Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Saving the Wretched of the Earth

Dr. Sharon V. Betcher, Associate Professor of Theology
Vancouver School of Theology, Canada
Email: betcher_rice@telus.net


In this essay, I consider biblical and theological representations of the physics of Spirit, including miracles, if also the politics of compassion, as related to bodies exhibiting disabilities. Christianity has shaped its understanding of divine power and, consequently, its social mission upon the dynamic trajectory it has read into miracle stories. And miracle stories, modern Christianity has assumed, obviously pivot upon the disabled body. I extend my range of concern to address how the modern template of normalcy and its contrary, degeneracy, have been deployed as maps of western Christianity's social mission. By concentrating on our reading of biblical theologies, especially our reading of Jesus as one with the monolithic power of Spirit to heal the blind, the cripple, the outcast, I attempt to deconstruct theology's psychic cathection to normalcy. I consider whether particular colonizing optics are still at work in today's most popular Christological proposals, the so-called "historical Jesus" portraits of Marcus Borg (1987) and John Dominic Crossan (1992). The essay concludes by suggesting another way of reading the miracle texts so as to disturb the optics of modern realism, especially their social effects. 

Keywords: Christianity, Disability Studies, Biblical Representation, Miracle Texts

Recently I had one of "those" moments: According to the rotation of faculty leadership for Anglican-Lutheran morning worship at the school of theology, it was my duty and delight to be alert and prophetic at 7 AM. I sat to prepare the designated text. Recognizing John 5 as the story of the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha (its well known refrain, "Pick up your bed and walk"), I knew there would be no way out. Given my disabled body as unavoidable backdrop for this text, I would have to address the glaring perceptual incongruity of how I sat there leading morning worship, from a half-lotus position on the floor of the chapel, while trying to inflect my reading of a miracle account with "spiritual authority."

But must we assume a perceptual incongruity between my body and this text? If not, why did the gathered community gasp, as if caught in the glaring headlights of a psychic dilemma, as I read the familiar narration? Something clearly got challenged into the open because my body was felt, even with attendant sympathy, to be posed in contradiction to the efficacy of the sacred presumably represented by the text. But what, pray tell, would be thrown askew as I read such a "miracle" account? Then again, what kind of spiritual authority can such a text possibly hope to perform, if read by one "on the slant" (Kingsolver, 2003, 483)?

Modern liberal theologies haven't presumed that lightning bolts of supernatural power would work the remediation of disablement, and so those of us living with disabilities do not tend to be visited in this theological vicinity with inestimable expectations of a miraculous cure. Nonetheless, even in the vicinity of modern reason a certain "reflexive patrolling function" gets effected by our reading of these healing narratives, such that those of us with differing modalities are still, even in liberal environments, left chilled to the bone (Davis, 1997, 45). Surely God wants me to be normal, right? That is, with two little eyes, two little ears, two little hands, and two little feet. But to wish me "normal" is no kindness, no generosity of spirit. Spirit here has rather been conflated with the scopic dynamics that generate the bourgeois, whole and idealized body–that ideal at the heart of the liberal social contract as well as in matters scientific, medical, and economic.

In this essay, I consider biblical and theological representations of the physics of Spirit, including miracles, if also the politics of compassion, as related to bodies exhibiting disabilities. "The 'argument from miracles,'" theologian David Ray Griffin has pointed out, "was usually the chief pillar of the Church's evidence for its authority" (Griffin, 1989, 85). Christianity has shaped its understanding of divine power and, consequently, its social mission upon the dynamic trajectory it has read into miracle stories. And miracle stories, modern Christianity has assumed, obviously pivot upon the disabled body. By reprising Franz Fanon's (1963) parody of western colonial salvation rhetoric (his early text of decolonization entitled The Wretched of the Earth), I extend my range of concern to address how the modern template of normalcy and its contrary, degeneracy, have been deployed as maps of western Christianity's social mission. As a disabled person comes in the eyes of a normate (a person who aspires to the ideology of normalcy) to be recognized by what s/he lacks, so Fanon observed that amidst colonialism "the native"--"declared insensible to ethics," considered "the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near"--was treated as "the deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality" (41). The constituting of "the wretched of the earth" was, just like the categorization of "the disabled," an outcropping of the western utopian, scientific hope of normalcy. Viewed as aberrations or deviations, "degenerate" bodies were fixed in an objectifying gaze and subjected to salvific social cures. A reminder may be in order: "Colonialism and liberalism are...two sides of the same coin" (Levitt, 2002 162); and the logic of colonialism, its patrolling of bodies, has a history continentally internal to Euro-American modernity as well as that carried out via colonial, geographical extension.

By concentrating on our reading of biblical theologies, especially our reading of Jesus as one with the monolithic power of Spirit to heal the blind, the cripple, the outcast, I attempt to deconstruct theology's psychic cathection to normalcy. If "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn 4:18), that fear which we hide in our structures of exclusion of persons with disabilities and the correlative assumption about the needy, devitalized and/or "degenerate" other, then the work here has more to do with removing an affective mechanism of exclusion within liberal humanism than with fixing or curing "the disabled." Such psychoanalytic deconstruction ends in the transvaluing of Spirit itself.

I proceed by locating "the optics of modern (historical) realism," as described by disabilities scholar Lennard Davis (2002) as well as postcolonial scholars, at work in modern biblical scholarship. At the opening of the twentieth century, biblical scholar Adolph von Harnack (1908) presented us with the formative portrait of Jesus as healer, recasting Christianity itself as a religion of healing. "The optics of modern realism," which sustain the desire for normalcy, thereby occasions the superiority of the normal over and against the supposed abnormal because disability continues to be performatively carried by such "realist" readings of Jesus. Presuming Jesus himself to be wholesome, a healer, the picture of compassion, as set over against human misery, ever epitomized by disabilities, such optics and their "patrolling" power become socially legitimated–because religiously sanctioned–in and through this deployment of biblical realism. Given that, I consider whether these colonizing optics are still at work in today's most popular Christological proposals, the so-called "historical Jesus" portraits of Marcus Borg (1987) and John Dominic Crossan (1992). The essay concludes by suggesting another way of reading the miracle texts so as to disturb the optics of modern realism, especially their social effects. 

