|Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
Out of the Darkness: Examining the Rhetoric of Blindness in the Gospel of John
Jennifer L. Koosed, Ph.D.
Darla Schumm, Ph.D.
We argue that the metaphorical and literal depictions of broken bodies in the Gospel of John promote a definition of an individual's full membership in the Christian community that almost always excludes persons with disabilities. In addition, and equally troubling to us, is how such metaphors perpetuate anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes among Christians by linking the state of spiritual ignorance with being Jewish.
Focusing on the trope of blindness, as exemplified in chapter 9, we examine how John's use of double entendre binds two meanings of blindness together—blindness as a physical state (the literal meaning) and blindness as a spiritual state (the metaphorical meaning). We have been asked: Why write a paper about the potentially damaging effects of the use of the metaphors of blindness/sight, or darkness/light in the gospel of John with respect to both the disability community and the Jewish community? We contend there are two primary reasons to discuss these aspects of the metaphor of blindness in tandem.
First, while scholars who work in Disability Studies have noted the dangers of metaphors such as blindness for real people who are blind, and biblical scholars who work on the Gospel of John have noted the dangers of using the blindness metaphor for real people who are Jewish, we have never seen a discussion of the ways in which the metaphor of blindness interweaves the two exclusions in the Gospel. Quite simply, we believe that this is a gap in the scholarship dealing with the Gospel of John. It is imperative that marginalized communities realize the intersections between exclusions and oppressions in an effort to combat their consequences.
To help explain our second and more complex reason for writing this paper, we turn to the work of Adele Reinhartz (2001). In her book entitled Befriending the Beloved Disciple, Reinhartz draws on the literary criticism of Wayne Booth as she begins her engagement of the Gospel of John with the idea of friendship through reading. Being friends with a text can and should be just as challenging as being friends with a human being. True friendship is not just about the good times, but rather befriending engages us "with books fully, honestly, and with commitment, to address rather than to bracket the ethical considerations with which our human relationships are fraught" (Reinhartz, 2001, p. 18). Booth's "ethical criticism" is not focused "on whether this or that book or this or that author is ethical, but rather on the complex question of who we become as we enter into relationship with one book or another" (Reinhartz, 2001, pp. 18-19). We ask the question, then, who do we become as we enter into relationship with the text of John 9?
As the constitutive metaphors for John's cosmic system, darkness and light rise to the level of macro-metaphor—in other words, they are a "powerful cluster of metaphors" that construct the "maker's world" (Booth, 1988, p. 335). As such, the exclusions from John's textual world—if his readers adopt his world—can and do result in exclusions in the real world. World-making metaphors can be the most powerful and potentially dangerous types of metaphors. Thus, we believe it is highly important to carefully scrutinize metaphors such as those used in John 9.
Not only will we explore "reading as relationship" but also "reading in relationship," since we are responsive to each other and each other's reading. Our friendship with one another informs our "friendship" with the text. Our friendship has inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dimensions. Dr. Koosed is trained in biblical studies and is rooted in the Jewish tradition, while Dr. Schumm is trained in ethics and hails from the Christian tradition. We also represent degrees of physical ability and disability – Dr. Koosed is fully sighted and Dr. Schumm is partially blind. Because of our friendship with one another we are equally committed, to paraphrase Reinhartz, to addressing and not bracketing the "real world" effects of the use of the metaphor of blindness in John 9 on both persons with disabilities and Jews.
Blindness and sight in the Gospel of John
In contrast to Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus performs "miracles," John's Jesus performs seven "signs" (all biblical citations from the New Revised Standard Version Bible). The difference in terminology between John's Gospel and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke points to the difference in function. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the miracles are often done privately, and they emerge out of faith. For example, when the woman with a hemorrhage is healed simply by reaching out and touching Jesus' tzittzit ("the fringe of his garment"), he turns and tells her: "Daughter, your faith has saved you" (Mk 5:34, cf. Mt 9:24). In fact, there are times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke when faith is required in order for the miracle to work. In Mark, Jesus finds himself unable to perform miracles in his hometown because of the people's unbelief (Mk 6:5). Jesus' signs in John, however, are public proclamations of his identity as the Christ—they move people from unbelief and ignorance to faith and knowledge. The evangelist himself declares that this is the purpose of his writings: "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:30-31).
