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Inclusive Church: Disability

Last month I was able to attend the Inclusive Church one-day conference on disability, and I thought readers of this blog might like to hear about it.

Inclusive Church is an organisation that campaigns for social justice in the church, for LGBT people, women, minority ethnic groups, and other groups that are often marginalized in church communities. As they put it, they are “committed to working for a church that is welcoming and open to all.” This is the first time they have held a conference on disability and Christian churches, but they have now committed to holding regular conferences and setting up working groups to work on issues of disability and mental health in churches.

Titled ‘Opening the Roof’ – hey, who stole my title? ;) – the one-day conference was held at the wonderfully accessible St Martin in the Fields church in London. It aimed to “open the conversation” about churches, disability and inclusion. The fantastic speakers did just that. Rachel Wilson, a newly-ordained disabled curate at St Edmund King and Martyr church, talked about identity and personhood, affirming the right of disabled people to minster to others rather than just to be ministered *to* (which is something I’m writing about at the moment). She discussed disability as central to identity, and the importance of being called to be ourselves. Jane Young, a disability activist who works with the We Are Spartacus campaign group, talked persuasively about the oppressive social situation that disabled people find ourselves in today, thanks to government policy, and what the churches can and should be doing about it. I got to hear disability theologian John Hull (a hero of mine – I was a bit star-struck). whose talk was a conversation with us about the way that theology and the Bible represent disability. He talked about the negative use of metaphors of blindness, not just in the Bible, but also by the church – in hymns, sermons, and more. His re-writing of the first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’ was very striking, and I was left with a strong impression of his bold willingness to take offence at Jesus, who called his disciples “blind fools.”

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
- Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton. Have you ever really thought about those lyrics?

When it comes to disability and social justice, there’s a lot that the church can and should be doing at the moment – and, arguably, isn’t. I was left with two impressions at the end of the day – Jane’s fantastic talk about the disturbing scapegoating of disabled people in our society today, and the distressing stories I’d heard from other delegates about the lack of inclusion that they’ve faced in churches. This is personal opinion, of course, but I was left feeling that the church has two big, related tasks on its hands. It has to be a prophetic voice in these times of oppression of disabled people. But in order to do that, it needs to understand and address its own oppression of disabled people, historically and in the present, and learn about real inclusion. That’s what I heard and took from the conference. Were you there, and did you take something else from it? Comment and tell me what you think.

Thanks to everyone who organised this excellent conference, including Sarah Davies and Bob Callaghan. It was a great day. If anyone reading gets the chance to go to the disability conference in future years, I hope to meet you there.

The Relevance of the Bible (To Disabled People)

Image: A picture of a Bible. Photo by Camille Sauvager (CC).

Why research what the Bible says about disability? Isn’t it irrelevant to society by now? Aren’t there more important things to research? Why bother?

My research does not come from a specifically Christian perspective. I hope to be working with a partnership group of disabled Christians, and I expect (and hope) that their Christian ‘take’ on things will come through the research. But my views on Christianity, specifically the Bible, are sociological. I’m interested in the effects that religion has on society, and vice versa. And, perhaps most importantly to me, I’m interested in how the Bible has affected society – especially its effects on disabled people.

Disabled people have asked me why this interests me. The subtext to their question is an important one: in these days of ‘welfare reform’ and the appalling removal of rights from disabled people in this country, are there not more important things to research? In many ways, there are (and if I’d started my PhD after the election of the coalition government, I might have ended up researching something different). And yet, I continue to believe in the serious importance of the Bible to disabled people. The Bible and Christianity are absolutely central to the way that our society views disability. Christian and biblically-influenced views have shaped the models that we use to understand disability, especially the charity and tragedy models of disability, over centuries. There are lots of examples of research on this.Lois Bragg sees a much more positive view of disability in pre-Christian texts, such as Norse and Celtic pagan literature, than she does in later Christian society and the Bible. Scholars like Jeremy Schipper and Rebecca Raphael have explored the ways that disability is represented in specific biblical texts, especially in the Old Testament – for example, the rules that did not allow disabled priests to enter the central area of the Temple, which was the only place where a direct experience of God was possible, and how these rules changed and broadened across different books of the Bible. Cusack argues that there were two contradictory ways that disabled people were seen in medieval society, under the influence of different, competing biblical approaches to disability: as either blessed or demonized. From these approaches grew the charity and tragedy models of disability, which were strongly influenced by Christian perspectives not only towards charity in general, but specifically by biblical models of healing (something I’m very interested in – but that’s another blog post).