Jesus as Physician of Disabled People and the Optics of Modern Realism

In Adolf von Harnack's early 20th century reconstruction of Christian origins, Christianity "deliberately and consciously...assumed the form of 'the religion of...healing'" ( von Harnack, 1908, p.108). Whereas "religion had...been intended originally...for the sound," (p. 104) Christianity, "a religion for the sick," (p. 109) won over the Roman Empire. Von Harnack's portrait of Jesus resonates with his construction of Christian origins: "Jesus appeared among his people as a physician..., as the Saviour or healer of [persons]." And as to Jesus' bedside manner, von Harnack observes that "Jesus says very little about sickness; he cures it. . . . Nor is any bodily disease too loathsome for Jesus. In this world of wailing, misery, filth, and profligacy, which pressed upon him every day, he kept himself invariably vital, pure, and busy" (pp.101-2).

Hardly can one ignore the likelihood that Roman imperial advance, like the colonial contact of Europe with the Americas or Africa, left in its wake a devastating rampage of diseases, the razed clear-cuts of kin and clan, as well as ruptured systems of care-giving. What rather concerns me here is von Harnack's (1908) particular construction of a binary dichotomy between a "vital, pure and busy" Jesus set over against the miserable wash of humanity--all of whom, he notes, Christianity assumed to be "in a state of disability" (p. 109). Why this portrait of a Jesus so singularly morally virtuous, energetic and industrious, when other children born "....Upon a Midnight Clear" tend, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1980), to be mutilated, hybridized, cracked enough to have radio-like telepathy and foreknowledge, and of more compromised genealogies than would please Freud? Take note, too, of that silent, penetrating, knowing look which accompanies Jesus' "impulse to heal" in von Harnack's portrait: Does not Jesus' bedside manner seem amazingly like that "silent and gestureless" clinical gaze Michel Foucault (1994) discerned as emergent with "the birth of the clinic" and the modern bioregime (p. 107)?

Obviously, von Harnack's Jesus would not himself have been among the "Crip Nation" of the blind, lame or deaf, despite the predominant Hebraic inflection of the portrait of Jesus as one "unseemly" (Isaiah 53). Looking into the mirror of von Harnack's Jesus portrait, we find instead a person of all-knowing compassion, framed in bodily perfection, in somatic wholesomeness. What von Harnack "found" in the origins of Christianity might be, I would suggest, a socially constructed way of viewing the world, a cultural optics specifically generated during modernity. The dichotomy upon which von Harnack pivots his recuperation of Christian origins, a dichotomy between the vital and the disabled, seems inherent to the optic named "modern realism."

Redemption's Social Optic:

When read through the optics of modern realism, encounters between the protagonist Jesus, "vital, pure and busy" (von Harnack, 1908), and a person with a "disability" become medicine shows. In such scenes, disabled characters appear as but stage props in the constituting of humanism. The literary genre of modern realism, disabilities theorist Leonard Davis (2002) explains, emerged in the late eighteenth century "as an ideological form of symbolic production whose central binary is normal-abnormal" (p. 98). Further, "this dialectic works in a fundamental way to produce plots," (p. 95) such that deviance is encountered and "cure as closure is the rule" (p. 98). Observing that modern novels seem to feature a multiplicity of disabled bodies, but set only like plot props over against the central protagonist, Davis concludes that "narratives involving disability always yearn for the cure, the neutralizing of the disability." "The fantasy of normality," Davis advises us, "needs the abjection of disability to maintain a homeostatic system of binaries" (99). This narrative commitment to the redemption of deviance--whether by repair, by rescue from social censure or by extermination (Mitchell, 2002)--supports the development of the modern subject, Davis (2002) argues, training the subject to desire "the ideological fantasy of" (p. 96) and "the comfort of bourgeois norms" (p. 99) by denigrating disability. If miraculous remediation can be, according to the redemptive plot line of modern realism, the only viable conclusion to such a story, the trick will be to look behind the curtains of this medicine show so as to observe the formation of subjective normalcy.

When readers wear the optics of modern realism, the synoptic narratives appear to be about "miracles" performed upon an obviously disabled body--about either a supernatural or a comparable medicinal or social intervention in nature on behalf of a defective body. Read in this way, these narratives echo the commitment of modern science to "normalcy," that of modern medicine to the redemptive cure and that of modern culture to the bourgeois, aesthetically wholesome, and productive body. What persistently disappears behind the stage of modern realism as it lodges itself in a biological and medical commitment to the "normal" are the socio-economic determinations of the ideology of normalcy--namely, the utility and desirability of the body according to the dictates of capitalist economics. The belief that disability is an intractable physicality, that to be healthy is to be other than disabled, that normalcy excludes variations in physical modalities: these assumptions allow the emergence of the category "miracle," even as we have come rationally to dispute it or to scientifically qualify it, for example, as "medical miracle." If we remove our optics of modern realism, could "miracle," in its supernatural register, be a constructed category comparable to what postcolonial biblical scholar R. S. Sugirtharajah (1998) identified as the colonial rather than Pauline "missionary trips?"[ i ] As Eric Eve (2002) notes in opening his study of The Jewish Context of Jesus' Miracles, "In relation to the Bible, "miracle' is a potentially misleading term. . . . No biblical writer shows awareness of such a view" (p. 1).