Within the seven signs, there are three signs of healing: 1) healing the Capernaum official's son (4:46-54); 2) healing the paralytic (5:2-9); and 3) healing the man born blind (9:1-12). John's Gospel is highly symbolic; a healing is not just a healing. Instead, when Jesus brings broken bodies into wholeness he is foreshadowing resurrection, both the general resurrection of the dead and his own resurrection. In a sense, he is giving people a foretaste of the world to come by enacting the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the here and now (Lee, 1994, p. 180).
The healing of the man born blind in chapter 9 exemplifies John's emphasis on foreshadowing resurrection by binding the physical state of blindness with the metaphorical sense of unfaithfulness or spiritual ignorance. John plays with two meanings of blindness—literal blindness or absence of sight, and metaphorical blindness or the inability to understand or perceive —throughout the passage, and also entangles them within the overarching framework of the duality of darkness and light. The employing of these two meanings of the word—physically unable to see and the inability to understand—bind the physical state of blindness to the mental or spiritual state of ignorance.
John 9 is divided into three parts. The first part recounts the physical healing, which happens in two stages: Jesus anoints the eyes with mud and spit, and then the man washes off the compact in the pool of Siloam. But before the healing even takes place, Jesus and his disciples discuss the reasons the man was born with his infirmity. When the disciples connect his blindness to sin—whether his own or his parents—Jesus replies that sin did not cause the blindness. Rather, "he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (Jn 9:3).
Some commentators have hailed Jesus' response as an overturning of ideologies that link sin with disability. Jesus, however, clearly links sin and disability in other healing events (for example, when Jesus heals the paralytic in chapter 5, he implies that the condition was caused by sin). In addition, Church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine understood the intricately connected symbolism of the Gospel of John to indicate that the man born blind is indeed a reference to humanity being born in sin. Jesus heals the man of his blindness using the pool of Siloam as Jesus heals all humans from their sins through the waters of baptism (Brown, 1966, pp. 381-82).
John presents several different reasons why people have disabilities, but God is behind them all. Never is the condition simply an expression of the various possibilities inherent in the human body. Never is the condition an accident. And never is the condition seen as a positive gift of God. Rather, the disability is always present for some other reason or purpose. In John 9, the implication is that God is using the man's blindness (which is characterized as an undesirable state that brings the man suffering) for God's own show of power. We question whether any link between God's will and human suffering is helpful, especially when God seems to be using the person for God's own (selfish?) purposes.
Immediately before healing the man Jesus proclaims, "'As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world'" (Jn 9:5), thus connecting this story with the prevalent Johannine image of light. Light is also "the basic image for life" (Lee, 1994, p. 161), which is first introduced in the opening verses of the Gospel: "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (Jn 1:3-5). Jesus himself picks up on these intertwining images again in John 8:12: "'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.'" By giving the man born blind sight, Jesus opens his eyes to light literally and also figuratively. By opening his eyes to light, he is also giving him life, and the man becomes the embodiment of the cosmic principle of light in the world. The light is truth and faith and knowledge and light brings eternal life.
In the second part of the passage, the man is confronted by his neighbors and then by the Pharisees, or the Jewish authorities. The purpose of these confrontations is to establish identities—first the man's and then Jesus'. As noted above, the physical healing of the man born blind happens in two stages–mud and washing. Likewise, his spiritual healing also occurs in two stages–the physical healing and the interrogation. The physical healing begins the turn from unbelief to belief. The interrogation then moves the man further from partial understanding of Jesus' identity to full understanding, or from partial spiritual wholeness to full spiritual wholeness. When questioned, the man first proclaims Jesus to be a prophet. But the questioning gets more intense and the Pharisees challenge the man's understanding by accusing his healer of being a sinner. The healed man proclaims that Jesus comes from God for "'Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing'" (Jn 9:32-3). At this point, the man has moved closer to faith while the Pharisees have moved further away. Only Jesus' confirmation is required to complete the dual movement, or the second stage of the man's spiritual healing.
