Can the Church View Disabled Bodies as Jesus' Body? | Sojourners

Can the Church View Disabled Bodies as Jesus' Body?

I am 12. “You’re such an inspiration,” a classmate tells me. “I would kill myself if I had what you have.” Cut.

I am 14. Someone at my church tells me if I just had enough faith, I could get out of my wheelchair. Cut.

I am 16. I ask my teacher if I can be assigned a desk by the door so my wheelchair can maneuver easily. He tells me it would be better for me if I switched to a remedial class because students with disabilities can’t keep up in advanced courses. Cut.

I am 20. On this particular day I can walk unassisted but I’m still in a lot of pain and have to count my steps, so I don’t ignite another flare up. A stranger cusses me out, saying I’m not really disabled. I’m just faking it for pity. Cut.

I am 23. We sing a song at church where everyone is enthusiastic that there will be no “lame in heaven” because we’ll finally be “healed and whole.” Won’t I be in heaven? Cut.

I am 27. The apartment complex that I’m living in doesn’t have disability parking. When I point out to the property managers that this is actually illegal, they tell me: “But you’re the only one who’s disabled. You don’t want us to take away a spot from everyone else, do you?” Cut.

I am 30. “You should be so grateful for your husband,” a friend tells me. “Not everyone would put up with your disability.” Cut.

I am 32. Someone uses “lame” as a slur. “Hey, not cool. I am lame,” I muster. They reply: “Oh, I wasn’t talking about you. I don’t even think of you as disabled.” Cut.

These minor cuts, imperceptible to the person who wields the scalpel, add up. Eventually, I am hemorrhaging. Ableism, insidious and inescapable, punctures every facet of my life. It’s not simply the condescending remarks or the truncated expectations, it’s the pervasive idea that people with disabilities are a subcategory of human; that my life is somehow a tragic burden, incomplete and incapable of creating meaning beyond serving as inspiration porn to others. There is room for me to inspire people with my glowing attitude or winsome patience during suffering, but that’s about it. Roles outside of “virtuous disabled girl” don’t exist for people with disabilities. I have almost every form of privilege someone can have, and I am still not considered fully human by ableist standards.

Some of the worst ableism I’ve experienced has been inside the church. I can almost understand it from the world — they have been taught to value product over personhood, profit over people, and see cash as king. People with disabilities do not produce anything the capitalist market can deem valuable so we are cast aside as drains on the system. It’s eugenicist, but that’s capitalism.

The church is supposed to be the hope of the world, ushering in new creation where all people have dignity and value simply because they are image-bearers of the Alpha and the Omega. But the church peddles ableist ideas in devious ways: It proclaims to be pro-life but mirrors the world’s messaging that productivity and health are drivers of worth. It weaponizes prayer as a foot-soldier in its ableist theology, reducing God to a slimy vending machine churning out miracles upon request. It limits our imaginations for how abundant life should look, confining prosperity and happiness to a singular mode of living. It creates ministries to people with disabilities, as though we are a group of second-class citizens who must be segregated from the general population; never once pondering that people with disabilities might have something to teach them about living an embodied faith, never considering that we are not objects of pity and charity, but capable subjects with our own giftings. It blames eschatology for dehumanizing worship songs that claim to praise the living God while mocking the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. It avoids the discomfort of lived experience by constantly promising a completeness yet to come. “You’ll be whole one day,” or “you’ll be running in heaven,” it says, as though I am not already redeemed and sanctified with the mind of Christ. As if the holy spirit doesn’t already dwell in my disabled body.

The worst of it is the pity. The way that people’s heads tilt and their tone of voice alters to reveal their embarrassment over my body, as though they don’t know where to fix their eyes when I am using my wheelchair or cane.

Pity always reinforces a power structure between humans. It is far more condescending than its cousin, compassion. Compassion seeks to meet people in their suffering and take it on with them. Pity feels sorry for someone with little care for how to thwart their future suffering. Pity is a duplicitous form of ableism because it dehumanizes the person with disabilities as an object of suffering while masquerading as a kind voice of support. I have been told by many in the church that they feel bad for me when I use my wheelchair or cane, which generates an awkward response —  what is the adequate response to someone stripping you of your humanity while smiling to your face? Pity is a mechanism for centering the experience of the oppressor, who publicly cries tears of anguish over your injustice but does little else to prevent it from occurring again. I don’t need people’s pity or crocodile tears. I need the church to dismantle its ableist practices and see me as fully human.

Imagine if the church stopped wearing the lenses of ableism. It could learn how to dismantle the idols of health, productivity, routine, and independence from people with disabilities, who already live in a world with a new form of corporeal dependence.

The church has forgotten that we worship a disabled God, whose wounds survived resurrection. Jesus retains his disabling scars after resurrection as a mark of his victory over death. Why can’t the church view disabled bodies with the same wholeness and strength?

It is time for the church to start treating people with disabilities as full members of the body of Christ who have much more to offer than a miraculous cure narrative. 

Until we cultivate church spaces where people with disabilities can fully belong, flourish, and lead, we are not valuing the diverse members of the body of Christ.

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