Incanting the Foucauldian truism that "power operates--and therefore can only be opposed–discursively," Davis (1995) elsewhere notes that "this normalcy must constantly be enforced in public venues (like the novel), must always be creating and bolstering its image by processing, comparing, constructing...images of normalcy and the abnormal" (p. 44). But the public venues of the medicine show of remediation to normalcy are by no means limited to the novel. Such shows are staged throughout both the discourses of theological Christology, especially its liturgical expositions, and biotechnoscience. And the real illusion of the medicine show happens among the audience: the theatre of geeks, freaks and grotesques, all needing to be cured, serve as but the prompts for the inner subjective theatre of crisis, lack, and repression that churns in the guts of most modern persons. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2000) observes, capitalism requires subjects in perpetual crisis: "Privatization of the ["modernizing"] impulse means compulsive self-critique born of perpetual self-disaffection..." (p. 38). The technology of subjective normalcy punishes not only persons with disabilities; this theatrical performance becomes introjected as anxiety, shame or fear around how "normal" bodies should perpetually remediate their deviances, which multiply under speculation. The deviations of bodies and subjectivity opened out in the name of health has become the consuming crisis of postmodern subjectivity--literally, a "consuming" crisis, in terms of personal (eviscerating political) attention and appropriation of resources.

Spirit and the Social Physics of "Miraculous Remediation":

Christianity's generation of miracle stories through the optics of modern realism justifies the cultural sorting of bodies. Liberal theologies, to be sure, have tended--like the late Albert Schweitzer--to appreciate a modern worldview, both in terms of the demythologization of supernaturalism and of gratitude for modern medicine. During the 19th and 20th centuries, "a major difference in paradigms of the body and in healing modes became itself an index to what was seen as the uniqueness and superiority of Christianity," explains William LaFleur (1998) Appreciation for "the medical miracle" was consequently seen "as an index to...a civilization with 'enlightened' religion" (p. 41). If I were forced to choose between "creationist supernaturalism" and such an "enlightened" view, my theological sentiments would not necessarily be located elsewhere. And yet the social physics of inclusion incumbent upon such an enlightened religion do not break with the optics of modern realism and its commitment to normalcy.

When viewed through the optics of modern realism, disability locates the boundary where bodies join culture or are otherwise stamped "in/valid." Christianity's concept of Spirit and practice of healing appear simply to have assumed, as an anthropological foundation, what Foucault called "the advance of bio-power" along with its "proliferation of the modern categories of anomaly" (Rabinow, 1984, p. 21). Rather than admitting how differently capacious we all are and how the ingress of time, environment and work affect the body, Western culture promotes an idealized version of "the body" and of "life" as average or normal. In this way, disability, "like so many other [modern binary categories]--straight/gay, male/female, black/white, rich/poor--is part of an ideology of containment and a politics of power and fear" (Davis, 1997, p. 4). Our readings of miracle accounts, even liberal readings that expressly deny supernatural exceptions to the laws of nature and instead purport social inclusion, nevertheless induce such a performance of the idealized (if purportedly "normal") body and of moral life.

Even where architecture and social geography may have been reworked towards greater inclusion of persons with differing modalities, a psychological "apartheid" preserves a socio-cultural preference for appearing wholesome and functionally integrated. This appears to be as true of Christian community, with its liturgical petitions for wholeness and its call to mission so as to "heal brokenness," as anywhere else in Western culture. Normalcy, Davis (1997) reminds us, developed as a sensibility within modern, Euro-western science and is "less a condition of human nature than it is a feature of a certain kind of society" (pp. 23-4). When psychically inhabited, this cultural cathection to normalcy generates in the onlooker to disability a ridge of abjection, displacing the fear of and containing the variability and vulnerability of somatic life elsewhere--namely, in that "disabled" body over there. A primal terror, an anxiety of dissolution or of losing control, emerges along with the psychic commitment to the norm. This fear can "reasonably" be dealt with by locating one's fear in the body of the evidently disabled other. When consequently unhinged by the forces of anxiety and repulsion, an onlooker--consequent to an encounter with disability (the "disabled encounter" being but an encounter with one's own psychic abject)--can then move to insist upon re-organizing the body of the other in a prescribed and familiar way--even thinking, thereby, to be benevolent (Davis, 1997, p. 3). "The fear evoked by the presence of people with disabilities," theorist Paul Longmore (1997) writes, "has produced two simultaneous and predictable responses: they have been stigmatized, and they have been subjected to relentless exertions to fix them" (p. 153). Theologically speaking, this fear hides itself in the so-called redemptive physics of Spirit, even where that is practiced as compassionate inclusion.

Not surprisingly, then, there's just something about that "healing touch of Jesus" and its ability to "disappear" us which persons with disabilities have come to suspect and to resist, especially in terms of using us for its own narrative conclusions. "Disabled persons are very visible in the Gospels," Elizabeth Stuart (2000) acknowledges in her essay "Disruptive Bodies." Despite this profusion of disabilities, they seem nevertheless consistently to be disappeared from stage, to be "rendered invisible"–whether by miraculous remediation or by miraculous inclusion--"by the healing touch of Jesus" (p. 169). Modern theologies have read miracle stories as healing accounts such that persons with disabilities tend miraculously to be disappeared into the law of the average. In assuming that persons in order to be valued members of society must (or surely would desire to) resume "normalcy," Christian theologies also promote the values of publicly acceptable appearance, independent function and productivity. The unique efficacy of the Spirit is here made to sustain the key values of capitalist economics.

The cure and restoration of the disabled body has been as necessary a foundational fiction for the technological sublime, for the cultural belief in the wonder-working power of science, as it has been for modern belief in the power of the Spirit in Jesus. Nor should the "spirit" of biotechnoscience be construed as anything but religiously inspired. While Western science and Western Christianity pretend to have nothing in common at this late stage of modernity, they have shared at the very least the imagination of transcendent efficacy and the aspiration to eradicate all suffering. Even as I concentrate here on the optics of engaging biblical texts, we'll need simultaneously to keep our minds on biotechnopower and its spiritual imaginary. In each medicine show, theological as also scientific, persons with disabilities find this "cure all" to be visited against our bodies--with which if we have our grumbles (like the rest of humanity!), persons with disabilities nevertheless have no inherent death wish.

