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.


Agape Love and Richard Dawkins’ Privileged Conflation of Reason with Justice


I confess: I love someone with Down Syndrome. None of my family members or close friends have this disability, but I often see such individuals on the street, at the Y, on the bus; any public place where human diversity can be readily noted. The love I’m talking about is agape: the love a person feels for others by virtue of their identity as individuals.

This kind of love also defines dignity in relation to justice: When Richard Dawkins and his ilk present their perspectives as if they were incontrovertible facts, they subjugate the experiences of different identity groups. I find it obvious that when such commentators use the pronoun “we,” they are referring to ablebodied, white, heterosexual male individuals: those with whom they share the most privileged position in society. Their perspective always affirms their identities as constituting a legitimate facet of the human experience, but explicitly subjugates the experiences of those who have experienced political oppression.

In discussing his latest of many ignorant assertions regarding the experiences of subjugated people groups (Muslims, sexual assault victims and most recently those with Down Syndrome), Dawkins has asserted that those who responded negatively to his assertions loved someone with Down Syndrome, and were too emotionally biased to appreciate the rationale behind his argument; thus imparting the bizarre implication that the emotion of love and the capacity for objective reasoning are mutually exclusive. Surely Dawkins realizes that emotions are essential in preventing the human race’s evolution into empathy-less robots; but his thinking process seems to be stymied by a privileged disassociation between disability and the benefit of preservation: because Dawkins assumes that his perspective on Down Syndrome is inherently benevolent, he contextualizes love as a hindrance to the latter’s eradication.

 What Dawkins doesn’t realize is that those of us who love individuals with Down Syndrome understand him very well: he and his colleagues have a serious ableism problem, but their privilege prevents them from acknowledging how this phenomenon impacts his perceptions of what is “rational;” a characteristic that Dawkins conflates with justice.

What Disabled Christians Want and Need

Daniel Salamon is a co-organizer of the SDS Christian Caucus and Interest Group. He has written several books on Christian Theology and Environmentalism. His latest work; Confessions of An Autistic Theologian: A Contextual Liberation Theology, was released in 2013. He is also the author of Human-Animal Reconciliation: Franciscan Faith-based Interspecies Communications and Its Implications For Wildlife (2008) Creation Unveiled: The Implications of Girardian Theory for Environmental and Animal Issues (2003, 2010), Christian Environmental Studies: Toward a Graduate Program-Revised and Expanded (2012) and Have Mercy on Me, an Ecological Sinner (2012). In this blog post he discusses the needs of disabled Christians in our communities of faith.

What the Disability Assembly Might Want At-Large: I am basing my observation on what the disability community at-large needs from the Christian Church, based on my attendance of a presentation entitled “Spirit & Pride: Reimagining Disability in Jewish and Christian Communities” at the 2012 Society of Disability Studies annual conference in Denver, Colorado. All of us came to similar conclusions based on discussions, debates and break-out sessions which I will list briefly.
  • We Do Not Want Charity, We Want Justice!
  • There Is More To Accessibility Then Mere Wheelchair Ramps!
  • Act Locally!
  • The Moral Imagination as Libratory Praxis for Disability Justice!
I have my own list of how I re-imagine disability in Christian communities as a neurodiverse human:
  • To Get the Word “Selfish” Out Of Your Vocabulary!
  • To Crip Christian Environmentalism!
  • To Get That The Mind Is A Body Too!
  • To Become ADA Compliant and Fully Include Neurodiversity In Religious Leadership!
  • To Defend The Highest Ideals of the Christian Religion!
This is copyrighted material from Daniel Salomon’s book Confessions of an Autistic Theologian: A Contextual, Liberation Theology (Amazon: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

Disability and the Goodness of God’s Creation

Meghan Schrader is a co-organizer of the SDS Christian Interest Group/Caucus. Her first publication, “The Sound of Disability: Music, The Obsessive Avenger and Eugenics in America,” will be published in the forthcoming anthology Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age, edited by Stanley C. Pelkey and Tony Bushard; published by Oxford University Press.

In my first blog post, I’d like to contrast my experiences in two different Christian communities. I believe that these anecdotes will help illustrate the dichotomy between how disabled Christians want to be seen as members of our faith communities and how our experiences are currently concieved. When I was eleven, I already firmly believed that my disabilities were personal differences rather than deficits and that God looked at them in the same way. I reasoned that He created different races, so why not different abilities? That year, I attended a fundamentalist Christian camp where a well-intentioned counselor advised me that my learning disability was caused by Satan and that I needed to pray for God to break the bonds of supernatural oppression in my life. Her suggestion was so antithetical to what I believed about my disability and God that I wasn’t even angry at first-just shocked. (It took me a few moments to process the statement and become upset that she attributed my cherished eccentricities to *the devil.*)

I told her that I believed God had made me who I was on purpose, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that what I really wanted was for people to accept me for who I was. Why, I asked, should I change while the people around me persisted in their bullying and bigoted behavior? Why, frankly, would I want to be like them? Should they not change their perspectives? Was that not part of God’s plan? I think that she was very taken aback and also somewhat humbled by what I said. It’s my hope that the conversation was enlightening for her.

That was in 1994. Seventeen years later, in 2011, I was having a discussion with a pastor about selective abortion. In contrast to the aforementioned camp counselor, this pastor hails from a very progressive Christian community where attributing someone’s disability to the supernatural is considered to be backward and cruel. While the pastor appreciated my perspective and desire for increased disability services, she asked me: “But what about really severe disabilities…like a severely hydrocephalic child…do you think, maybe, that God gave us that technology so we could know ahead of time?

Rather than discuss my response to the pastor’s question, I’d like to contrast it with my earlier experience of having my disability attributed to Satan. It really doesn’t matter that the first woman was a fundamentalist, pro-life Christian and the second was a progressive, pro-choice Christian. While the solutions proposed by their statements seem diametrically opposed (medical vs. spiritual intervention), the sentiment contained in their statements is the same: severe disabilities are horrible and eliminating them is a compassionate, Christian thing to do. Little consideration is given to the harm done to the person who is subject to such measures because their solutions of exorcism and targeted abortion both spring from our society’s morbid fear of human deformity and difference.

The latter discontinuity is something that our group hopes to address by exploring the intersection of disability justice with Christian theology. We hope to affirm disabilities as a good part of God’s creation and to explore how Christian disability studies scholars and activists can reconcile challenging intersections between those identities. We also welcome non-Christians who wish to consider these issues with us. We will provide a safe, open space for believers of all perspectives to experience fellowship with one another, as well to explore how we can apply our Christian values in the public sphere.