My grandfather, Harold Sechster, had always been an observant Jew. Every morning he prayed to the Lord, wrapping his arm and head in tefillin. But when he learned that my mother, Andrea, was deaf, he boxed up his phylacteries and gave up on God. He died before I was born, but I once asked my grandmother why he had lost his faith. Though phrased as a question, her answer was about as inquisitive as a smack on the head: "DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT DEAF PEOPLE IN THE BIBLE?"
My grandparents' grim assessment of Judeo-Christian tradition's portrayal of disability may resonate with many disability advocates. As a field, disability studies maintains an ambivalent relation not only to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also to the very category of "religion." In spite of several outstanding studies (for just a few examples see Eiesland 1994, Hauerwas 1986, Marx 2002), detailed consideration of the relationship of disability and religion has largely been marginalized within introductory disability studies texts (see Davis, 2010, Goodley 2010, Titchkosky and Michalko 2009). 1 Though the reasons for this lacuna are complex, its presence gives the impression that, for those of us within disability studies, religion is not only an academic and political dead end, but also a personal one. Many of us and our loved ones have experienced discrimination within faith traditions. Perhaps, rather than engage these traditions, it might be easier to leave them behind?
Amos Yong's The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God seems a poor candidate to establish a place for religion in disability studies. The book is directed toward members of the Christian community who accept the Bible (specifically the New Testament) as the word of God. It aims to show these faithful that, contrary to dominant Christian interpretations, the Bible does not scorn disability; indeed, disability is central to the "Good Book's" concept of the divine. Through this interpretation, Yong hopes to inspire Christians to integrate disabled people into their congregations and to fight for disability rights. While non-Christian disability advocates may admire this message, they might wonder what it can contribute to those outside of Christianity.
And yet, because of its focus on a specific religious tradition, Yong's book is valuable to disability advocates of all faiths. The Bible, Disability, and the Church demonstrates how to engage a tradition that might seem intractably biased against the disabled. In the process, it provides a model for alliances among disability advocates from secular and faith communities, as well as a paradigm for how the consideration of religion can broaden and deepen disability studies as a field. But perhaps the book's greatest value is personal: It demonstrates that disabled people and their allies do not have to choose between disability justice and the traditions that nurtured us. These traditions can provide resources toward advancing the status of disabled people in the world.
Yong's interest in the intersection of disability and biblical studies is itself personal. In addition to being a Pentecostal theologian and Professor at Regent University School of Divinity, he is the sibling of a person with Down Syndrome. As Yong acknowledges, his brother Mark has played a formative role in his development as a scholar, disability advocate, and religious professional. In an earlier work, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Yong attempted to formulate a systematic theology of disability (p. 5). While that book was more academic, this newer volume is directed both for theologians and "interested laypeople" (p. 6), and has the goal of transforming "the way we live with disability practically and especially ecclesiastically" (p. 8). In this sense, The Bible, Disability, and the Church is a better starting point for disability studies scholars without a grounding in Christian theology, even as it will also be of use to professional theologians and members of various faith communities. It is accessible to undergraduate students in disability studies and theology, but sufficiently sophisticated to engage graduate students as well.
In his introductory chapter "Disability and the People of God—Whole or Fragmented?," Yong presents his thesis that the perception of the Bible as an ableist text is a result of the received analytical framework through which Christian readers have interpreted it. His own task is to apply a "hermeneutics of suspicion" not to the Bible, but rather to the these dominant traditions of interpretation (p. 12). He proposes to do so through a "disability hermeneutic" informed by three elements: first, that disabled people are created in the image of God; second, that they are agentive subjects, not solely recipients of care; finally, that disability is not a "blemish to be eliminated" (p. 13), but rather can be constitutive of the individual's identity. By applying this hermeneutic to the Bible, Yong aspires to "re-read and retrieve the biblical traditions from the perspective of people with disabilities" (p. 13).
In the book's second chapter, "Holiness, the Covenant, and Ancient Israel: Exclusion, Inclusion, and Disability," Yong examines disability in the Hebrew Bible. While the Old Testament has been the locus of many of the most negative views of disability, Yong shows that it is also a site where disability can be redeemed. To do so, he performs close readings of two of the Old Testament's most troubling passages: Leviticus 21: 17-23, in which disabled people are banned from making sacrificial offerings, and Deutoronomy 28, in which disability is associated with the disobedience of God's covenant. Yong shows how these passages, when read in the broader context of the Old Testament, do not fundamentally exclude disabled people from the chosen community. He continues this analysis through a consideration of classic Biblical stories—most notably that of Job—and the Old Testament genre of the psalm of communal lament, which, Yong claims, defines the Israelite community as disabled, even as it also enjoins God to assist them in bringing justice to the world that scorns them. Through these various approaches, Yong shows that the Hebrew Bible affirms strong and unexpected linkages between the disabled and the divine.
