Three factors play a part in how we exclude or include and welcome disabled people: language, understanding who disabled people are and theological perspective on disability.
I addressed the first two factors yesterday and will focus on the third factor here.
- Theological perspectives on disability
Once again, three broad theological perspectives can be discerned regarding disability and relationships between disabled and nondisabled people.
In reality many theological approaches exist; some overlap one another, and others are significantly different.
The first perspective, which might be termed historical and/or traditional, is closely related to the idea that disability is located in and arises from an individual’s embodiment.
This can take two contrasting forms: disability is either linked to sin and impurity, and the answer is seen to be in seeking forgiveness and healing. Or disability is understood in terms of virtuous suffering, character development or as a means of nondisabled people learning about care and concern for others.
These identify disabled people as other, either as sinner or saints, both of which restrict the possibility of developing relationships that foster inclusion within church communities.
My personal experience of this is of a church that encouraged me to seek physical healing in order to be able to fulfill my role within the church community or remain a passive member of the congregation.
The second theological perspective is closely linked to the understanding that disability is rooted in the attitudes and actions of society.
Since the publication of Nancy Eiesland’s book “The Disabled God,” in the mid-1990s, a number of related approaches have been developed that focus on how disabled people should be welcomed and included in church community life.
Eiesland’s image of the disabled God recognizes that the risen Jesus Christ still bears the marks of the crucifixion, that these are signs that God identifies with disabled people through not having a perfect body, and that Jesus overcame death and the effects of sin through weakness and suffering and not through power and authority.
Jennie Block’s “Copious Hosting” focuses on hospitality and how we are co-hosts with God, while Beth Creamer’s “Disability and Christian Theology” recognizes all human beings have limits (she stresses these are not limitations) because we are created rather than being divine, and explores why some of these limits result in some being excluded while other limits make no difference.
These, and other related approaches, have contributed toward the greater inclusion of disabled people in church communities.
Three issues about these approaches are concerning: they risk making God in our image seen through the perspective of disability; they tend to lead to general relationships between disabled and nondisabled people that are not transformative, despite the Liberation Theology approach used by some writers; they also fail to address the exclusion of people with learning disabilities because they rely on the ability of disabled people to be active in seeking inclusion.
This brings us to a third approach to disability, which has its roots in the work of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities.
I want to focus on one critical and central idea, that of friendship with God and with one another.
Since the foundation of L’Arche in the early 1960s, the development of friendships has been significant in the practice and theological reflection concerning the inclusion of people with learning disabilities.
However, it does not seem to have been explicitly applied to people with physical disabilities.
Rather than the often-vague relationships between disabled people and nondisabled people, I want to suggest that friendship has the potential to enable greater participatory inclusion of disabled people within Baptist church communities.
Rather than theorizing about how this might work, I close by painting a picture of how I and many other people would like to be welcomed and included in church communities.
How would I like to be welcomed? I would like to be welcomed as a friend, or at the very least to be welcomed as a potential friend.
This means I would like to be greeted and asked my name, perhaps followed by whether I am visiting or have moved to the area.
I would like to be asked where I would like to sit. If there are chairs, there is considerable flexibility. If there are pews, this might be limited.
If adaptions have been done properly, they will be where I would choose to sit, or I may still choose to sit somewhere else. I know if I’m causing an obstruction, and I also know if I can see the preacher, the audiovisual screen and so on.
Other than these practical implications regarding my wheelchair, I want to be treated as any other visitor or new person.
We are all friends of God through the relationship offered to us through the cross and are all united by our resulting friendship with others in covenant relationships within and beyond our local congregations.
In all but the most physically inaccessible church buildings, a welcoming and friendly attitude will enable me to be included, while even in the most physically accessible church building, I may be excluded by the attitude of others.
I’ve often summed this up in the phrase: “When I am among strangers, I am most disabled. When I am among friends, I am least disabled.”
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Martin Hobgen is a Baptist minister who is currently engaged in doctoral research at Northern Baptist College investigating how friendships between disabled and non-disabled people can facilitate the participatory inclusion of disabled people in Baptist church communities. He is a wheelchair user. Martin is married to Ruth, an accountant and church treasurer, does not have children, and is passionate about the church being an inclusive community.