Made by God, Broken by Life: Developing an African American Hermeneutic for Disability
African Americans constitute 12 percent of the population but 18 percent of Americans with disabilities. Clearly, disability justice activism is a necessary pursuit of African American activists. Still, one is hard pressed to locate religious or academic intentionality in studying and addressing disabilities in the African American community.
I believe it’s time to develop an African American hermeneutic for approaching disability language and metaphors of brokenness in religious discourse.
I posit that a disability hermeneutic is ensconced in the tenets of liberation theologies, which have the power to activate social accommodation for the marginalized.
In his essay “Impairment as a Condition in Biblical Scholarship,” Bruce Birch writes, “In truth, no person is without impairment in some form because none manifests the fullness of the image of God in which we are created…. Such an awareness might help level the playing field in a society that labels person as ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ for purposes of social categorization and frequent stigmatization.” In developing a disability hermeneutic, the expectation is to move an ethos of disability from equating “use ability” with “humanity” or “dependence” with “inability.” As Rabbi Deva has taught us, “Agency is not the litmus test to humanity. What about … being loved?”
Metaphorical and literal brokenness do not necessarily lead to limitations and exclusions—these forms of brokenness can often be the very agency through which redemption comes for the whole community. I must insist that, while preaching on “Disability Inclusion Sunday” or considering how to serve disabled parishioners, religious leaders call to the pulpit people who speak from lived experience, without inserting your own able-bodied interpretation.
As differently abled community members, we are present, willing, and able to tell our own stories stuttering, preach our own sermons sip-puffing, sing our own songs sightless, and present our own arts autistically.
We want Christian communities to feel the tension between dependency and accommodation as the church wrestles with (or largely ignores) its pastoral duty in relation to persons living with disabilities. Religious institutions often neglect to do more than care for us in ways that are convenient and comfortable, support our families with pity-full prayers and occasional respite, and address suffering and healing as if all we do is to suffer and seek healing (on their terms). We want them to reflect and respond theologically to disability.
Mutuality in partnership between the commonly abled and the differently abled emerges as a paradigm for preaching and transformation. We learn such concepts in interpreting Mephibosheth’s story (Pericope—2 Samuel 9: 1-12). Mephibosheth’s nurse dropped him at the age of five, crippling both of his feet. When King David had the urge to show kindness for someone in the House of Saul, he offered to restore Mephibosheth’s land to him and invited him to always eat at his table. The text notes the onset of Mephibosheth’s disability and concludes with his redemption. The narrative passage de-emphasizes his ability and re-emphasizes the responsibility of the commonly abled to learn to accommodate the differently abled. It is through Divine intervention that Mephibosheth’s honor is restored—honor that had been suppressed by good intentions which had usurped his human rights and political privilege.
A church song in the African American repertoire of gospel favorites is our post-Resurrection Christology which inspires us to sing: “I looked at my hands and my hands looked new / I looked at my feet and they did too.” It implies that our intimate identification with the crucified Christ’s nail-pierced hands and stake-impaled feet is presented to our new and glorified bodies as unpierced and unbroken. But, what happens to a theology in which Mephibosheth “remained lame in both feet” while sitting at the king’s table for the rest of his life?
The Centrality of Disability Texts in the African American Community
I seek to inspire religious practitioners, especially African American preachers, to use the most influential medium for catalyzing linguistic change, social justice and, liberating theology and praxis: religious text. They must engage multifarious tropes for approaching and interpreting disability texts intentionally. Doing so is central to creating a theology that is inclusive, liberating, and redeeming.
A disability hermeneutic in the African American preached tradition might therefore assume the homiletical construct around James Cone’s definition that “a liberation perspective means seeing Christian theology as a ‘rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ.’”
For example, after being crippled in both feet, Mephibosheth was exiled by culture—not by God. I choose to use the word “exile” to describe the reality of many with disabilities, and perhaps the reality of all people, to some degree. In his essay “The Consolations and Compensations of Exile: Memoirs by Said, Ahmed, and Eire,” John D. Barbour writes:
Exile is a way of dwelling in space with a constant awareness that one is not now at home. An exile is oriented to a distant place and feels that he doesn’t belong were he lives. Exile also involves an orientation to time, a plotting of one’s life story around a pivotal event of departure and a present condition of absence from one’s native land. Exile involved orientation, being pointed toward a distant place and time, and also disorientation, feeling lost and at odds with one’s immediate environment.
The oppressed exile of a differently abled person dwells in spaces of noncompliance and begrudged compliance. When I presented a version of this essay during the American Academy of Religion, I learned that there was only one wheelchair lift in the Moscone Center—a conference center ostensibly built for thousands. The temple of the Academy failed in a most basic assessment of access. It is this measure of oppression that creates an urgency to preach a liberating gospel and seek compliance with the demands of disability justice.
In the Broken God Is Jesus Blessed…
In “The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability,” the late Nancy L. Eiesland, a seminary professor and liberation theologian who identified herself as a woman with disabilities and a sociologist of religions, excites a new way of regarding hope in our resurrection, writing:
Resurrection is not about the negation or erasure of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our nonconventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the imago Dei and that God whose nature is love and who is on the side of justice and solidarity is touched by our experience. God is changed by the experience of being a disabled body. This is what the Christian hope of resurrection means.
A demand of a disability hermeneutic requires us to sing, “I looked at my hands and my hands looked new / I looked at my feet and they did too,” while not expecting to see a lack of disability in the physical, but to see wholeness in the sacrament of brokenness—a wholeness that is communally redemptive, not a wholeness that is not individualized.
I was born with a cognitive disability affecting my speech. I later suffered a surgical injury that paralyzed my vocal cords and endured a recreational accident that disengaged neurological normalcy and adversely affected my coordination and mobility. Upon learning about this, numerous well-meaning people express disbelief and say, “But, you don’t look disabled.” Their demands for my countenance to be disabled from divineness and diva-ness, discomforted their sensibilities of what a disabled woman should do, where a disabled woman should go, and how a disabled woman would be.
While I engage in speech therapy to minimize my stuttering, I seldom bring attention to it. I spend most of my day in silence and have assumed an unapologetic predilection for typed communication; I do so to prevent sheer vocal exhaustion since my vocal cord injury. Although I have gotten better at identifying items in my purse by touch instead of sight, there remain times of the day when neurological overload requires me to avert frustration and anxiety by making lists to function and systematically order and reorder items to prompt recall and function.
The next time someone says, “But you don’t look disabled,” I hope they look again and see God as variantly abled.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Fall 2014 print issue: Disability Justice and Politics. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit http://www.tikkun.org/disability to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)