Jesus appears again in the third part of the narrative, thus completing the spiritual healing of the man. The Pharisees have driven the man out, and Jesus goes to find him. He asks, "'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered. 'And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.' 'Lord, I believe.' And he worshipped him" (Jn 9:35-38). Seeing and hearing Jesus is linked to knowing and believing. It is in this moment that the literal and the symbolic meanings of seeing "perfectly" cohere (Lee, 1994, p. 179).
The end of the story makes the links between literally and symbolically seeing even more explicit: "Jesus said, 'I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind'" (Jn 9:39). This is one of John's typical reversals using double entendres. The reversal, however, is not symmetrical. On the one hand, physical sight does not necessarily indicate spiritual wholeness. The passage continues thus: "Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, 'Surely we are not blind, are we?' Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say 'We see,' your sin remains" (Jn 9:40-1). On the other hand, the man who is physically blind is also metaphorically blind, since he has no confession until after he is given his sight. It is only once his physical sight is restored that he starts to know ("to see") Jesus. The Pharisees are blind to the truth, but they are not physically blind, nor do they become physically blind when they refuse "to see" the truth of Jesus. Through these examples, the literary images of blindness/sight, darkness/light are not only embedded in a network of exclusionary metaphors, but they also serve to reinforce anti-Jewish (and potentially anti-Semitic and racist) attitudes.
We have argued thus far that the use of the metaphor of blindness employed in John 9 can reinforce the exclusion of persons with disabilities, as well as anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes. We are not the first scholars to raise questions about biblical metaphors that may contribute to the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Nor are we the first scholars to draw attention to how interpretations of the Gospels can be detrimental to Christian-Jewish relations. We are, however, among some of the first scholars to make explicit the connections between the oppression of persons with disabilities and the Jews through the use of the metaphor of blindness in John 9, and to demonstrate why it is important to examine these oppressions simultaneously. In this section of the paper we briefly review some of the available scholarship on John 9 and highlight how scholars critically question the exclusion and oppression of one of these groups, while at the same time maintaining, and in some instances perhaps even perpetuating, the exclusion and oppression of the other group.
In an effort to understand how the Jews are portrayed in the Gospel of John, biblical scholars place the gospel text in its historical and cultural context. Many scholars have noted that the controversy between Jesus and the Jews in John more accurately reflects the historical situation of the evangelist and his community projected back onto Jesus' own time period (Brown, 1979, pp 40-43). John and his community may be living in a situation where they are being expelled from synagogues for professing Jesus as the Christ. The harsh rhetoric, then, of John 9 and other passages in John exemplifies intra-Jewish conflict and thus cannot necessarily be construed as anti-Jewish. This view has been recently challenged by Adele Reinhartz who suggests that it is just as likely that the impetus for the separation may have come from John's own community – a voluntary withdrawal rather than a forceful expulsion (Reinhartz, 2001, pp. 37-53).
Understanding the possible historical context, in any case, does not mitigate the damage these passages have caused in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. The text is no longer part of an intra-Jewish debate; rather it is part of a separate religious or Christian tradition and has been so for nearly two millennia. The possible historical context of John, the varieties of Judaism in the first century, and pressures the communities experienced during oppressive Roman rule, especially after the destruction of the second Temple, are all important considerations and can be fully explicated in scholarship and in the classroom.
But, what about the pulpit? For it is in the pulpit, or in Christian churches, where scholars have noted most directly how anti-Jewish attitudes are conveyed through interpretations of passages such as John 9. In the words of Robert W. Bullock, "The problem [of anti-Semitism] is not in the classroom. It is in church" (Bullock in Rittner and Roth, 2001, p. 73). Bullock cites John's rhetoric in particular in his study on the effect of lectionary readings on anti-Jewish and anti -Semitic attitudes among Christians.
While it is essential to question how the language of John portrays Jews, we observe that even those scholars who critique John's depictions of the Jews often uncritically reproduce John's language of exclusion in other arenas. For example, Adele Reinhartz asks, "What, after all, ...is to distinguish those Jews whom the Johannine Jesus reviles as unbelieving descendents of the devil, blind, sinful, and incapable of understanding their own scriptures, from ourselves and the Jews around us?" (Reinhartz, 2001, p. 15). Reinhartz clearly demonstrates the linkages between the Jews, the blind, sin, and evil. Although the images of Jews in John have been examined in commentaries on John, there still remains language that equates blindness with those who are morally and spiritually deficient.
