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Thinking Out Loud

Learning from Disability Theology

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 23, 2016


Editor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog is guest written by Dr. Debra J. Mumford (pictured), Louisville Seminary’s Frank H. Caldwell Professor of Homiletics.

Earlier this year, I presented a paper on preaching and health at Societas Homiletica, the international homiletics conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. During the question-and-answer period, I was asked, “If it is the will of God that all people experience good physical health, what do you have to say to good and faithful Christian people who experience illness and disease and who do not experience healing?” After the conference I began to wrestle with that question. I sought answers from a number of different theologians and found some of them in the work of disability theologian Nancy Eiesland.

Eiesland was an ethics professor at Candler School of Theology and a pioneer in the field of disability theology. In her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Eiesland sought to develop a theology of disability that would encourage Christians to embrace their disabled sisters and brothers and welcome them into their faith communities. She argued that if Christians could conceive of the resurrected Christ as disabled because of the impairments of his hands and feet which he suffered on the cross, then new possibilities of understanding the human body in relation to God could be realized.

First, she asserts that the disabled God allows us to redefine what it means to be whole. The Greek term hugies, which is translated as whole in some of the gospels, can mean “to restore to health.” Yet, Eiesland argues, though Jesus was physically impaired, he was still understood by his followers to be holy and divine. Therefore, Eiesland believes that wholeness has more to do with relationships—with God and other people—than bodily perfection. If we apply Eiesland’s logic to those experiencing sickness and disease, then someone who has terminal cancer and is in right relationship with God and their neighbors, is indeed whole.

Secondly, Eiesland contends that the disabled God calls upon all Christians to recognize and accept the limits of human physical bodies. Jesus’ physical body bore evidence of its limits through impairments acquired through abuse and torture. Eiesland deems acknowledgment of the physical limits of the human body as liberatory realism. Liberatory realism is freedom experienced by accepting the reality that all bodies have limits. It is the truth of being human.

Eiesland highlights the disconnect between the idealized bodies that are paraded in advertisements and the real bodies of most of us that fall far short of physical perfection. Attempting to realize the ideal body prevents most people from loving and appreciating their bodies just as they are.1 For Eiesland, when all humans accept the reality that their physical bodies have limits, attention that is now focused on attaining and retaining human perfection can be redirected to issues of justice to insure that all people have access to resources they need to live full lives. Barriers that exclude and humiliate many can be torn down. Hope can be envisioned so that people with bodies outside of the previously accepted social norms will realize that their lives are worth living. Those with conventional bodies may be emboldened to embrace their own bodily limitations by acknowledging that even conventional bodies fail at times. Those with impaired bodies may be emboldened to affirm their own bodies as good, whole and beautiful just the way they are.2

Thirdly, Eiesland believed that all human bodies are subject to contingency or chance and uncertainty. As a result, all human bodies come in three forms: temporarily able-bodied, temporarily disabled or permanently disabled.3 The temporarily able-bodied are those who have not yet experienced the effects of sickness, disease or age. She contends that even those who experience good health throughout their lives will, if they live to experience old age, also experience disability to some degree. Her point here is that being disabled or sick is not necessarily an indication of lack of faith or being in a sinful state. Rather, physical disability, sickness and illness are the consequences of being human. Period.

To those who would argue that by imagining God as disabled we are simply downsizing God to fit into our human conceptions, I would say perhaps you are right. And, it is something we do all of the time. Throughout scriptures, in our denominational traditions, and in our daily lives we ascribe human attributes to God in an attempt to better understand the God we serve. However, if we can learn to embrace the spirit which is God, then we can stop attempting to create images of God in an attempt to be exclusive. We can rather embrace the spirit which allows us to be radically inclusive.

So today, in response to the question, “If it is the will of God that all people experience good physical health, what do you have to say to good and faithful Christian people who experience illness and disease and who do not experience healing?” I would say, “Your illness can happen to any of us because we are human. God loves you just the way you are.”

1Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 110.
2Eiesland, The Disabled God, 95-96.
3Eiesland, The Disabled God, 110.

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