Why Disability Studies should engage Christian Theology (and vice-versa): A Secular Perspective

In addition to being a frequent SDS participant and organizer, Harold Braswell is an assistant professor of bioethics at Saint Louis University. A list containing links to several of his published works can be here. He is also the organizer of the SDS group, Family Members of People with Disabilities.

An agnostic Jew for as long as I can remember, I may seem a particularly ill-suited person to advocate for the mutual importance of an engagement between disability studies and Christian theology. After all: Why would I try to persuade predominantly secular disability studies scholars to engage with a faith tradition that they do not share—and may even find abhorrent? And why should Christians break bread with disability studies scholars whose secular orientation would seem equally upsetting to their theological worldview? Lastly, how can the contributions of Christian disability studies scholars serve in ameliorating this dichotomy and enriching the perspectives of both communities? The answer to the first two questions is simple: Because it’s in the best interests of both parties. And I say “best interests” not only in the coldly political sense (though certainly that as well), but also in a deeper sense: A mutual engagement between disability studies scholars and Christians will expand each group’s intellectual and emotional range. I know this from personal experience. When I began my academic career, I had no interest in engaging theology in general or Christianity in particular. Nevertheless, I was forced into such an engagement by a simple fact: Whenever I did attempt to study the provision of disability services in a particular area, I found that the best services were being provided by Christian organizations. This happened to me on two occasions: First, in 2005-6, I volunteered at Cottolengo Don Orione, a Catholic home for intellectually disabled women in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then, from 2012-3, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, a Catholic end-of-life facility in Atlanta, Georgia. These two experiences of engagement with Christian disability service providers were, in many ways, different, yet they were also united by commonalities that have changed my view of the relationship between Christianity and disability rights. In both occasions, Christian service providers were caring for disabled populations who otherwise lacked appropriate care within the medical systems of their respective countries. At Don Orione, nuns provided care to intellectually disabled women who had otherwise been abandoned by both their families and the greater society. At Our Lady, Dominican sisters gave poor terminally ill patients a form of long-term, end-of-life care that is inaccessible to all but the wealthy in our society. Both homes filled systemic gaps in their respective countries’ health care systems. Nevertheless, though both homes provided charitable care, they did not maintain the hierarchy of “pity” that has so often structured charitable interventions for the disabled. Rather, they based their care in the universality of Christ’s body—specifically, Christ’s body as he died on the cross. Christ, for the sisters of both homes, provided an image of what Nancy Eiesland called the “disabled God,” a disabled figure who was not marginal to the home, but rather central to conceptions of both the human and the divine. At Our Lady, the home’s sisters strove to “see” Jesus in not only dying patients, but also in themselves. Thus, the centrality of Christ’s “disabled” body to the Christian tradition meant that these Christian disabled service providers engaged disability from a radically different perspective than the “medical” model. I have learned a lot from this perspective, and I believe it is one that disability studies scholars can benefit from as well. Christian disability service providers have years—even centuries—of experience caring for disabled individuals who lack resources and/or exist at the boundary of what the mainstream bioethical establishment regards as an acceptable “quality of life.” While at times this care has been problematic, the centrality of disability to the Christian tradition makes it, ultimately, I would argue, much more amenable to a disability studies approach than Western medicine more generally. At the same time, the Christian reformulation of medicine provides an interesting model that disability studies scholars can think of as we try to integrate the “social model” into medical education. This is but one example of the benefits of a potential union between disability studies and Christian theology. Such a union will of course contain many tensions and points of conflict. But my own experience has taught me that it is a worthwhile effort to undertake.


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