Author’s Disclaimer: Throughout this article, I have opted to use person-first and disability-first language interchangeably when referring to people with disabilities. Disabled people have thoughtful and varied reasons for preferring one form of language over the other. It is always good practice to ask individuals what language they prefer when talking about disability.
It is difficult to be both disabled and Christian in America.
As people of good faith who occupy positions in any marginalized group are aware, the guiding principles of Americanized Christianity leave little room for lived realities that depart from the tyrannical narrative of life as a string of successes achieved through self-sufficient effort and an attitude of relentless positivity.
In other words, if your life does not conform to the formula of prosperity promised by our American gospel, it makes people uncomfortable.
Disability, like any other fact of life that reveals human limitation, is one uncomfortable reality confronting the dominant narrative of the American church.
Though disabled people form the largest minority group in the world, disability is a unique category of identity because anyone could become disabled at any time, whether permanently or temporarily, by genetics, illness, accidents or the inevitable process of aging.
This knowledge can be distressing to able-bodied people and prompt avoidance or discomfort in the presence of people with disabilities, whose very bodies bear witness to the contingency that is the essential aspect of our human condition.
Compounding cultural and Christian discomfort with disability is that which the late disabled theologian Nancy Eiesland referred to as “disabling theology.” In her groundbreaking book The Disabled God, Eiesland identifies three theological tendencies surrounding disability that contribute to harmful thought and practice.
First, she corrects attitudes that conflate disability with sinfulness, such as those of Jesus’ disciples when they encountered a man who was blind (as relayed in John 9).
Next, she condemns theological thought that imagines disability as a distortion of the image of God in humankind.
Lastly, she exhorts an able-bodied audience to think of disabled people as whole and capable persons, rather than reducing them to grateful recipients of Christian charity. For an example of this reductionism, look no further than Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Tiny Tim.
To expand Eiesland’s list, I would argue that theologies which frame disability as requiring a fix, cure or any other elimination of disability are equally harmful to disabled people.
These responses to disability stand opposed to basic doctrines of the Christian faith, which stress love of neighbor alongside dependence on God and one another. In a world that considers disability to be an example of weakness, scripture informs us that God has chosen the “weak” to shame the strong.
In America, it is “Christian” thought that has undergirded much of the oppression practiced toward disabled people. Yet, for Christians with disabilities, it is our faith that promises to liberate us from the reality of oppression.
To help us conceive of disability afresh, Eiesland suggests an alternative Christology, or a new means of thinking about the second member of the Trinity, the person of Jesus Christ.
She asks us to conceive of the risen Christ as disabled by the nail wounds in his hands and the spear wound in his side, both of which remained after the resurrection: scarred over, but undeniably present.
In this healed, post-resurrection state, Christ’s injuries would likely limit mobility and/or cause chronic numbness and pain; in other words, the wounds of Christ would cause disability.
What would it mean to affirm a theology of Christ as the disabled God? To begin, it would move us away from an understanding of human wholeness despite disability, and instead ground and deepen our understanding of wholeness in disability.
Eiesland writes that “the disabled God embodies the ability to see clearly the complexity and ‘mixed blessing’ of life and bodies, without living in despair. This revelation is of a God for us who celebrates joy and experiences pain not separately in time or space, but simultaneously.”
By affirming the theology of the disabled God, she hopes that Christian communities might experience “constitutive change whereby people with disabilities can affirm our bodies in dignity and reconceive the church as community of justice for people with disabilities.”
The God who makes this all possible is not resurrected victorious over a “broken” body, nor may he be fully understood as a suffering servant. Instead, this God rises from the grave and invites us, like the disciple Thomas, to see and touch his wounds that are mysteriously both present and healed.
This Disability Pride Month, I encourage disabled and able-bodied people of good faith alike to take Christ up on his invitation.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series this week for Disability Pride Month (July), the month in which the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 went into effect.
A senior at Baylor University pursuing a University Scholars BA with focuses in Professional Writing and Rhetoric, Art History, Philosophy and Religion. She is proud to call herself disabled. Carroll was an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern at Good Faith Media during summer 2022.