One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Amos Yong’s, the Bible Disability and the Church. The book is a biblical theology of disability, although I would not want its readership to be limited to people with a disability. It is really a form of liberation theology, using the lens of disability to explore the ways in which the scriptures confront and overturn attitudes and cultural prejudices that marginalise, stigmatise and belittle people who don’t fit within the supposed norms of society.
The impetus for the book is Amos’ love for his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, although the book is concerned with the broader concept of disability. In his earlier Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Amos recounted his brother’s story in detail and developed a more systematic and scholarly analysis of disability. Where the previous book is scholarly (one Amazon reviewer who loved the book nevertheless noted “I have to admit I didn’t always necessarily understand everything being said as the language is much more geared toward theologians”) The Bible and Disability is written for a lay audience. It would, for example, stimulate rich conversation in a small group or around a family dinner table. For those of you in Australia, the soft copy is available from Koorong for $15 (see here). I read the Kindle version, which will only set you back $10 (see here).
** I should admit that this point that Amos is a friend of mine, although he has not bribed me for a positive review **
over the next little while (and sorry, I’m notoriously slow) I might make a few comments on each of the chapters. In terms of the first chapter I have the following observations/comments (and if you decide to download a (legal) copy why not add yours):
- the first question that arises concerns the definition of “disabled”. Amos touches on this issue only briefly but I feel the matter is vital. The lines between ability and disability are grey indeed. In the case of down syndrome or spinal-cord injury (SCI) the situation is normally clear-cut, although a person might have a disabling SCI and look relatively “normal”. Likewise, how do you draw a distinction between a person with an intellectual disability and someone of below average intelligence? (An issue that is especially troubling in a court of law) How do we distinguish between illness and disability, especially if the former is permanent? How severe must a physical or intellectual limitations be to be classified as a disability? And how do we distinguish between the degradation of old age and disability? All of this leads me to conclude that the question of disability is in fact not just about people living on the margins but is pertinent to us all. There is every chance that at some point and in some way we shall all be disabled, and this fact makes Amos’ work all the more important.
- What language do we use to speak about disability? Amos notes the difference between the nomenclature “disabled person” and “person with a disability”. The former highlights the disability whereas the latter highlights the person. What labels are appropriate and what are derogatory? In hospital, my friend and I would call each other spastic, and especially enjoyed what we called “spaz pong” (ping-pong for those of us whose arms spasm and pretty much miss every shot). Was this derogatory to others or ourselves? Is it appropriate between friends but inappropriate now that I’ve put it on the page? Does it matter who uses the label and how they use it? These might seem like insignificant issues, but they get to the heart of the problem that Amos is trying to address. The language we use matters, because it reflects the attitudes we have about disability.
- Amos addresses a fascinating issue about whether we should judge disability as something needing to be fixed. Let me quote him in full:
Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives – they don’t need to be healed. More complicated are the congenitally disabled. Still, people who were born without certain appendages or who have grown up without certain sensory capacities live quite well-adjusted and normal lives with what they have. Should we try to “fix” those who are different among us so that they can be just like us? Most problematic are those whose disabilities are a constitutive part of their identities. My brother Mark is a case in point. How can we fix or erase his chromosomal condition without eliminating him altogether?”
Which brings us to the primary point that Amos is trying to make, and again it is best if I quote him in full:
Historically, and even across wide swaths of contemporary life, ableism presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule. And just as with racism and sexism, the excluded minority population internalizes the views of the dominant culture so that people with disabilities also come to understand themselves and act in ways that confirm the expected stereotypes. This book opposes the exclusions legitimated by our ableist worldview, and seeks to challenge normate assumptions with perspectives derived from the experience of disability.”
What Amos is saying is that disability is not primarily medical but social. The tendency for us is to think, “how can we fix this person? ” A much better question is, “how can I respect this person?” The truth is, that as a person with an SCI I generally do not feel excluded or mistreated. In fact, my friends and family, and the broader society, normally treat me as they would any other person. But I am fortunate in this regard, because the experience of most people that act a little different and look a little different is that they are treated differently. The extent to which the Bible is used as a document of exclusion or inclusion is the focus of Amos’ work.
all that in chapter 1 – and in some future post I will comment on his analysis of the scriptural contribution.