Disability and the church, chapter 2

Review part 2, part 1 see here

In the second chapter of The Bible, Disability and Church, Amos focuses his attention on the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” (his label, highlighting the importance of language and recognising that the Christian OT is the Jewish Bible). He begins with the topic that I have touched on before (see here), Leviticus 21:17 to 23. Amos is far gentler than I have been, seeking to explain the exclusion as being connected only to specific functions of the Levitical priesthood, outside of which “blemished” people had full access to the temple and its activities. Indeed, he makes the important observation that a focus on the exclusion of this passage should not override the emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible of God’s electing the poor and marginalised (i.e. Israel) and entering into a gracious and empowering covenant with them.

I would note, in response, that we should not try to dodge discrimination when we see it; that it is vital we unmask prejudice, especially when it is found in sacred texts. This is necessary because the scriptures, more than any other piece of literature, frame the attitudes and values of whole societies. To give Amos his due, he does not dodge the issue but rather than focus on the original intent of the biblical authors, he points his criticism at the various ways in which this passage (and others like it) have been interpreted. In doing this he moves beyond Leviticus 21 to address the Deuteronomic curses, which link sickness (and disability – which go together in these texts) to the punishing hand of God. As he notes:

This leads us to the heart of the problem for any traditional theology of disability: that disabling conditions and ailments seem linked with purposive divine action – curses, no less! – intended to deal with and respond to the disobedience of God’s people (Kindle Locations 343-344).

And again:

when the Pentateuchal scheme of things is read from the normate perspective, an understanding of God as the one who is without blemish, and an associated understanding of all blemishes and diseases, as well is the people who have them, as being an holy, imperfect, and ultimately symbolic of human disobedience against God’s law.”

Having set up the problem, Amos goes on to explore various ways in which the logic of the Pentateuch might be “redeemed.” He focuses attention on Leviticus 21, taking on various readings: spiritualised (which ignore the historical reality and speak of spiritual sickness et cetera) and Christological (which focus on Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant – who identifies with the disabled and redeems them). It is in these discussions that Amos is at his best, since he does not flinch at identifying the inadequacies of each of these readings, which inevitably render disability as constituting a person’s inferiority.

Rather than force resolution, Amos sets these difficulties in the context of the broader narrative of the Hebrew Bible, identifying alternate and liberative stories of disability: Jacob with his limp, King David and the crippled Mephibosheth, the story of Job, with its refusal to accept suffering as curse; the Psalms of lament. What becomes apparent is that, however one reads the covenantal connection between Israel’s sin and suffering, the God of Israel is, above all, the God who embraces the sufferer (and the suffering nation of Israel), who elevates their plight, who refuses to accept their oppression and who provides hope for all those experiencing hardship – whatever its nature and cause.

And in attempting to rush this summary I have obfuscated Amos’ clear and lucid argument. So if my work has left you confused, best to go straight to the source – Kindle version click here, Amos Yong, the Bible Disability and the Church.

Book review: The Bible disability and the church, Amos Yong

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Disability and The Death Penalty

For those of you familiar with some of my recent teaching and writing, I am something of a dilettante in the virtue ethics of Aristotle. He has much to say that is of interest and use today and I have used his work in a recent article to explore the concept of happiness as it relates to my experience of spinal-cord injury. My enthusiasm, however, only goes so far, especially given that the prejudice that is so much a part of the outlook of his day impacts his thinking at key points. He argues, for example, that women and slaves are unable to be happy, in the fullest sense of the term, because they lack the freedom to make their own decisions, which restricts their exercise of virtue; “For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority” (Politics 1060a). More than just the cultural blindness of this position, what is noteworthy is that this restriction on the possibility of complete happiness extends to people who are chronically ill, mentally deficient and even ‘ugly’.

For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, [1099b] as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. (Nicomachean ethics 1099b).

For Aristotle this conclusion was obvious. Ill-health, mental deficiency and ugliness – characteristic ways of describing disability – are not only undesirable for their own sake (how could anyone consider the disabled life to be a good life), but they necessarily restrict the full exercise of intellectual and moral virtue, at least as he understands these concepts.

Now, before we ‘stand up’ in righteous indignation it is worth noting that this perspective is all too common. It finds its way, for example, into the scriptures, in texts such as
Leviticus 21:16 – 23 (“no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed … is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD” – see my earlier blog here). I hope to discuss a biblical theology of disability at a later point (if the gaps in my blogging improve, I intend to take us through some of the writing of Amos Yong in The Bible Disability in Church) but before any of us in the 21st century get too self-righteous, it is worth noting that such perspectives are too common today.

There is the simple inability that most people have to look a disabled person in the eye, to talk to them naturally and treat them as we would any other person. Behind these actions may well lie pity and compassion, but this can be similar to the perspective of Aristotle, since it arises because we presume that the disabled are unlucky and necessarily unhappy – and very few of us are capable of looking directly at suffering. Of course these attitudes are understandable. I have been there myself and I’m sure compassion is often warranted; but it should not be assumed, since assumption is the ground of prejudice. Much more importantly, however, is the fact that prejudice against disability stands behind some of our arguments for both abortion and euthanasia. It is now the almost universal practice to screen the fetus for any signs of disability. If such is found (or even suspected) abortion is presented as a possible course of action, leaving parents in the invidious position of having to decide whether or not to terminate their pregnancy. At the other end of life, it is generally believed that people with severe acquired disability would want to commit suicide and, if they are unable to do so because of the limits of their function, should be helped to die by an indemnified doctor.

I should note, at this point, that I am not making an argument in this post for or against the legalisation of abortion or euthanasia. These are far more complex issues than many on the right or the left allow and morality is generally best kept out of the hands of politicians and law courts. I am speaking simply about prejudice. So to end where I started. Aristotle may be a misogynist racist but at least he wasn’t suggesting termination as a solution to the problem of disability.