The New Testament shows many instances of Jesus ministering to the sick and disabled—another of his revolutionary acts, since they were often shunned. Jesus had the power to heal, the scriptures teach, but several new books offer Christians ways to view disability through the lens of the Bible, and how to care for those whose conditions are lifelong.
Is disability theology it a new field? Not exactly, according to David Aycock, interim director at Baylor University Press, which is publishing a number of books on the topic. “The church has long been involved in the care of people with disabilities, although at times it has been misguided. But the prioritization of disability as its own theological lens is only a few decades old...The study of disabilities at the intersection of theology and biblical studies nourishes able-bodied readers and readers with disabilities alike with empathy, perspective, and understanding.” Aycock notes, “Baylor publishes voices that aren’t being heard, and we advocate for groups who aren’t being seen. Disability studies deserves a seat at the table along with all of the other sub-disciplines of religion.”
Baylor’s Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability series, edited by Amos Yong and Sarah Melcher, launched in 2007 and includes 10 volumes; the next will be Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ (Aug.). Author Brian Brock intersperses theological concepts i with stories about his own learning-impaired teenage son, Adam. “Most people would consider my son Adam profoundly intellectually disabled,” writes Brock. “One of Adam’s many gifts to me is to make the terms ‘profound’ and ‘disabled’ feel painfully misleading….Should Adam emerge in these pages as a person, citizen, and churchman in his own right I will have succeeded in one of my main goals: to offer readers a sense of the ways common distinctions like able and disabled, high functioning and the profoundly disabled can hide profoundly interesting lives.” Brock is a reader in moral and practical theology at the University of Aberdeen.
A standalone title from Baylor is Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community by Grant Macaskill (Baylor, Nov.), who focuses on autism in churches and offers believers fresh ways to see it. Macaskill writes, “Autism….is so common…that almost every Christian community will experience its effects in some way, whether through members who are autistic or have autistic children or through interaction with the wider society.” While acknowledging how difficult autism can be, for the autistic and for their loved ones, Macaskill, like Brock, views it as a gift from God, “who chooses (elects) to involve those with autism in his work and to give them to the membership of the body. Gifts may be fragile and may require to be handled with care; gifts may incur obligations that we might prefer not to have; but they are precious things through which God blesses us in ways that we could never imagine.” Macaskill is Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.
IVP’s Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church by Bethany McKinney Fox (IVP, May) weaves together biblical studies, ethics, disability studies, and the work of medical professionals to place the healing narratives of the Bible in their cultural contexts. The goal is to help readers understand Jesus’s healing ministry and grasp the model it provides for relationships with people with disabilities. "Often…what disables the people seeking healing has at least as much to do with social and cultural factors as it does with their physical limitations,” she writes. “Many obstacles facing people with disabilities are socially constructed both in Jesus’ context and today, so a lens that acknowledges how this impacts life before and after a healing is essential for interpreting the healing narratives and developing holistic practices of healing in our church communities." Fox is the director of student success and adjunct professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Jean Vanier, who died in May, pioneered new approaches to the disabled, and a new biography, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant (Plough, Aug.) tells how he founded L’Arche, a network of homes where the disabled can live in community with volunteer caregivers, instead of being shut away in institutions. The son of a prominent Canadian family, Vanier joined the navy during World War II at age thirteen, became an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto. In 1963, Vanier moved into a house in the village of Trosly, France, and invited two mentally and physically disabled men to join him. He called the house L’Arche, after the Ark, with which Noah rescued Earth’s animals two by two; today L’Arche has 154 communities in 38 countries, and another organization he helped found, Faith and Light, has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Vanier was the author of more than 30 books (An Ark for the Poor; Becoming Human) and was awarded the Paul IV prize in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, has been lauded by Pope Francis, and in 2015 received the $1.7 million Templeton Prize, given for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
“If the story of the founding [of L’Arche] is surprising, even more surprising is the story of the founder,” writes Constant. “Here was a fervent Catholic who founded ecumenical and interreligious communities in which atheists felt at home, a sailor who settled on land, a philosopher who chose to live with people of limited intelligence. A child of privilege, he had danced with princesses, dined with politicians and philosophers, and circled the world twice…. Why, then, did this talented young man choose to live in poverty with people who are so often and so tragically excluded and humiliated? Why did he, knowing nothing about physical or intellectual disabilities, commit to sharing his life with two unknown people?”
The answer, Constant found, is that “Jean Vanier knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices; from intellectual, religious, or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion… he knew how to listen to his own inner voice—the conscience, which Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us is not just the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but a force that pulls us toward liberty, justice, and light.”