There has also been a recent re-examination among scholars of the use of the metaphor of blindness, and John's healing narratives have been scrutinized in light of this reexamination (for example, various articles in Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998; Hull, 2001, pp 49-52). Commentators involved in Disability Studies are realizing the negative implications of John's metaphors for Christians who cannot see. Yet, the ways in which blindness is a metaphysical category of evil and, in particular, the ways in which the "Jews" in John are "blind," and therefore embody cosmic evil, is left unexamined. There are two points in the literature re-examining the use of the metaphor of blindness that we would like to address.
First, it is common for interpreters of this passage to attribute the idea that sin and disability are connected to the Jewish idea of divine punishment. The idea that the sins of the parents are visited on the children is also labeled a "Jewish idea." Whereas these ideas are certainly present in Judaism and in the Hebrew Bible, they are not exclusively so. Other peoples in the ancient world and in our world believe that God punishes sin through inflicting illness and disability.
Additionally, neither the Bible nor the tradition presents a univocal perspective. The Hebrew Bible demonstrates that the idea of divine retribution was part of a lively discussion and debate. There is a general notion that God punishes those who sin throughout the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the curses on Adam, Eve, and the serpent. The question of God's justice, however, intensifies as the people undergo the tragedies of Assyrian and then Babylonian conquest. A series of competing theodicies emerge in the literature to make sense of the historical events. Some texts (the Deuteronomic History and the prophetic books) clearly attribute suffering to God's punishment. However, even the prophets hint at the opposite position: Jeremiah asks why the wicked prosper (Jer 12:1), and Isaiah proclaims that Israel has been punished double for its transgressions (Isa 40:1). The questioning reaches a fever pitch in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. In each book, the link between suffering and evil doing is refuted.
In particular, the idea that God punishes the children for the sins of the parents was sometimes stated, other times refuted, again indicating that there was much variety in the attitudes of ancient Israel on this point. The idea that children suffer for the sins of their parents is formulated in Exodus 20:5 (see also Num 14:18). However, in the prophets, the proverb "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" is quoted and refuted by both Jeremiah (Jer 31:29-30) and Ezekial (Ez 18:2-4). Despite unsupported claims to the contrary, there is no "traditional Jewish view of disability" (for example, this phrase is used by Grant in Eiesland & Saliers, eds. 1998, p. 80).
In fact, many of the heroes and heroines of the biblical text are portrayed as having physical disabilities. Isaac becomes blind in his old age, Leah has "weak eyes," Jacob walks with a limp because of his encounter with God, and Moses stutters (Siegel, 2001, p. 31-33). The very idea of bodily resurrection developed in Judaism as an acknowledgement that sometimes people suffered bodily torment precisely because they were righteous. The first hint of this idea appears in the book of Daniel (Dan 12:2), a book written in response to the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes around the year 165 BCE. Resurrection then holds out the promise that as the righteous suffers in the body, the righteous will be rewarded in the body.
Second, commentators frequently reproduce John's distinctions between "the Jews" and everyone else in the gospel account as is demonstrated in the following phrase from an article by Colleen Grant (Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998) on John 9: "What follows Jesus' exit from the narrative are four scenes of interrogation involving at various times the man, his neighbors, the Jewish authorities, and the man's parents" (p. 81). The problem with this statement is that all of the people in this scene are Jewish, not just the authorities. The authorities are negatively portrayed and only the authorities remain "blind" at the end of the scene. By marking the Jewishness of only the authorities, the links between Jewishness, blindness, darkness, and, therefore, evil are reinforced. Is Jewishness a disability that needs to be cured? In the Gospel of John, the blind can come to see, but "the Jews" are mired in their blindness— stubbornly clinging to it despite the obvious good news of the Christ.
