Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my therapist, “Will I ever get to the bottom of this pile of bad feelings, or is this my life?” I was going through another patch of nightmares and becoming frustrated. No new information was coming up; the incidents were way in the past, by now more thoroughly re-processed than Cheez Whiz.

I’d been operating with this image of my psyche as an overstuffed closet. As long as I was awake, I could keep holding the door shut, but every time I fell asleep, some junk would fall out. Eventually, though, wouldn’t I run out of old junk? Then I would have reclaimed my entire closet, to fill only with things from my fabulous new life!

But my therapist was like, “Nah, it doesn’t work that way.”

Some feelings will shift, she said; some memories will lose their charge, others will remain very painful but arise less often. However, PTSD is for many people a lifelong chronic condition. As Buddha said about suffering in general, the biggest thing I can do to ease my burden is to stop resisting it. Stop being surprised and frightened when it flares up again. Stop being angry at myself for not being “done” healing. There is no “done”.

I was thrilled!

It was a relief to stop blaming myself for my scars, and the survivor-introvert-Highly Sensitive Person in me loves predictability. But also, I was overjoyed that now I had a name for the liberal Christian indifference toward survivors, which I’d been awkwardly calling “normalcy privilege”.

Ableism.

On one level, the liberal church does a lot to ensure access for people with disabilities. Our parish, for instance, is one of the few congregations in the area with a sign language interpreter every Sunday. We’re undertaking a heroic capital campaign to add an elevator. The priest adapts the liturgy to say, “Those who are able, please stand”.

But as is usually the case in liberalism, the model is inclusion for the disabled, rather than disability as a standpoint for liberation theology. The latter, more radical posture would mean that the able-bodied/neurotypical people in charge would de-center their own experience, and invite the disabled to share what Christianity looks like in our lives.

For instance, where do we situate ourselves in the many gospel stories about Jesus healing mental and physical illnesses? (I’m treating the demon-possession stories as examples of mental illness because those were the manifested symptoms, but I don’t mean to imply the demons weren’t also real.) Liberal sermons about these stories are more likely to assume a non-disabled subject position for their audience. “We” are encouraged to emulate Jesus by healing others, or to overcome “our” prejudices about sharing fellowship with mentally challenged people. I will say that our church has made some progress beyond this narrow paradigm, through sermons about personal and family struggles with addiction, such as this beautiful meditation from lay preacher Vicki Ix at God Is Always More.

When we only talk about disability in the context of healing, that’s problematic in its own right. Of course those who feel afflicted want healing. Of course those who empathize with others’ affliction want to offer them something to hope for. But in reality, some conditions are incurable. While I don’t rule out miraculous divine cures, I feel that most of our energy should be directed toward overcoming obstacles to the disabled person’s functioning as an equal in our church, just as she is.

The pressure to manifest a spiritual happy ending can actually impair recovery. When there is healing, particularly for psychological conditions, it may not even be recognized by the non-afflicted, because they’ve been steeped in the ableist cultural narrative of triumphing over the disability rather than embracing it. For example, survivors who claim they’ve forgiven the abuser and released all angry feelings get more credit for being “healed” than survivors who have gone deep enough into recovery to feel righteous anger and finally love themselves.

Alongside the theology of healing, we need to develop theology that honors the disability as an genuine alternative way of being in the world. This is how some hearing-impaired people feel about Deaf culture. The autism community also includes many who want to celebrate their neurodiversity rather than eliminate it. In my recent post about survivors’ spiritual gifts, I suggested that the church could learn something unique from our trauma history and how we adapted to it.

The foregoing discussion owes much to Kelby Carlson’s essay “Crooked Healing“, which I found when Googling disability theology. Carlson, a music student and evangelical Christian, suggests that disability can be a vocation and a symbol of the universal human vulnerability that calls for God’s grace. Some quotes follow, but please read the whole thing here.

…It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God…

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…The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world…

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…There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory…

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross [the thorn in the flesh]…

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…The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering…

Have a blessed Good Friday, dear readers.