The Contemporary Jesus Quest and Its Politics of Compassion

Disability studies scholar Lennard Davis (2002) has identified the optics of modern realism as a social construction and the redemption of defect as a specific plotline within that genre. This reputedly redemptive, although effectively colonizing, relation to disability has been re-enforced through the generation of modern theologies and biblical hermeneutics–these being publicly, because ecclesiastically, performed and liturgically ritualized. While miraculous remediation of disablement, whether supernatural or medical, appears to be about compassionate care of the disabled body ever on the theatrical pallet, the optics of modern realism has been found to support the ideology of normalcy at the heart of capitalist economics. Meanwhile, however, scholars of the most current (fourth) Historical Jesus Quest, including the most popular writers among them, namely Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have–like von Harnack--insisted that "it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist" (Borg, 1987, p. 61). Jesus, the Healer: this is one of the winsome pictures that have been re-emerging into 21st century Christian theologies given the relaxation of the most intense grip of secularization and amidst the Western hope for religious re-enchantment.

"Historical Jesus" research, which conceives of itself and therefore represents itself as a social-scientific and historical enterprise, began in mid-19th century Europe and emphasized the exemplary historical figure of Jesus and his radical ethics. Curious about the socio-economic determinations of those who lived out the imitation of Christ this theological genre implicitly assumes, German scholar Dieter Georgi (1997) has noted, that "Life of Jesus theology developed...in close interplay with the socioeconomic and ideological evolution of the European bourgeoisie, as one of its motors as well as its conscience" (p. 56). Indeed Georgi would have us remember how each of the historical Jesus quests has served "the evolution of bourgeois consciousness, not just as an ideal but as an expression of a socioeconomic and political momentum" (p. 83). As I have already established, a wholesome and unique Jesus, when read in and through the optics of modern realism, took as his dialectical undertow the psycho-social constitution of "degeneracy." If von Harnack's portrait of Jesus as healer was inflected by these optics which performatively lend themselves to categorically setting persons with disabilities apart as second-class citizens, and if these christologies at the best of times have been found to support the development of bourgeois individualism, a body-politics that aggravates the social exclusion of persons with disabilities, that should cause us to read these contemporary quests with greater caution.

Even amidst the earliest quests for the historical Jesus, which were co-incident with colonial mission, theologian Martin Kahler "saw clearly that many...lives [of Jesus] were in fact social programs" projected back upon the text (Henault, 1997, p. 268). Crossan and Borg do not deny, but rather claim this analogical projection. Crossan's "Open Commensality" and Borg's "Politics of Compassion" each assume that such programs "dramatically opposed and deliberately replaced the religio-spiritual and politico-economic hierarchies of normal human power, rule, and dominion" in the first century c.e. (Crossan, 1991, p. 15). While each theologian argues for the historical validity of his particular Jesus portrait, each also assumes that the inversion of today's "conventional wisdom" and the consequent inclusion of the socially marginalized occasions social redemption. If inclusion may be better than exclusion, such does not yet address the idealized normate that optically prevails, that generates the centrifugal pull of value in human sociality. What, in fact, is to prevent this renewed figure of "Jesus the Healer," filled with the power of Spirit, from becoming Doctor of and for "the Great Dream of Normalcy," that most modern dream (if now "enterprised up") being proffered via contemporary globalizing media, turbocapitalism and biotechnopower (Tollifson, 1997, p. 106)? Have Borg's and Crossan's theologies moved beyond or do they continue to instantiate the optics of modern realism, which Davis identified as using disabled bodies for their own character development? Taking Borg and Crossan in turn, I consider the social physics of Spirit–its mission, its way of valuing bodies--released by their redemptive proposals.

Borg's "Politics of Compassion"

For scholars in the Jesus Quest, the recuperation of healing praxis seems inconceivable without the conjoint recuperation of Spirit. Borg (1994) thus insists that "Jesus...was...grounded in the world of the Spirit," (p. 15) and that "Jesus' relationship to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was" (p. 17). Hence, "...Jesus' healings were the result of 'power'"--namely, the power of the Spirit (Borg, 1987, pp. 65-6). Insomuch as Jesus was "a channel for the power of the other realm," his "mighty deeds..., exorcisms and healings alike, were the product of the power which flowed through him as a holy man" (p. 67). In a subsection entitled, "The Power of the Spirit," Borg reiterates his point: "That Jesus was a 'wonder-worker' is historically very firmly attested" (p. 59).

Just as Borg (1987) has established the pneumatic import of Jesus ministry, he qualifies such miracle, healing and exorcistic works, noting that these were culturally common at the time of Jesus. Borg is consequently driven by the demands of his christological suppositions to locate the uniqueness of Jesus elsewhere--specifically in what he comes to call the "politics of compassion." Explaining that the healing narratives in the synoptic gospels should be seen not as exhaustive, but as typical, he offers this summary: "Sometimes Jesus healed by word. . . . Most often touching was also involved. When a leper came to him, Jesus was 'moved with pity' and touched him" (pp. 65-6). Extending inclusive touch across the ridge of abjection appears to Borg to serve as a conduit of Spirit. "For Jesus," Borg (1994) writes, "compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God" (p. 46, citing Luke 6:36). Among the Jewish renewal movements spawned under Roman occupation, the politics of compassion were, as Borg sees it, uniquely innovative: "In the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion" (p. 53). Borg (1997) discovers in this portrait of Jesus a logic of "boundary-subverting inclusiveness (p. 142)," a political vision which he insists is relevant for today's Christians (pp.150-3).

In the face of colonization, Jewish holiness movements were, Borg (1994) implies, motivated by somatic rigor to practice a strict ideology of public, ritual piety and consequently a strict social caste system, based on "the polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean" (p. 50). The deployment of the ideology of holiness, he contends, created divisions within society, especially in terms of generating "a spectrum of people ranging from the pure...to people on the margin" (Borg, 1987, p.158). Among those on the social margin were "the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, and so forth...," because "physical wholeness was associated with purity and lack of wholeness with impurity" (Borg, 1994, p. 51). Borg (1994) then maps what he assumes to have been the import of Jesus' politics: "The stories of his healings shatter the purity boundaries of his social world" (p. 55). Jesus' practice of "'open commensality'"--Borg here notably agreeing with by borrowing Crossan's terminology--exposed Jesus to impure people, to "'dirty people'"--as for example, "...women, the untouchables the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized" (pp. 55-6). I do not want to be heard to dismiss such a social virtue as compassion when humanitarianism itself has become, given our insecure times, "irrelevant," an "unaffordable luxury." Nevertheless, I would suggest that Borg's politics of compassion--to the extent that his paradigmatic figural map of compassion assumes the abjection of degeneracy and the centripetal pull of normalcy, will have ethically questionable–namely, colonial and/or colonizing–effects (Traub, 2004).