Yong's reading method is exemplified in his analysis of Genesis 32: 24-31, the story of Jacob's wrestling match with the angel. The angel strikes Jacob in his hip, leaving him with a limp. As a result of this injury, the Israelites prohibited eating meat from the hip socket (p. 30). Traditional interpreters, including Martin Luther, have viewed Jacob's impairment as a mark of the division between Jacob's human weakness and the angel's divine strength (p. 31). Yong, in contrast, points out that Jacob prevailed in combat even with the limp, ultimately receiving his antagonist's blessing. As his antagonist was a divine agent, Jacob's disability is a mark of his covenant with God. The prohibition of meat from the hip, in turn, shows Ancient Israel's acknowledgement of the centrality of disability to its founding. Thus, Jacob's disability emerges as a reminder of Israel's covenant with God (p. 31).
In the book's three subsequent chapters, Yong applies his interpretive skills to the New Testament. Chapter 3, "What Hath Dr. Luke and His Colleagues to Say? Jesus, the Early Church, and a (Radical Pentecostal) Theology of Disability" examines the Day of the Pentecost. On the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the 12 Apostles and a diverse group of followers from various nations, inciting those gathered to speak each other's languages. According to Peter, this inspired speech was a manifestation of God's prophecy that he would "pour out [his] spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2: 17). From an ableist perspective, this event anoints speech as the privileged sensory modality for the reception of God's word. But, by examining the diversity of the crowd gathered at Pentecost, Yong shows that the "many tongues of Pentecost" contain individuals of "various sensory capacities" (p. 15). Building on this analysis, he shows how, in Luke, divine discernment involves the "entire somatic system," including sight, hearing, speech, touch, and affect (p. 76). Consequently, the Church must recognize individuals attuned to diverse sensory modalities as recipients of the divine word.
In Chapter 4, "One Body, Many Members: St. Paul's Charismatic Ecclesiology and the Renewal of Dis/Ability," Yong engages the theology of Paul. He claims that, in his letters, Paul presents a "theology of weakness" in which qualities that are normally devalued, such as "foolishness, frailty, fragility, and vulnerability" are revealed to be marks of how God empowers his people (p. 115). This "theology of weakness" places disability at the center of Paul's Christian practice; in particular, given Paul's emphasis on the divine nature of "foolishness," it shows that intellectual disability can be the embodiment of divine values. As a result, the Church must not only provide hospitality to individuals with intellectual disabilities, but also receive the hospitality of such individuals. Through a study of one such religious community—L'Arche, a Catholic network of residential homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities—he shows how the establishment of friendships between the intellectually disabled and their (relatively) able-bodied caretakers creates new forms of community that epitomize the vulnerability present in the Pauline conception of God. In the process, these relationships subvert the distinction between the able and the disabled that has been central to much Christian theology.
In Chapter 5, "When There Shall Be No More Tears: Eschatology, the Reign of God, and the Redemption of Disability," Yong addresses the claim (from Revelation 21: 4) that, after the apocalypse, God will "wipe [away] every tear." Ableist interpretations have understood this description to indicate that, in the afterlife, people will be cured of their corporeal disabilities; this conception of a disability-free afterlife marginalizes disabilities in this world (p. 120). But, via an analysis of Christ's resurrected body, Young argues that disabilities will persist even in the Kingdom of God. He draws attention to the presence of Jesus' corporeal wounds even after his resurrection from the dead. For Yong, these wounds are central to Christ's body, emblematic of his suffering and indicative of his solidarity with the marginalized. As Christ's body is an earthly image of the divine, then vulnerability is central to the heavenly order. Thus, individual disabilities will be preserved in the afterlife, as they are reflections of God's own image, as well as his solidarity with the oppressed. However, while disabilities will persist, the value structures that devalue disability will be eliminated. The elimination of these value structures—not the disabilities they stigmatize—will bring about the end of "tears." By claiming that disability discrimination has no place in the divine, Yong calls on believers to transform ableist power structures in the present world (p. 136).
