Disability and Embodied Ecclesiology: Reflecting on the Place of the Disabled in the Body of Christ

Joel Shuman has argued that "In this life and the next, we are never properly less than our bodies. Always and everywhere, we exist as fragments of animated earth, entwined in complex webs of contingent interdependent relationships with particular people, places, and things" (Joel James Shuman, To Live is Worship: Bioethics and the Body of Christ, 3). For Shuman, each person is no more and no less than their body. Our whole life is mediated by our bodies, from encounters with our friends and family to our encounters with God. Human beings are embodied creatures. God has made us bodies (10). Because of the particularities of each person's body–no two bodies are identical–Shuman refers to our bodies as "landscapes of flesh" (48-49). The use of the word "landscape" is spatial language, it suggests that our body is a place in which we encounter the world. It is in and through these particular places that we experience the world, through "touch, taste, smell, and varieties of manipulations and tactile and motor observations that mark and shape both the learning body and the body learned about" (46).

The language of disability is embodied language. While there are varying definitions of what "disability" actually means, in its most basic form disability suggests that one's body lacks certain abilities and capacities typically present in the majority of human beings. While disabilities are typically categorized into two categories, physical and intellectual, both ultimately refer to one's body and the abilities inherent within. As a result, these "disabled" bodies are looked down upon by society, and, wherever possible, are treated by modern medicine in an attempt to "fix" what is "broken." Thus, as Jason Reimer Greig has argued, "When a fully functioning body and a complete lack of sickness come to be defined as the standard for human flourishing, impairments can only stand as deviations and flaws of normality" (Jason Reimer Greig, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: L'Arche, Medical Ethics, and Christian Friendship, 60). The "disabled" body stands in a stark contrast to normality, and, as a result, persons with disability are ostracized, oppressed, and banned from full participation in the life of a society dependent upon such a medical model for their vision of human flourishing, or, they are included only insofar as they fit into the model of normality.

As the body of Christ, the church must stand as a stark contrast to this reality. The church must provide a vision of being in community in which persons with disability are included not just on the periphery, but as vital and contributing members. But what does this have to do with the body, and, in particular, the "disabled" body? For Reimer Greig, "in Christian theology it is the body of Christ, the ecclesia, which forms the basic context for interpreting the psycho-physical body of the individual, the corpus" (67). The body of Christ has inherent implications for the identity of our physical bodies. This is because "humans are not in total control of their identities, but discover who–and whose–they are within the Body gathered by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Bodies exist not as possessions of autonomous selves but, more fundamentally, as unique parts of the larger body of Christ" (67). As our bodies are incorporated to the body of Christ, we become indwelled with the real presence of Christ, and thus are ontologically changed. Therefore, it is not only that we discover who we are within the body gathered by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit but that by this inclusion in the body of Christ, we are ontologically changed and conformed to live in and with Christ.

However, if a change occurs, what does such a change look like for our gathered communities? In his book The Bible, Disability, and the Church, Amos Yong has outlined what he refers to as "a disability-inclusive theology of the church" (82). Drawing heavily upon 1 Corinthians 12-14, Yong suggests in this passage Paul provides "disability-inclusive and disability-friendly ecclesiological recommendations to the church at Corinth" (90). In particular, Yong wants to prioritize a reading that highlights Paul's claim that "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect . . . God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor 12:22-25, NRSV).

From this passage, Yong constructs a threefold argument that leads us towards a more disability-inclusive theology of the church. First, Yong highlights Paul's reference to weakness and suggests that there is no reason for us to abstain from reading disability into Paul's use of weakness. Yong makes this claim because he argues that in Corinthians, Paul's chief concern was about attitudes of elitism and superiority in which those deemed less spiritual were excluded, thus threatening to fragment the unity of the body. Yong suggests that we can read persons with disability into this category of those deemed to be less spiritual, as persons with disability have traditionally been excluded from churches because of their disability. Hence, this passage in Corinthians serves as a rebuke of the Corinthian elite, "a reprimand that is inclusive of marginalized people with infirmities and disabilities" (92).

Second, Yong argues that the specifically ecclesiological implications of this passage have to do with the inclusion of weaker members as essential to the body of Christ. For Yong, "the most disregarded, despised, and denigrated individuals associated with the Corinthian congregation are as important if not more important than the power brokers. By extension, a disability hermeneutic actually insists that the weaker, 'less honorable,' and 'less respectable' (12:23) parishioners fit people with disabilities according to conventional stereotypes" (92). Furthermore, similar to Shuman, Yong argues that the references to body in this passage highlight that "body parts are the nexuses through which human bodies interface and interact with the world" (93). Thus, persons with disability, who are continuously defined by the limits of their bodies, must be read as the weaker, less honorable, and less respectable members who Paul categorizes as indispensible in this passage. Accordingly, "an ecclesiology of weakness would resist conventional ableist marginalization of people with disabilities as weaker, less respectable, or less-than-necessary members of the church with little to contribute" (93). In such a reading, persons with disability become imperative members of the church.