Crossan's Alternative Boundary Keeper:

Crossan (1994) identifies Jesus as a cynic philosopher at the hub of what he programmatically calls "open commensality" (p.196) --a "social program" intended "to rebuild a society upward from its grass roots...on principles of religious and economic egalitarianism" (p. 198). In Crossan's reconstructive imagination, itinerants carried "free healing...directly to the peasant homes" (p. 198) where their thaumatological work was received with "free sharing of whatever [the peasants] had in return" (p. 196). This program of "open commensality," Crossan (1994) asserts, undercuts--not in theory, but in practice--the universal human tendency to make and maintain discriminations: "The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal, ...free compassion and open commensality, was a challenge launched not just on the level of Judaism's strictest purity regulations, or even on that of the Mediterranean's patriarchal combination of honor and shame, patronage and clientage, but at the most basic level of civilization's eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies" (p. 196). In a world where the table functioned "to establish a social ranking by what one eats, how one eats, and with whom one eats...," the logic of Spirit, Crossan (1991) asserts, precisely precluded "distinctions and discriminations" (p. 7).

Crossan's (1992) recovery of Christian origins--like Borg's--celebrates a socially ingenious Jesus and his unique "religiopolitically subversive" touch, a touch which reaches across so as to dismantle caste boundaries, to overturn spiritual and social hierarchies, to erase somatic distinctions (pp. 323-324). But that presumed extension of inclusion clearly still moves from a body on the clean, intact and superior side to touch upon the mutilated and dirty. So Crossan, for example, writes, "I presume that Jesus who did not and could not cure...disease..., healed the poor man's illness by refusing to accept the disease's ritual uncleanness and social ostracization... By healing the illness without curing the disease, Jesus acted as an alternative boundary keeper in a way subversive to the established procedures of his society." Any physics of supernatural "miraculous remediation" have clearly been short-circuited by Crossan's careful anthropological and social delineations. Crossan (1994) rather insists that "miracles are...changes in the social world," that "Jesus heals by refusing to accept traditional and official sanctions against the diseased person, ...by taking him into a community of the marginalized and disenfranchised--into, in fact, the Kingdom of God" (pp. 82-3). Crossan's account of the Birth of Christianity assumes the in-breaking of a unique, socially subversive and divinely-inspired consciousness, a multi-cultural, inclusive consciousness that instigates the tables of commensality. And yet, might this Jesus also share with von Harnack's the modern "clinical gaze?"

Assuming the Power to Judge, if Even in the Name of Health:

In each of these scholars of the contemporary historical Jesus quest, the supernatural power presumed of this Jesus "in the power of Spirit" has been dampened and transmuted to social consciousness: Each now inscribes the "power of the miraculous" as pathos for the "outcast," the spoiled. In their various propositions, Crossan and Borg have similarly swept bodies differing into a pool of permanent social "outcasts"--namely, "women, the untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized" (Borg, 1994, pp. 55-6). Yet this sociological categorization of the marginal suspiciously resembles modernity's designation of "degenerates"--"those groups whom Foucault describes as the 'internal enemies' of the bourgeois male" (namely, "women, racial others, the working class, people with disabilities, in short all those who would weaken the vigorous bourgeois body and state" (Razack, 2000, 94 n7). Both Crossan and Borg, in other words, assume what has been obvious to moderns--that healing and miracle stories were written about cure of, by way of compassion for, individual disabled or diseased bodies; and that touch across social boundaries proves religiously and socio-politically redemptive of alterity, especially of bodies evidencing degeneracy.

Based upon modernist sociological organization, both Borg and Crossan discover a Jesus who, whether a pneumatically infused magician or grass-roots organizer, was a healer-hero. But then as with Crossan, so with Borg: each--in spite of what they state as their intentions--assumes the superior privilege of the "eye of the beholder," of the one--Jesus, as the practitioner of compassion--who surveils and judges, even in the name of health. The commitments to the wholesome body and transcendental subjectivity remain hidden within the invocation to reach out--from the locus of the culturally superior and intact--to the defective. Crossan, more so than Borg, imagines communal interaction and mutuality to be constitutive of healing practice, but even he retains a Jesus who seems not to have been counted among his list of outcasts.

Reading the normal as set over against the abnormal, even so as to counter-suggest inclusiveness, does not disperse social dominance, despite Borg and Crossan's best hopes. While Crossan (1994) suggests that "Jesus heals...by taking (the person) into a community of the marginalized and disenfranchised—into the kingdom of God," such politics rather preserve a normative, if nominally "multi-cultural" community as a dominant base within which the different are paternalistically accommodated (p. 83). Here, despite Crossan's suggestion that healing refers to disruption of the social systems of value used to interpret the body the accommodation is to capitalist economics, since disability is an outcropping of labor value (p. 77). Inclusivity does not undo the hegemony of normalcy; inclusivity does not yet participate in the transvaluation of values, especially at the level of bodies.

Further to the point, as feminists have insisted, touch can objectify, especially when the rules of touch have been hierarchically authorized. Because persons with disabilities have been the touchable and specular object of experimental study, and indeed are subject to domestic abuse, given our differing modalities and vulnerabilities, being touched might not necessarily be experienced as socially liberative. Sympathetic touch can, even as we applaud Jesus' and our own supposed heroic social transgression, accrue, across hierarchical boundaries, as social and spiritual superiority (Razack, 1998b, pp. 362-3). A conflation of sympathetic humanism with superiority, indeed with economic colonialism, can insidiously transpire, as Edward Said's (1993) now famous postcolonial essay on Jane Austen and empire insinuated, under the cloak of spiritual practice. The "active principle" missing from the children educated in Austen's "Mansfield Park," that which was "wanting within" ("spirituality," as Said makes clear in his essay), was gained by setting the inhabitants of Mansfield Park in relation to the development of "a West Indian plantation and a poor provincial relation" (Said, 1993, 91-3, sic). Reading Austen as representative of earlier modern, British humanism, Said concluded that the development of such daily religion as Austen imagined could not be separated from its "social basis, ...the geographical process of expansion involving trade, production, and consumption that predates, underlies, and guarantees the morality" (p. 93). Given Said's insights, can we wholly separate Crossan and Borg's "politics of compassion" from North America's contemporary socio-economic project?

