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’).