The Common Good
July 2005

Be Opened

by Robyn K. Dean | July 2005

Deaf Christians find liberation in Jesus' declaration.

Mark 7:

Mark 7:31-37 has long been known as the passage where Jesus heals a deaf man. "Be healed!" has also been the church’s message in its view and treatment of the Deaf community.

How do Deaf people - whose socio-linguistic identity is Deaf (the capital letter is intentional) and who are proud of their language and their culture and do not wish to be hearing - find value in this passage?

The word chosen by the writer of Mark’s gospel does not mean "to heal." Rather than directing the deaf man to "be healed," the Markan Jesus commands "ephphatha" - "be opened." Has the church sufficiently understood the use of this verb in affirming and clarifying its theological directive in regard to the Deaf community?

According to the Claggett Statement - the landmark 1985 document concerning theological issues of the Deaf community and the implications for Christian churches - the answer is clearly no. Written by liberation theologians, Deaf-culture advocates, linguists, pastors, and activists - Deaf and hearing - the Claggett Statement formed a theological basis for the emergent Deaf rights movement. It holds the church accountable for its history of oppression toward Deaf people, charging that the church views Deaf people as handicapped and therefore "intellectually and morally inferior." It asserts that the church actively joined the clamor of the educational and medical establishments of the time, telling Deaf people to "stop being ‘deaf’ and try to be ‘hearing.’" The Claggett Statement (published 20 years ago in Sojourners) embodies the collective pain that the Deaf community experienced at the hands of these establishments, with the most painful belonging to the actions, and inactions, of the church.

HOW SHOULD THE church today embody Jesus’ declaration to "be opened"? The Claggett Statement gives some guidance. Counter to first-century interpretation that viewed healing as hearing, "We do not view deafness as a sickness or handicap. We view it as a gift from God, which has led to the creation of a unique language and culture, worthy of respect and affirmation." This means that the gospel must no longer be communicated to Deaf people - a socio-linguistic minority - through the eyes, ears, mouths, and language of the hearing majority. Instead, it must be communicated through the context of being "Deaf," a unique socio-linguistic experience. This communication can develop indigenous forms of worship to adequately convey "the praise and prayers of the Deaf Christian community."

Is the church any closer now to the vision set forth in the Claggett Statement 20 years ago? Those who work toward liberation might easily feel discouraged by the small amount of progress made. However, several of the Claggett Statement’s original authors gathered in May to celebrate God’s unfailing commitment to liberation. They noted that the vision of the Claggett Statement has brought forth practical results: The initial gathering gave life to Christians for the Liberation of the Deaf Community, a group that has worked on community organizing and education, the creation of videotapes of the gospels translated into American Sign Language (ASL), and much more. Also, the number of Deaf clergy, Deaf seminarians, Deaf lay church leaders, and new degree programs for church work within the Deaf community have increased. This leadership of Deaf people for Deaf people is creating a powerful concept: ministries by the Deaf, not merely for the Deaf.

Of course, more work is necessary both within the church (such as education on the unique gifts of Deaf people) and within the indigenous Deaf worship community (such as standardized ASL liturgies and the development of Deaf theology and spirituality). The Claggett vision and call to action more aptly parallels the deliberate word choice used by Jesus in Mark’s gospel as a theological directive for the liberation of the Deaf community: Be opened.

Robyn K. Dean was a nationally certified sign language interpreter working on faculty at the University of Rochester School of Medicine when this article appeared.

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