We have learned to call concern for the aberrant other "compassion." I am challenging the effective social physics thereof, indeed questioning the modern medicinal and economic organization of the "normal" body itself. "'A psycho-analysis of today's prototypical culture," wrote the 20th century philosopher Theodore Adorno, "would...show the sickness proper to the time...to consist precisely in normality" (Cited in Davis, 1997, p. 23). Such an "ideology of normalcy," a psychopathology so important to the economic flows of capitalism, has become hidden in our theological anticipations, especially in relation to the healing of suffering and thus in our theologies of Spirit. Spirit, even in these "politics of compassion," has been conflated with the scopic dynamics that generate the bourgeois–whole, individuated and idealized--body. Spirit, in this vein, generates a zone of respectability, propriety and civility. While such a subjective technology appears to be, perhaps intends to be, life-giving, it coincidently serves as a mechanism of containment against its own fears. Neither miraculous nor medical remediation, nor the physics of this version of social compassion, evade, but rather enforce, the cultural ideology of normalcy.

Voice of the Voiceless? Christianity's Prosthetic Ventriloquism:

For those of us raised in the ethos of liberal, social justice oriented Christianity, the portrait of Jesus hosting the banquet of outcasts, i.e., "When you have a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled..." (Luke 14) has been paradigmatic. That Crossan (1991) has identified Luke's parable of the banquet for "the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind" as exemplary for what it meant to "render...the Jewish God of justice present on earth" does not shake or level any of our presumptions (p. 7). Such commitments as evoked by this banquet scene have been, over the last several decades, used to contest socio-political scenarios which had legalized their disgust against the humanity of any number of the rest of us--women, gays, blacks, etc. Christian justice communities, fearing similar socio-economic structures of exclusion based on the theologizing of disgust elsewhere, assume to speak into economic and political systems on behalf of or as self-appointed representative of a marginalized group, in other words, as "voice of the voiceless."

Liberal Christian communities, for whom attending suffering--more than "Word"-based evangelism--constitutes our primary cross-cultural practice, have often rhetorically invoked our humanitarian responsibilities by way of a certain "prosthetic ventriloquism" (Haraway, 1992). Assuming a representational responsibility to serve as "voice of the voiceless" suggests, however, that certain assumptions about disability have also been correlated with the imperative of Christian social justice--as, for example, the assumption that the "voiceless" or mute lack communicative capaciousness. Humanism assumed a particular somatic organization, specifically valuing order, regularity, rationality, productivity, power as causal force, independence and symmetry. And western Christianity has not distinguished our understanding of healing from the cultural appropriation of bodies into this socio-economic system of value. But warns anthropologist Jean Comaroff (1993) from South Africa, retrospectively prophetic: "Colonial relations found an alibi in the ailing human body" (p. 307). As soon as disability studies begin to disrupt the passivity and cure associated with miracle and healing, we must also consider the colonial deployments of the metaphor of disablement in social mission.

As evidenced in the last section, Christianity's social mission has often presumed to map itself by analogy to the life of Jesus. The supernatural power presumed of Jesus has been, in liberalism, dampened and transmuted to social consciousness, now carrying the "power of the miraculous" as pathos for the "outcast," the spoiled. But when disabled persons have appeared in modern literary works, Davis (2002) instructed us, such persons have served as plot props for the character development of the protagonist: In modern novels, "the [disabled] character is placed in the narrative 'for' the nondisabled characters--to help them develop sympathy, empathy, or as a counterbalance to some issue in the life of the 'normal' character" (p. 45). Davis' point clearly resonates with Said's insight about western notions of spiritual practice and moral character. To what extent then have Christian communities, who likewise aspire to be among the "helping professions," gained a sense of our spiritual, communal and cultural selves via a compassion that is only secondary to the primacy of categorical mechanisms of fear and exclusion?

Disabled persons have often been read, I have suggested, following Davis' literary analysis, as stock characters in biblical narratives, as those bodies which aggravate and then illustrate the redemptive plotline. In the modernist mode, such characters equally served to locate that other massive objectification--"the oppressed," "the outcast," or, simply, "the other" of social mission. Consequently, Christianity's social justice practices have often presumed to affect the redemption of "the oppressed," "the poor, the sick and the handicapped." While western Christianity's assumption of social mission suggests an earnest attempt to move out of self-preoccupation, even (as already with Albert Schweitzer) to amend the ramifications of colonialism, postcolonial theories of recent years have been extremely critical of Christianity's social politics. Theorist Gayatri Spivak (1988), for example, has consistently maintained that "the gravity of imperialism was that it was ideologically cathected as 'social mission'" (p. 301). Presumed needy, the objects of pity and therefore of mission, degenerate and--inevitably, rhetorically then--"poor" bodies have been used in no small way emotionally to motivate what theorists have variously called "the politics of rescue" or "the politics of saving" (Razack, 1998a).

Decolonizing theorist Ashis Nandy (1988), critically observing that "colonialism minus a civilizational mission is no colonialism at all (p. 11)," indicted missionary zeal--shared among western development and religious forces--as more destructive, because more psychologically insidious, than the earliest phase of conquering robber-barrons (pp. x-xi). Observing that "genocides, ecodisasters and ethnocides are but the underside of corrupt sciences and psychopathic technologies wedded to new secular hierarchies...," Nandy goes on specifically to name "the ideology of normality" as among the psychopathologies informing modern technology and science, further noting that the polarity of "the normal and the abnormal" and "the liberated and the savable" developed in the wake of such sciences (p. x). What has been affected by the discursive cultural implementation of the dialectic of vitality over against disability has been the fixing of cultural, including acceptable socio-economic, boundaries of the body--all within a discourse that appears to be invested in personal and social health, the invocation of health making it appear innocent, because seemingly benevolent.