Physical blindness may provide the necessary ground for faith to grow and emerge, but the person cannot remain physically blind. There are biblical scholars and disability activists alike who note that there are no blind disciples. Grant (Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998) writes, for example, "It is true that at one level the healing stories are stories of inclusion in that Jesus heals and welcomes all sorts of people into God's reign. However, the very fact that they are physically healed by Jesus suggests that physical restoration is a necessary component of their entry into the community" (p. 77). Grant also cites Donald Senior, Frederick Tiffany, and Sharon Ringe, all who have made similar points. From her perspective working with people with disabilities and government agencies in Australia, Elizabeth Hastings writes:
...with all the respect due to the ten lepers, the various possessed, and the sundry blind, lame, and deaf faithful of scripture, I reckon people who have disabilities may have been better off for the last two thousand years if Our Lord had not created quite so many miraculous cures but occasionally said, "your life is perfect as it is given to you – go ye and find its purpose and meaning," and to onlookers, "this disability is an ordinary part of human being, go ye and create the miracle of a world free of discrimination" (quoted in Calder, 2004, p. 12).
John Hull (2001) in his recent reflection on reading the Bible from his own blind perspective tries to conceive of blind men and women following Jesus through the Galilee—he cannot. Blind disciples would have been an affront to Jesus' power.
Although physical infirmity is not connected to sin in the example of the man born blind, it is, in this case, connected to ignorance of truth. In John 9, the physical condition of blindness always also connotes metaphorical blindness as a mental or spiritual condition, or ignorance. Both the literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness are always present every time the words "blind" and "to see" are used in the story. The literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness have the potential of contaminating each other in any context. There is a danger of at least implicitly, if not explicitly, associating physically blind people with mental and spiritual incapacity, and associating Jewish people, whether blind or not, with the same shortcomings.
Feminist and other liberationist scholars have raised awareness regarding the prevalent role metaphors play in shaping Christian understanding and knowledge about God. According to feminist theologian Sallie McFague, people of all ages and from all walks of life rely on metaphor for learning and teaching. Metaphors teach us both the most basic, as well as the most complex concepts. McFague (1982) writes: "For it is not geniuses who are being congratulated for their ability to use metaphor; rather, it is being asserted that metaphor is indigenous to all human learning from the simplest to the most complex" (p. 32).
McFague highlights the primacy of the use of metaphor for the Christian community when she argues for, and subsequently articulates, a "metaphorical theology." McFague draws heavily on the work of thinkers such as Paul Ricoeur, Max Black, and I. A. Richards when defining the significance and role of metaphor for religion and religious language. Black and Richards are credited with identifying the interaction theory of metaphor. "In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, whose new meaning is a result of their interaction" (Richards 1965, p. 93 see also Black, 1962). The interaction theory maintains that we must find the similarity between the two objects of comparison while preserving each object's original and indisputable distinctive quality. A tension is maintained between how the objects are alike and not alike. Therefore, the rules of metaphor are simultaneously common and arbitrary.
Ricoeur adopts Black and Richards's interaction theory of language as metaphor when, in his own view, he describes language as event. For Ricoeur, "interaction refers to the claim of rival interpretations on the subject" (Stewart, p. 108). It is through clashing or rival interpretations that metaphors open up new ways of thinking and being in the world.
Not surprisingly, following the emergence of the interaction theory, linguistic philosophers noticed that among hearers and readers of a given metaphor there was a growing competition between the "threads of similarity" that were emphasized and chosen (Black, 1954-1955). Each reader or hearer of a metaphor finds a unique thread of similarity between the objects in question. Therefore, one's context will significantly determine how one interprets and understands metaphors. There can no longer be a literal paraphrase for a metaphor because a literal paraphrase implies a universal thread of similarity and full agreement about what the metaphor means (Stewart, p. 110).
Building on the work of Ricoeur, Black, and Richards, McFague (1982) acknowledges the primacy, complexity, and the power of metaphor when she refers to metaphor as "both our burden and our glory" (p. 34). While McFague stresses the indigenous and empowering nature of metaphor for understanding the world (our glory), she also admits the potential danger and abuse that accompanies using metaphors (our burden). For McFague (1982), "The greatest danger is assimilation—the shocking, powerful metaphor becomes trite and accepted" (p. 41).
