Dismantling Normalcy, Empowering Hospitality: Engaging Thomas Reynolds' "Vulnerable Communion"

            Society breeds human beings to be "normal." What is normal is what is familiar, and what is familiar cannot surprise us. We know how to act in the normal, the everyday, the expected. We teach our children to behave in certain ways, how to interact with strangers, how to treat elders, how to behave in school, all under the guise of the "normal." While in many cases the normal has come about as a result of good intentions, it is wrong to assume that because something is normal that therefore it is good. Rather, it is important that one contextualizes their understanding of what is normal. In other words, what is normal for one group of people is not necessarily normal for another.

            In his book Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Thomas Reynolds identifies this trend towards normalization as the "cult of normalcy" (60). Of it he argues that "all cultures trade on ideals and representations of the good that become standardized in common identification markers and then accepted as an ostensibly shared body capital" (61). In and of itself, the cult of normalcy is not a bad thing. However, when it goes unrecognized, it can wrongfully lead to exclusion and oppression. Reynolds argues that because society's understanding is that "the normal is what we are supposed to be" and therefore that "the different is a corruption or privation of good" (62).

            Reynolds explicates the cult of normalcy because he recognizes that in the 21st century North American context people with disability are often not accepted as normal human beings. Disability is stigmatized as a result of the expectation of the normal. This stigma operates on the assumption that disability is something outside of normal social interaction, because disability often results in people failing to live up to the expectations and demands which society places on a person (63). As a result, Reynolds does not argue that society should attempt to rid itself of a standard of normalization, but rather that it simply needs a new normal, one in which people with disability are not stigmatized but welcomed for who they are.

            Vulnerable Communion is a book which is dedicated to establishing interdependency based on common vulnerability as the new normal for society. However, it is valid to ask how this new normal finds its way into society. Such a question quickly brings Reynolds' anthropological work into a new, political realm. Is the new normal to come about through the work of government? Should Christians pressure those with political authority to create new policies based on inclusion and acceptance for all people? While this may not be a bad place for people to start, it is not the conclusion which Reynolds comes to. No, it is not the government who must impose social change. Rather, inclusion of persons with disability begins in the church, rooted in the welcoming hospitality of Jesus Christ (239).

            While Reynolds gives relatively little space to the topic of hospitality in Vulnerable Communion, two things must be said about his use of hospitality. First, in many ways, the whole work is a work about hospitality. Reynolds recognizes that people with disability have traditionally not been the receivers of generous hospitality, and his entire work is dedicated to dismantling oppressive paradigms that reside in both societal and theological assumptions. Additionally, hospitality is the climax of Vulnerable Communion, the charge that Reynolds sends his readers away with. If people want to take seriously people with disability, they must begin with a hospitality that allows for people with disability to live and operate in a world which traditionally has oppressed them. The church is to do this, argues Reynolds, because "hospitality embodies divine love" (241).

            Why Reynolds thinks his approach of hospitality works is not because he thinks it will bring people with disability into a place of privilege that will simultaneously remove the oppressors currently occupying such a status. Rather, it is Reynolds' belief that a church praxis which begins with hospitality will function for the greater good of all people. He argues that "all human beings are vulnerable strangers in one sense or another, and at one time or another" (242). Because of humanity's shared status of vulnerability, an economy of hospitality will function for the good of all people. Hospitality, therefore, is just as much something which someone gives as it is something which someone receives.

            To conclude, it is imperative for Reynolds that this radical hospitality begins in the church. While I am sure that he would not be opposed to greater society becoming more welcoming and inclusive of people with disability, it remains that the church functioning as the body of Christ is the correct place to begin appropriating such hospitality. As the body of Christ, the church is rooted in the selfless love of Christ. Thus, the church's identity manifests itself as community drawn into participation with the Godhead through the empowering work of the Holy Spirit (237). As people who have been drawn into participation with God, it is the charge of the church to welcome all people into the life-giving hospitality of God. Hospitality, therefore, is the way that the church lives out the mutual love of God in neighbour, for all people must be given the opportunity to share in the true Life which stems from the Godhead.