"These [modernist] modes of classification, control, and containment" of the body, within which "the mediation of a science...and the practice of exclusion" are yoked, come equally enthused, as Foucault noted, with "a distinctive tradition of humanitarian rhetoric on reform and progress" (Rabinow, 1994, p. 8). "Disabled populations [have] been used," Mitchell and Snyder (1997) add, "to solidify and secure definitions of the altruistic service and moral commitments of diagnostic disciplines" (p. 19). Consequently, the social justice pathos and politics of Spirit have often resembled what culture theorist Rey Chow (1993) calls "sentimental sponsorship of 'the oppressed'" (p.112): While presuming to heal or to redeem the life of the other, thinking "the wretched" or "the oppressed"--like thinking "the handicapped" or "the disabled"--truncates the physics of love, depositing Western culture's ego-abject, i.e., that which we cannot tolerate about ourselves, into the place of the other. Liberal humanitarianism–whether in the form of compassion, social inclusion, or medical mission–still hides a social ideology and, often, spiritual superiority.

Assuming to speak as "the voice of the voiceless" reflects Western assumptions of selfhood and cultural values. Warning us about the power of assuming to be a representational proxy, anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff (1991) write, "...the essence of colonization inheres less in political overrule than in seizing and transforming 'others' by the very act of conceptualizing, inscribing and interacting with them on terms not of their choosing; in making them into pliant objects and silenced subjects of our scripts and scenarios; in assuming the capacity to 'represent' them" (p. 15). Rather than "saving" or "healing" the other, our "love" may then actually end up insisting upon its own way, insisting upon our own psychopathological orientation to normalcy, that is.

A Crip Nation?

Under the sign of Spirit, a presumed "cure-all," has ridden an unexamined regime of truth about bodies–one now caught up in the power of globalizing capitalism. While the physics of Spirit as miraculous remediation to normalcy was perhaps more overt in earlier stages of modern Christological theology, within the contemporary Historical Jesus Quest the impulse to cure has been transmuted into the politics of compassion. Liberal Christianities have in this way carried forward "the natural-supernatural dichotomy" now as a "superior humanitarianism" extended towards pitiable bodies, "the wretched" as also the disabled. Since Spirit's efficacy has been configured over against the disabled body, I want in this final section to address the question, what theology of Spirit might emerge consequent to the end of the apartheid of in/valid bodies?

Not as a biblical scholar, but as a theologian practicing disability and postcolonial theories simply to insinuate other possible insights into ancient texts and therefore into our social futures, I reconsider the relationship between Spirit and disablement in the biblical texts, asking, What could Spirit have constructively induced in these colonial hybrid zones, if not miraculous remediation? Rather than focusing on any one healing story in particular, I take as my starting point the familiar, banner headline in the synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke. This particular refrain, first loosed in the poetry of Isaiah, gets carried forward into Christian, especially Advent, liturgies, into our christological portraits and into the imagination of biotechnoscience. Consequent to the report of several healings, resurrections and exorcisms performed by Jesus, John the Baptist purportedly sends several of his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the great prophet whom we were expecting, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus retorts: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear..." (Luke 7:22 NRSV).

Not Disability, But Slavery:

The recitative of miracle cures carried from Isaiah to Luke, i.e., "the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear...," has sometimes been read as part of a "World Made Wonderful tradition." "It was the prophet Zoraster who as early as 1500 b.c.e. challenged the inevitability of social injustice [and "the imperial mythologies of an eternally hierarchical and oppressive status quo"] with the "vision of a coming time, ...the 'making wonderful'" (Keller, 2003, pp. 20-1). Isaiah appears canonically to be the first to liturgize this refrain. But notice: this tradition expects the reversal of economic colonization and the body politics that go with them--not necessarily the miraculous remediation of an individual disability per se. Disabilities as liturgized in Isaiah may need to be read not so much on their own individual, medical terms of health as of life under empire.

In the ancient Middle East, this particular list of impediments, i.e., blindness, lameness and deafness, suggested ways in which debt slaves were humiliated and prisoners of war were prevented from fleeing their captors. "There is overwhelming historical evidence," observes historian Gerda Lerner (1986) regarding the earliest records of enemy survivors in Mesopotamia circa 2500 b.c.e., "for the preponderance of the practice of...mutilating male prisoners and for the large-scale enslavement and rape of female prisoners" (p. 81). In a similar vein, historian Timothy Taylor (2001), while writing of the slave trade in the late first millennium b.c.e., incidentally notes that the annals of the Greek historian Herodotus mention that "the Scythians blind all their slaves" (p. 36) so as to become "the principal workforce in horse dairying. (p. 38)" In such cases, blindness seems to have been intended to prevent nomadic persons from either escaping the drudgery of this repetitive labor, from occasioning insurrection or from absconding with portions of the herd. Other ancient citations suggest that blindness, most frequently inflicted on males, led to labor in milling and in music (Gelb, 1973). Lerner (1986) points out that the Hebrew testament itself testifies to such practices: "The Old Testament mentions a number of cases of the blinding of prisoners of war: Samson (Judges 17:21), Zedekiah (II Kings 24:30b-25:1, 7), and the story of the men of Jabesh (2 Samuel 11:2)" (p. 82).

Especially high-ranking prisoners of war, for example, kings and officers of the defeated armies, were frequently subjected to putting out the eyes. Like the rape of women, something that often occurred alongside these practices, such acts of intentional mutilation were about warfare by way of psychological and social humiliation. Still other sources suggest that even circumcision may have arisen "as a mark of defilement or slavery" (Dunsmuire and Gordon, 1999, p. 1). The males of the nation of Israel might have consequently queered this sign of enslavement and humiliation to serve as symbol of their solidarity. "Queering" or inverting the meaning of this sociopolitically inscribed stigmata signified the renunciation of slavery as a legitimate socio-political practice.