This major influence of the Bible on social responses to disability isn’t widely acknowledged, though. Disability studies texts mention the Bible in passing, especially referencing the Old Testament laws that I mentioned above, but focus in more detail on the effects of the paradoxical biblical representations for medieval and later societies. This is important, but I think it’s even more important to start with the representations of disability in the Bible itself, since these are complex and paradoxical – as you might expect, in a collection of writing that spans thousands of years.

Hector Avalos says there are three ways in which disability-focused biblical scholars respond to the Bible: redemptionism, rejectionism or historicism.* (I can’t link to his article as it isn’t available online, but if you’re interested in disability and you ever get the chance to read it, do – it’s fantastic.) Historicism simply involves historical analysis of the way disability is treated in ancient texts and what this reveals about how the ancient world thought about it. But the other two perspectives interest me more. If you’re redemptionist about the biblical texts that represent disability, you want to reclaim them, perhaps by showing that Jesus challenged the stigma and discrimination that faced disabled people in the ancient world (although it’s not clear whether or not he actually did). This is the kind of reclaiming that feminist biblical scholars have done with the less positive representations of women in the Bible. Rejectionists, on the other hand, tend to argue that nothing positive can be done with the representations of disability in the Bible, and that it is better to expose these texts and challenge the effect that they have had on society than to pretend that everything the Bible says about disability is good. My perspective, as you can probably tell by now, is somewhere between the two.

To illustrate my position on this, let me (re-)tell you a story from the Bible, and say something about how it is used. The Gospel of Luke shows Jesus telling this story while he is at the home of a Pharisee (religious leader). A man is preparing a great banquet and invites some rich, powerful guests. He sends his servant out to distribute the invitations. Each of the guests gives an excuse as to why they can’t come. The servants comes back to report this to his master, who becomes incredibly angry. He says to his servant, “Go out into the streets and find the lowest of the low in our society – poor people and disabled people**. Get them to come to the banquet.” The servant does this, but has to return to report that there is still room for more guests. “Then go out to very edges of town and into the country lanes, and make the beggars come in,” says the master. He adds that, if he has his way, none of the people who were invited to the party will ever get a taste of his food or drink.

This story is so widely used to illustrate the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom that I’ve lost count of the Christian disability organisations that quote it in this context. James Metzger argues that this parable is not about disability or the inclusiveness of God – and that if you try to read it this way, you tie yourself up in knots. The master has clearly not had any kind of change of heart towards the poor or oppressed in his society, nor is he any less obsessed with social status at the end than he is at the beginning. Metzger sees this story as reflecting a very ambivalent view towards disabled people on the part of Jesus, the storyteller. But, as disabled people know, we have been used as literary devices and metaphors in stories, rather than as real people, for as far back as we can remember. I think that this story is just using disability as one more literary device, to say something that probably isn’t about disability at all. The Bible isn’t representing disabled people any more negatively here than any other text does. It’s just that, when it does represent disability, it has more influence over society than other books. The representations of disabled people in the Bible will be remembered when representations in other books have been long forgotten. And that, for me, is why the Bible matters – to all disabled people. Of course, it matters a great deal to disabled Christians, and it’s their views that I’m particularly interested in, in this research project. But I think it has a great deal of relevance to the rest of society too, when it comes to disability.

Philip Davies has written, in his book ‘Whose Bible Is It Anyway?’, that the extensive role and influence of the Bible in society means that people outside of Christian (and Jewish) communities have the right to critique the Bible too. (He says a lot more than this, of course – it’s a very interesting book. I’m going to a lecture that he’s giving this evening, which is one of the things that sparked this blog post.) In Disability Studies, I think that we need to be looking a lot more closely at the Bible and its role in the ways that we are represented. Because, on the whole, the Bible has represented disability without the input of disabled people. As with most forms of literature, we tend to be reduced to narrative (and theological) devices by the Bible, but this doesn’t have to be a problem as long as it’s acknowledged and talked about. For that, we need the input of disabled people. Including, but not limited to, disabled Christians.

*Avalos, H. (2007) ‘Redemptionism, Rejectionism, and Historicism as Emerging Approaches in Disability Studies.’ Perspectives in Religious Studies 34: 91–100.

**I’m paraphrasing, because I dislike the language used about both groups (poor people and disabled people) in most translations of the Bible, where we are reduced to ‘the’ (as in, ‘the poor’, ‘the lame’, ‘the blind’).