We concur with McFague that it is dangerous for metaphors to lose the significance of their initial impact. It is, however, her emphasis on how the function of metaphor has changed over time that most poignantly demonstrates for us the potentially dangerous power of metaphors. McFague (1982) notes, "in contrast to its traditional role as a mere rhetorical trope," metaphor has become "the unsubstitutable foundation of language and thought from which conceptual formulation emerges and to which it must return for its funding" (p. 16). Melissa Stewart (2004) aptly paraphrases McFague and pinpoints the significant shift in the role of metaphors when she writes, "In other words, the grammatical or structural role that metaphor plays is not to be separated from its affective or attitudinal role" (p. 110). Metaphors are no longer understood as simply playing a grammatical role, but always also play an attitudinal role.
McFague's understanding of the attitudinal role of metaphor is a further expansion of Black's and Richards's interaction theory and Ricoeur's description of the interaction as clashing or rival interpretations. By suggesting that metaphor involves an interaction between two dissimilar objects, Black and Richards introduce the idea that metaphor could have functions other than just the traditional grammatical or structural role. Ricoeur pushes the concept of interaction even further and argues that not only is there an interaction between two dissimilar objects, but there is also an interaction between differing interpretations of how dissimilar objects are similar. Ricoeur's insight highlights that context will affect how metaphor is understood and interpreted. Building on Black's, Richards's, and Ricoeur's assertions, McFague adds a new dimension to the understanding of the role of metaphor. She suggests that metaphor also functions to shape or construct reality: that is, metaphor plays an attitudinal role.
It is precisely the attitudinal role of metaphor that womanist biblical scholar Renita Weems discusses when, in her book Battered love: Marriage, sex, and violence in the Hebrew prophets, she argues that "metaphors matter." Weems suggests that the metaphors we employ reflect the values of the community, and often justify and reinforce the oppression of marginalized members of a community. Weems (1995) writes, "Metaphors matter because they are sometimes our first lessons in prejudice, bigotry, stereotyping, and in marginalizing others— even if only in our minds. They deserve our scrutiny because they are intrinsic to the way we live and shape reality" (p. 107).
Like Weems, we assert that the metaphors employed by the Christian community matter, in that they help to shape both our attitudes about God, and the normative standards by which membership and acceptance in the community is measured. Furthermore, metaphors require our attention and scrutiny because, as we have seen, individual and community contexts significantly shape how we understand and interpret metaphors, and these understandings and interpretations can yield damaging and exclusionary consequences.
Given the importance of metaphors, the question then becomes, "What do the metaphors we use tell us about membership in the Christian tradition?" Or, asked another way, "Who is excluded from full membership in the Christian community, and who is demonized and excluded by Christians from full membership in the human community as a result of alienating metaphors?" We endeavor to answer these questions by focusing on the metaphors used in John 9.
As we outlined above, the primary metaphor describing the move from ignorance to understanding, or faithlessness to faithfulness, in John 9 is that of blindness to sight, or darkness to light. Just how pervasive is this metaphor in the Christian community and in Christian worship? The gospel lectionary text from year A in the lectionary cycle and for the fourth Sunday in Lent is John 9. On that Sunday, this text is read and preached in many Christian churches throughout the country. Other examples employing the metaphors of blindness and sight, or darkness and light include a phrase from the Nicene Creed "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," and some popular hymns such as "Amazing Grace" ("I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see"), "I Saw the Light," and "Be Thou My Vision."
Nancy Eiesland, in her book The Disabled God (1994), provides some guidance for understanding the effects of metaphors such as blindness/darkness and sight/light on persons with disabilities. Eiesland argues that for those of us whose bodies are not physically whole, but are "broken" in that they do not function as they should, language that equates physical wholeness with spiritual wholeness is not merely exclusionary, but suggests that broken bodies impede one's ability to obtain spiritual insight and understanding.
