Seeing the Disfigured Christ in an Abelistic Society

 

The following has been published in the May 13, 2013 issue of the Canadian Mennonite magazine.  I will post an online link in the future once the PDF becomes available online.  This should happen sometime within the next several weeks.  Now my friends who don’t subscribe to Canadian Mennonite can still read it here.

Seeing the Disfigured Christ in an Abelistic Society

By: Deborah-Ruth Ferber

We live in an idealistic society.  We live in an era of beauty, athleticism, and popularity which markets products that will make us more desirable to others and will get us ahead in the professional world.  Our society thrives off of productivity and always being at the peak of our health.  This constructed society that we call Canadian culture has little time for being sick, much less for being permanently disabled.  As a result, the gifts of our differently abled brothers and sisters are often overlooked, even within church settings, because we are not properly prepared to truly be inclusive to people of all ability levels.

In my studies at AMBS, I have been exploring theology in light of our brothers and sisters who are differently abled than I am.  This topic has led me to passionately research the topic of disability theology and to converse with many Mennonite pastors, leaders, and congregants on how disability awareness shapes who they are and how they see God.  From these conversations, I have begun to see God in different ways, and to see my role as a future pastor not only as one who brings the word of God to the people, but also as one who seeks to include all regardless of their perceived ability. 

From childhood, my image of God has been one of a strong, powerful, and wise creator.  These attributes are reflected in virtually every hymn, children’s chorus, and praise song that I know.  The church never taught me to see Jesus as weak, much less disabled.  Additionally, a large part of our theological understandings and leanings are consciously or unconsciously shaped by those who teach us.  Just as feminist theologians lament the fact that traditional Christianity seems very patriarchal because for many decades the key research findings were done by white middle-aged men, so too, disability theologians lament the fact that the Bible seems very ableistic because there are not many people with disabilities who contribute to theological scholarship.   In many cases, therefore, it is not so much an intentional construction of a powerful God, much less the intentional employment of an “ism”, but rather because one who is abled often has a difficult time bringing the topic of disabilities into their purview of theological thought and reflection.

  Yet, the Bible does talk about the disfigured Christ quite a bit, thus showing us that people with disabilities can often reflect Christ to us in very unique ways.  In Isaiah 53 we read that Christ was wounded and so disfigured that people hardly recognized him.  The Gospel accounts also explain in some detail the physical sufferings Jesus underwent, including the fact that he was too weak to carry his own cross.  Jesus often spoke about how the Kingdom of God belonged to “the least of these” – those not deemed as strong, powerful, or mighty within the community, and those who would were not likely to achieve high levels of status or acclaim.  When Jesus was offering the bread and the cup to his disciples at the last supper, he used the phrase “my body broken for you”, a verse that takes on a new dimension in light of a theology of disability.   These instances in the Scripture all remind me of Zechariah’s instruction for seeking true Shalom, “Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone, shall we all live in peace.” (Zech. 4:6)

My seminary experience has taught me that so often people construct barriers between themselves and others.  In theological language, this is referred to as “constructing the other.”  This primarily takes place when people use language to distance themselves from someone who is perceived as different from them, for example “THE disabled” or “THE mentally ill.”  Yet, in order to truly foster community growth, it is important to see the person first, and the disability as a precious gift which enhances who they are.  Yes, they may be broken, wounded, or bruised, but all of us also have pieces within ourselves which have been damaged in some way, yet, this does not make us “flawed”, but rather helps us to find our true humanity.  God is calling us to see all of God’s children as peacemakers who serve others and who we can learn important lessons from, regardless of ability, status, or prestige.  Each time the word “disabled” becomes “abled” we are intentionally claiming for ourselves a desire to work towards true Shalom within our own lives and within our churches. 

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2 thoughts on “Seeing the Disfigured Christ in an Abelistic Society

  1. My observation has been that physical disabilities and illness are readily acknowledged with compassion and understanding, even if at some times it is uncomfortably expressed. Several years ago a pastor told me that we all become equal as we pass through the doors and over the threshold of the church entrance. There have been times when I have seriously questioned the validity of this statement. It would seem that people can have a much more difficult time becoming equal with persons who have other “flaws”. Mental illness is a good example of this. There are however other “inequities” which are also dealt with poorly. These might include things such as wealth/poverty/employment and intellectual/educational accomplishment or lack thereof within our own church communities. Far too often these other “flaws” are dealt with using gaslighting (http://jebrown.us/Relationshop/Definitions/gaslighting.html) or marginalization behaviours that can be extremely hurtful and which are either flatly denied, tacitly approved of by turning a blind eye to them or victims can be told to simply forgive/ignore the behaviours and move on as if they had never happened or didn’t exist. Unfortunately the result of this is a victim’s perceived expectation that it is incumbent on them to do the attitude adjustment and not those that engage in these hurtful behaviours. This only tends to reinforce the victims insecurity and their belief they are truly as flawed as they may already believe themselves to be and that they truly are insignificant, inadequate and unappreciated within the context of a church communities walk with Christ. Hopefully victims do not succumb to this belief and the only saving grace is if the victim feels confident in their own personal walk with Jesus even if this walk has not felt fulfilment within the traditional church context. Fortunately, there are a growing number of groups, formal and informal, that offer fellowship and support to those who feel that because of these behaviours they no longer are able to fit into a conventional church setting. The danger is that issues are not addressed, the groups are not found and a person’s personal faith could fall completely off the rails.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Ken. They are indeed very powerful and open up a host of opportunities for discussion, learning, and growing alongside each other. I think the Mennonite church and all churches in general can really benefit from what you shared here.

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