Theory in Practice: Disability studies journal article about recent government and media representations of disability

Picture: protesters at today’s ‘Hardest Hit’ march, carrying a sign which is partly written in Braille. It reads “We’re being —- by the government.” Someone has written a translation of the Braille word below it: “shafted”. Photograph copyright Lisa Egan.

‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform – Disability & Society.

Yesterday’s discussion on the BBC’s You and Yours was about disability, cuts and welfare reform, and featured Where’s the Benefit‘s own Bendy Girl. Some contributors’ comments offered a clear example of how attitudes to disability haven’t really changed much since Victorian times – if not before. Some academic research recently published has been talking about how these attitudes might relate to the way that the government and the media are representing disability at the moment. Academic journal articles are expensive if you’re not at a university, but I think research around disability and society is vitally important, and this article’s conclusions are a late-but-appreciated part of academic debate – so here’s a bit of a summary of the article. Read more

The Price of Education

Image of the entrance to Leeds University. Photo by Martin Toole (cc).

Rise in university applications slows amid fears about degree costs |  The Guardian

This is an interesting one. A market research company has asked current students whether they would have gone to university if they’d had to pay £9000 fees. Around half of students surveyed say that they would not have done. Read more

Daily Blogging Challenge

Image of a writing hand. Photo by Rachel Davies (cc).

Inspired by people who’ve been doing the April A to Z blogging challenge, like fellow PhD student kirstyes, I’m thinking about blogging daily. Read more

Plain English: My Research

Image: a stack of books. Photo by Dayna Bateman (cc).

If you’re a postgrad student and you haven’t discovered #phdchat on twitter yet, it’s worth taking a look. A number of contributors to the discussion have been putting their research into plain English to make it more accessible for readers – here are some examples. It’s a brilliant idea, and especially relevant to my project. Read more

Theory in Practice: ‘Digital Researcher’ Conference, 2011

Image: woman presenting at the Digital Researcher conference. My photograph.

Inspired by Jennifer Jones‘ liveblogging, I’m putting down my thoughts on the Digital Researcher 2011 conference (twitter tag: #dr11) while experiencing it. Read more

Constructing Interpretations

Image of a Bible open at a page of the gospels. Photo (cc) Rachel Davies.

I did give the warning that ‘regular’ for me actually means ‘biannual’, didn’t I? Apologies for the long absence. We moved house, so life took over for quite a while. But! I am now enrolled on my PhD (although not ‘registered’ until I’ve submitted an extended proposal, which I’ll be doing after Christmas). Read more

Theology in Practice: A Tale of Three Masses – 1*

Image: a church with steps leading up. Photo (cc) Reinante el Pintor de Fuego.

Hoping to make a bit of a semi-regular series of theology/theory in practice, to complement more theoretical thoughts. Although to me, ‘regular’ tends to mean ‘more than once a year’. So we’ll see how it goes!

I’ve been to three churches recently, where I had very different access experiences. Read more

Emancipatory Disability Research (or: Why it matters that the ‘academy’ isn’t more accessible for disabled people)

Image: picture of a student’s desk. My photograph.

Last week a commenter on this blog asked the following question:

“Could you also explain, though, why does your research HAVE to be done by a disabled person…?” Read more

Piloting In

Image: aeroplane flying overhead. Photo (cc) Andy Mabbett.

I’m currently working on a pilot study into the experiences of disabled Christians. This will be an entirely qualitative study focused primarily on disabled people’s experiences, as a way in to research on the theologies or practices of specific churches. Read more

Why critique religion?

Image of a clock on the spire of a church. Photo (cc) Daniel Jackson.

We live in a secular age. Despite the odd throwback (bishops in the House of Lords and an established Church of England come to mind), religion has ceased to have much, if any significance in most areas of society. 1 At least, that’s what I read in the papers and hear from my many non-religious friends. It’s not my perspective — but it’s clearly that of many people in our largely secular society.

So why critique religion? Aren’t there social structures where disability discrimination affects more people, and shouldn’t we be critiquing those first? Read more

Welcome!

Being stuck between the end of an MA and the beginning of a PhD programme (I hope) is somewhat isolating. I have all sorts of things to say and no one to listen to me. Apart from my long-suffering partner, that is — who, while interested in all things social theory-related, does have a tendency to go away and have a real life. Inconveniently. Read more

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