a responsibility to actively seek out the traditionally disenfranchised. We look back in revulsion at the idea of pre-Civil Rights era segregation in our communities and yet we tolerate similar marginalization of our disabled brothers and sisters within our congregations. This form of selective exclusion through inaction isn’t just being relegated to the disabled, it’s also very prominent and emphatic with keeping the homosexual and transgender community alienated from the church. If the church as an institution continues to compartmentalize and isolate members of the community it will become an obsolete means of communicating the message of love found in the Bilble. There is no need to develop a new theology through any specific lens, the theology of God’s love is immense and all-encompassing. God’s love applies to everyone and we must challenge those that believe and teach us otherwise. To see ‘love in action‘ as theology we can look to the work of Mother Theresa in Calcutta and Shane Claiborne’s ministry in Philadelphia.