Eiesland notes some attitudes about persons with disabilities that she contends are fostered by exclusionary metaphors. She asserts that two common perceptions are that persons with disabilities are "heroic sufferers," or that a disabling condition is a result of sin. A disciple in John 9 demonstrates one of these attitudes when he asks Jesus who sinned to make the man born blind. The question may appear to be an oversimplified and extreme understanding of the cause of a disability. But, we contend that an example such as this indicates more subtle attitudes that prevail about persons with disabilities that stem in part from overt as well as covert messages we receive through metaphors employed in passages such as John 9. We would add to Eiesland's critique that the dangerous nature of exclusionary metaphors reinscribes anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes and practices.
We do not have the space to discuss all of the examples Eiesland provides demonstrating how exclusionary practices and attitudes perpetuate the idea that broken bodies impinge spiritual wholeness. We draw on her overall insistence that it is important to pay attention to language and symbols that equate spiritual wholeness with physical wholeness, and to pay attention to metaphorical language that equates darkness and blindness with spiritual ignorance in our efforts to reexamine stories such as John 9 and reevaluate their meanings and implications. In John 9, a blind man gains spiritual understanding only when he also receives physical sight. The Pharisees have physical sight but do not have spiritual understanding and are thus referred to as blind. Therefore, we cannot conclude that everyone with physical sight will also have spiritual sight. But, absent from this passage is the reverse situation of the Pharisees, the presence of a person who is physically blind but still has spiritual sight. Everyone in the story who is spiritually lost is referred to as "blind," whether they are also physically blind or not. Does this subtly suggest that, although a whole body does not ensure spiritual wholeness, a broken body is not capable of spiritual wholeness, or that although physically capable of sight, a Jewish person is spiritually disabled because he or she does not "see" the "truth?" The door has certainly been opened for exclusion, if not blatantly, then at least figuratively and subtly of Jews and persons with broken and disabled bodies.
The imperfect perfect body
While Eiesland identifies many examples of problematic metaphors in the Christian tradition, she also asserts that there are other examples that offer alternative and more inclusive metaphors. She argues that the broken body of the resurrected Christ is one such example. However, in order to highlight the inclusive aspect of the image of the body of the resurrected Christ, she maintains that we must shift our conception of the resurrected Christ from that of the suffering servant, to that of the disabled God. This shift, Eiesland contends, is not only more inclusive of persons with disabilities, but of all people. She suggests that even those persons who have able bodies will eventually age and experience the limitations of a less than whole and perfect body. For those people who are not disabled, she coins the phrase "temporarily abled." With this in mind, she asserts that the disabled God is a more representative imaging and understanding of the body of an incarnational God.
Even in John there are times when the narrative undermines metaphors that equate spiritual wholeness with physical wholeness in ways consistent with Eiesland's shift to the disabled God. Jesus' resurrection appearance to Thomas in John 20 is one such example. When Thomas questions and doubts, Jesus demonstrates to him that his resurrected body still bears the marks of the crucifixion. Thomas is invited to touch Jesus' wounds in order to experience directly the brokenness of his body so that he may believe. The brokenness of Jesus is redemptive and is not fully transformed in his resurrected body. The image of Jesus' resurrected yet still wounded body raises a question: Will people with illnesses or disabilities still bear the marks of those "imperfections" in the world to come?
In addition to the emphasis on the imperfect perfect body of the risen Christ, Jesus exclaims in this passage, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (20:29). Here, the connection in John between literally and symbolically seeing is broken. The tensions in the narrative between these two poles—whole bodies represent whole spirits, and broken bodies can contain whole spirits—are never resolved. Rather, they serve to destabilize each other and also redeem each other.
Our reflections have led us to the following question: Should metaphors such as blindness/sight and darkness/light be used at all? Not only do they exclude Christians with disabilities, but they also pervade anti-Jewish attitudes within Christianity. We do not presume to be able to answer this question definitively, but we do contend that a challenge for Christians is to value all physical types by not positing a stable and perfect body as the standard for human perfection. (This, of course, needs to be done without valorizing physical illness or disability, and without minimizing the potential desire someone may have to be physically healed.) In addition, the persistence of Christian anti-Semitism requires an authentic Jewish-Christian dialogue, which cannot occur when Christian metaphors demonize Jews and position them as the blind embodiments of cosmic evil. The use of metaphors and other literary devices must be understood to have real consequences in the world, and these consequences must be recognized and interrogated. There is more than one way to be whole and holy.
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Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)