While Yong's book is intended for a Christian audience, it also has much to teach secular disability studies scholars. The formatting of The Bible, Disability, and the Church incarnates the accessibility of Yong's conception of the divine. Each chapter ends with a summary of that chapter's contents as well as seven "study questions" pertaining to the material discussed. The genre of the "study question" is not currently en vogue in scholarly writing, but it epitomizes the richness of Yong's conception of accessibility. Yong's "study questions" not only make the work accessible to a wider range of readers, but also deepen the individual reader's comprehension, encouraging him or her to revisit certain Biblical passages and to place them in dialogue with his or her own experience. These questions will benefit all those who engage this book.
Given Yong's intended audience of lay Christians, it might be tempting to mark a distinction between his work and that of a "serious" academic. But The Bible, Disability, and the Church challenges such distinctions. In fact, Yong's reading of the Christian tradition is itself a novel articulation of what might be called a "disability studies conception of tradition," one that places the field in conversation with the most sophisticated theorists of feminist thought. Over the past decade, a generative debate has emerged between Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood regarding the role of "tradition" in feminist politics. Butler (1990) argues that feminist politics subvert tradition through the transgressive appropriation of its own norms. Mahmood (2005), in contrast, has argued that feminist theory's basis in subversion marginalizes the experiences of religious (specifically Muslim) women who enact a feminist politics through obedience. Feminist theory's relationship to tradition has thus, in two of its most prominent thinkers, been defined by a dichotomy between subversion and obedience.
Yong's work shows that, from a disability studies perspective, subversion and obedience need not—and perhaps cannot—be taken as irreconcilable poles of political action. The ableist biases of our religious traditions have driven many of us—like my grandparents—to abandon them. And yet, such painful abandonment is not necessary. Rather, it is possible to claim a fidelity to tradition through its seeming subversion. By subverting the dominant interpretations of our own faith traditions, disability studies scholars can have a richer engagement with their spirit and letter. This sort of subversive obedience is precisely what Yong accomplishes when, by criticizing normative Christian traditions of interpretation, he reclaims the Biblical word for people with disabilities. His book thus points to a new direction for discussions of "tradition" within disability studies, feminist theory, and various scholarly fields. Yes, his chapters may have "study questions," but this is a book that professors can learn from too.
Such learning will necessarily entail disagreement. Yong's book is a Christian one, and it works from premises that many disability studies scholars will not accept. Its virtue is not that it provides all the answers, but rather that it creates a site where secular, interfaith, and Christian disability studies scholars can come together in a tense but ultimately collaborative conversation. The virtues of this conversation are significant. Though their rationales may differ, Christian and non-Christian disability advocates share similar concerns about issues such as selective abortion, euthanasia, and disability discrimination; in addition, Christian communities like L'Arche have decades—and in some cases centuries—of history in creating inclusive communal spaces that eliminate the seeming dichotomy between the "able" and the "disabled." We non-Christian scholars and activists have a lot to learn from our Christian compatriots. As Yong's book shows, they too have much to learn from us. By providing a site for this mutual learning, Yong's book is a significant contribution to a goal on which disability advocates of all faiths can agree: the elimination of ableism from this world.
- Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
- Creamer, D.B. (2010). Disability and Christian theology: Embodied limits and constructive possibilities. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Davis, L. J. (Ed.). (2010). The disability studies reader (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Eiesland, N. L. (1994). The disabled God: toward a liberatory theology of disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
- Goodley, D. (2011). Disability studies: an interdisciplinary introduction. Los Angeles, Calif ; London: SAGE.
- Hauerwas, S. (1986). Suffering presence: theological reflections on medicine, the mentally handicapped, and the church. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of piety: the Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
- Marx, T. C. (2002). Disability in Jewish law (Vol. 3): Routledge.
- Titchkosky, T., & Michalko, R. (2009). Rethinking normalcy: A disability studies reader: Canadian Scholars' Press.
- Exceptions to this trend within DSQ include two 2006 issues dedicated to "Religion and Spirituality." See DSQ 26.3 (http://dsq-sds.org/issue/view/34) and 26.4 (http://dsq-sds.org/issue/view/37), co-edited by Beth Haller and Corinne Kirchner. See also Joanne Murphy's review of Deborah Beth Creamer's Disability and Christian Theology, reviewed in issue 31.3 (http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1662/1613).
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