Such miracle scenes as have been interpreted by biblical scholars to hold promise of eschatological reversal, again that "the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear...," may not then have much to do with anything like supernatural cure or biotechnopower's reversal of "disability" or even "the politics of compassion" by way of tolerant inclusion. These texts rather have to do with the destabilization and leveling of empire, an economic and socio-political situation in which poverty and ideological colonization and/or socio-political enslavement, occasion injuries to corporeal and communal well-being. Various biblical passages in fact consistently yoke these conditions in appositive phrases--Psalm 146, for example ("The Lord frees the captives; he gives sight to those who cannot see.").

Isaiah's liturgical deployment of these images (Is. 35, 42) appears to be borrowing upon Persian "World Made Wonderful" traditions, borrowing then the philosophy of Israel's new colonial savior, to extricate or dislodge persons from its existing colonizer, Babylon. Yet as beautiful the poetry, as strong as its image and as enticing as was the Isaianic hope, Israelites, especially the elite, did not necessarily come jubilantly streaming out of their exilic holds at the beckoning of the hymn. The metropolitan cities of the empire had grown familiar, comfortable--especially when set over against the reality of that tiny, rural and impoverished, 25 mile long sub-province of Judah, forced to "scrap[e] an existence from a land that had been repeatedly devastated by war, conquest, taxation" (Cohn,1993, p. 157).

So when the liturgical refrain will yet again be chanted by Matthew and Luke amidst the Pax Romana, might the refrain not be a welcomed rallying cry, but something more like a prophetic call to conscientization? In other words, the refrain might have served as a wake-up call–a call to wake to the ideological, if not socio-political powers in which people found themselves; a call to renounce such enslaving, colonizing conditions, given that "servants of Yahweh" had been called out of precisely such conditions. In unfolding eras, people may have found ways, using this metaphorically loaded refrain, to remind themselves that they were but "docile bodies" (Foucault, 1994), socially constructed by regimes not resonant with their own cultural sense of life and well-being, constructed by regimes that hobbled their flourishing. This refrain, i.e., "the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk," whose metaphors we have presumed to announce miraculous cure of an individuated and "disabled" body, might rather function as a persistent ideological interruption of the prevailing regime of constructed meaning. A "World Made Wonderful" needed not so much miraculous remediation of a disabled body as a socio-political reconstruction, an exit visa from the colonizing forces of empire. Comparably, in our present Western world, now going global, normalcy constitutes one such colonizing vector.

Micah 4 seems to suggest that this metaphoric disablement figuratively marked Israel as a nation: "In that day, says the Lord, I will assemble the lame... The lame I will make the remnant and those who were cast off, a strong nation..." (4:6-7). Rather than proving to be a perimeter of exclusion, these people make meaning and value in relation to the stigmata of disablement, the marks life carved on their flesh. A Crip Nation remembered that it had been but a slave in Egypt, refused humiliation, and cast the cloak of shame back upon its colonizers. Isaiah 42 likewise seems to suggest either the servant leadership of one who had been blinded (v. 19) or once again puts such metaphors of blindness and deafness, which I have connected with economic and political practices of enslavement, at the pivotal heart of being a covenant people. That a self-asserting Crip Nation proves the subjective center of the narrative named "the history of Israel" comes, given the presumptions of modernity's social group-grid overlay of normal/deviant, as quite the surprise.

Toward a Theology of Subversive Cohabitation:

In Palestine around the end of the first century c.e., a new innovation upon the Isaianic concept of a Crip Nation was wielded as the basis of a "theology of subversive cohabitation" (Sawicki, 2000, p. 60). Miracle stories have been arranged in the gospels so as to "replicate...in miniature the story of the Exodus," explains biblical scholar Burton Mack (1998, pp. 222-3). Floated on the lore of miracles, calling the reluctant into collectivity, crip bodies stage an Exodus "within" Empire. If "the boundaries crossed [by those receptive to the miracle lore] were social boundaries...," as Mack insists (p. 223), then I would say the secret to subversive cohabitation has to do with learning, as must every crip, to become (as the 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze would say) a "body without organs"--a body which deconstrues its social organizational alliances, like our patterns of overwork, as these circulate desire through the body, both individually and communally. Becoming a Crip Nation, then as now, pivots upon a critique of economic structure and demands re-imagining collectivity, kinship, interdependence (Meekosha and Dowse, 1997).

Whether the language of crips in prophetic and synoptic literature figured literally, given what happens to health in imperial contact zones, or metaphorically, so as to evoke "slaves of God, not of Caesar," these images called for subversive living even within the belly of empire. Subversion, however, worked not by marching army against army, but rather by excising and otherwise exciting desire so as to swerve empire from within. Such wisdom appears to have been introduced by the Crip Nation, those who knew the secrets of disarticulating social desires without losing life-love.

I wonder if solidarity with the Crip Nation--an awareness that "disability is a socially-created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society" and "one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth" (Russell and Malhotra, 2002, p. 1)–could be the sign by which "insurgent subjects" might today "create a collective agency (Bhabha, 1994, p. 199)." Could not the Crip Nation--that is, disablement as a reminder of capitalism's chokehold on the laboring body, if also the body's desire for collectivity, for not having to go it alone--serve as symbol for the "transmission of rebel agency" (Bhabha, 1994, p. 200)? Similarly, transvaluing Spirit from guarantor of miraculous remediation towards the recognition of persons living the variability and vulnerabilities of bodies with real presence to life, may allow Christians to get inventive about subjectivities that take their leave of contemporary, englobing capitalist economics.


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[ i ] In "A Postcolonial Exploration of Collusion and Construction in Biblical Interpretation," R. S. Sugirtharajah explains that "the emergence of many missionary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led exegetes to impose a missionary journey structure on the Acts." Once exegetically established, this "missionary-tour scheme" was, in turn, "used to sustain and legitimize mission activity." See The Postcolonial Bible, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah. Sheffield Academic Press, 1998: 91-116. Citation from p. 100.
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