This leads us towards the third facet of Yong's argument, which is moving towards an understanding of the weaker members of the body as equal recipients of and conduits for the Spirit's gifts. For Yong, God gives the Spirit's gifts to all members of the body so that all may contribute to the common good of the body.Yong wants to be clear, however, that it is not the case that the Spirits gifts are given to the stronger members to minister to the weaker. Rather, he argues that "it is more in keeping with Paul's theology of weakness that the more powerful manifestations are mediated through those whose abilities are less noticeable or who are thought to be lesser candidates for God's work from a worldly or 'normal' point of view" (94). Thus, no believer or gifting should be dismissed, because it is often the case where the giftings of the weaker can be used to build up the strong. Ultimately, for Yong, the central implication of his argument is that, according to this passage, "people with disabilities are by definition embraced as central and essential to a fully healthy and functioning congregation in particular, and to the ecclesial body in general" (95).

Yong's visions of the church is one where each member is included because each has been given gifts by God that contribute to the flourishing of the community. Thus, no individual can make up the full extent of the community in the same way that no body part can make up the entirety of the body. Because of this, members of the body of Christ must recognize that the church is only a body insofar as all of her members contribute to her health and well being, regardless of each individual body's ability or disability. The body of Christ must learn to rely on the contributions of all her members as each has been bestowed gifts by God.

Jason Reimer Greig has taken up similar themes in his essay "Striving Towards Dependence." In this essay, Reimer Greig argues that "[a]s Mennonite Christians living in Western, late modern society, it is tempting to understand the church as being composed merely of voluntaristic, consensual individuals who freely choose to gather and share life together. Yet this view alone misses crucial dimensions of human life and risks turning Christians into isolated monads autonomously producing their own faith" (38. Reimer Greig, like myself, comes out of the Mennonite tradition). For Reimer Greig, this is problematic because he understands an overemphasis on individualism and independence to be isolating, and contrary to a vision of human flourishing. Rather, it is his contention that "recovering and returning to a human identity as dependent creatures potentially offers a more authentic vision of human flourishing" (39).

Reimer Greig identifies a trend towards individualism that has lurked in the Mennonite tradition since the beginning. "The Radical Reformers clearly believed that faith must originate in the individual, not in external institutions or social pressures. Being identified as a Christian or becoming a member of the church required a previous decision, encountered and arrived at within the subjective individual. Authentic Christian faith must begin from within the individual through an intentional and rational choice to follow Christ" (48). While he does qualify this statement, saying that the Radical Reformers held a medieval belief that this "decision" was only a response to a prior movement from God, thus entirely dependent upon God and the work of the Holy Spirit, such a reading of the Radical Reformation still pervades the attitudes of Mennonite churches. For Reimer Greig, Mennonite emphasis on believer's baptism suggests a heightened independence which is essential to many Mennonite expressions of faith. It is his claim that embedded into the psyche of many Mennonite congregations is the belief that faith is for the one who can individually choose to follow Christ solely based upon their own capacity for reason and comprehension. Absent from this belief is any reference to God's work or the place of the church. Rather, for many Mennonite congregations, the place of the individual is prioritized in the baptismal ritual. Such an emphasis risks turning baptism into a purely human act.

To combat such an attitude of individualism, Reimer Greig suggests a re-evaluation of the practices of baptism and foot washing in Mennonite churches. To do this, however, we must return to the understanding that believers are not primarily choosers or makers, but receivers of God's grace. Because of this, Christians are entirely dependent upon the gifts God bestows upon us for our own existence. We have nothing when we cease to be dependent upon God's good and gracious gifts. Anything less risks making the Christian rituals of baptism and foot washing about ourselves rather than about God.

For Reimer Greig, "a focus on baptism as an act of God first and foremost challenges the choosing self, who believes that it can make its own life. Rather, when the church stresses the Holy Spirit as agent of grace in the ordinance, Christians remember that believers are all created and continually being created by God in total gratuity and care" (55-56). Thus, baptism returns to a practice which draws us into God's community and life rather than being about great personal accomplishments of faith. Similarly, "foot washing has the potential to reveal this aspect of grace in a powerful way by emphasizing that Christians cannot wash themselves but must be washed by another. Foot washing embodies humanity’s reliance on God and one another for the recognition of the gift of their lives. In learning to have their feet washed, Christians recognize the power of the Holy Spirit in gratuitously (re-)creating persons into the people of God" (56).

Ultimately, both of the practices of baptism and foot washing are bodily practices. It is bodily in two forms. In these practices, it is our physical bodies that participate in the rituals. It is our physical body which is immersed in the waters of baptism, and our feet which are washed by the hands of another. These practices are embodied practices. Yet, these practices are also bodily insofar as they are practices which constitute our participation in the body of Christ. In baptism, we are incorporated as members of Christ's body, and in foot washing we enact our interdependence and calling to serve and be served by others. Thus, the practices of baptism and foot washing remind us of our bodies, both physical and corporate.