3 comments to Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

  1. Karina Tefft says:

    Hello Jendi,

    My name is Karina Tefft and I am the East Coast Booking Agent for Peterson Toscano. I am reaching out to inform you that Peterson has a new blog with a new address that can be found at http://www.petersontoscano.com/blog“>http://www.petersontoscano.com/blog, and has in fact relaunched his website to promote a new direction with his queer performance activism. I have included a detailed press release about his new site and his new work (see second comment, as there is not enough room to post the press release here), which we encourage you to share both on your site and through other social media. We thank you for listing Peterson’s blog (http://www.petersontoscano.wordpress.com) on your compelling site, and request that you update this link using the aforementioned address (http://www.petersontoscano.com/blog“>http://www.petersontoscano.com/blog). Peterson has always been on the forefront of human rights work and performance art, and is once again on the cutting edge as he elevates Climate Change as an LGBTQ issue. We’d love it if you shared with your readers what’s going on with Peterson’s art and activism.

    Please feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns, or other interests.

    Many thanks,

    Karina Tefft
    p2son productions
    603-969-8389
    karina@petersontoscano.com

  2. Karina Tefft says:

    Peterson Toscano Press Release Part One:

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 4/21/14
    Karina Tefft
    p2son productions
    603-969-8389
    karina@petersontoscano.com

    Queer Performance Activist and Ex-Gay Survivor Peterson Toscano announces new direction to promote Queer Climate Change Action.

    Through his performance work, media appearances, activism, and Biblical scholarship, Peterson Toscano has worked to expose the harm that comes from gay conversion therapy, the injustice within the LGBTQ community, and in faith communities towards transgender people. As part of his on-going engagement in human rights work, Peterson has relaunched his website at http://www.petersontoscano.com, and announces that he will make Climate Change Action his primary focus, with special emphasis on a queer response.

    Peterson is known for his comic, one-person shows that take on deadly serious issues. His autobiographical comedy, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo’ Halfway House – How I Survived The Ex-Gay Movement (http://petersontoscano.com/portfolio/homo-no-mo-halfway-house/), which premiered in 2003, reveals the ridiculous and dangerous lengths he went to de-gay himself. He spent 17 years and over $30,000 on three continents receiving ex-gay treatments. In 2007, along with fellow ex-gay survivor Christine Bakke, he launched the Ex-Gay Survivor Movement (http://www.beyondexgay.com), and has been instrumental in shaping the public message about the harm that comes from gay conversion therapy. In 2008 he premiered Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible, a play about gender non-conforming sexual minorities in Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim stories. In addition to promoting transgender rights, he has provided sane, humorous, and insightful queer interpretations of the Bible, presenting his Bible scholarship at seminaries, theaters, conferences, places of worship, universities, and drag bars.

    For the past 18 months Peterson has been researching the science behind climate change, particularly the possible human rights issues connected with Global Warming and its affects on civilization. Alarmed by what he learned, he joined the Citizens Climate Lobby (http://citizensclimatelobby.org/), and began collaborating with his husband, author Glen Retief (http://www.glenretief.com), about how they can respond as artists to the growing crisis. The result for Peterson is a new play, Does This Apocalypse Make Me Look Fat? A Comedy about Broken Bodies, Large and Small and a new lively lecture, A Queer Response to Climate Change. Coming this fall he will also produce a new podcast, Climate Stew, which will look at the latest news about Climate Change as well as the social and emotional aspects of Global Warming. In all of his new work Peterson is looking at the intersections of Climate Action and Justice with queer issues, human rights, immigration, faith, history, and pop culture. He seeks to do this with humor, storytelling, and a message that is infused with hope.

  3. Karina Tefft says:

    Peterson Toscano Press Release Part Two (Includes website and social media contact):

    “I believe that LGBTQ people are especially vital to climate action and developing creative responses to global warming,” says Peterson. “We come to the table with valuable experiences from our history of AIDS activism, from standing up to experts who cherry picked data to deny our humanity, from coming out, transitioning, living communally, and the varied alternate views of life and culture that daily challenge norms. We have gifts to share with a frightened world looking for direction.”

    Peterson will premiere his new play in October at Susquehanna University, and will then embark on a cross-country tour presenting his new work as well as favorites including, Transfigurations, Jesus Had Two Daddies, Waking Up from a Biblically Induced Coma, and Peterson Unplugged—a show that provides audiences excerpts from the range of Peterson’s work. This summer he will film Transfigurations and will make it available for purchase by Christmas. Peterson will no longer blog at http://www.petersontoscano.wordpress.com but instead will resume blogging at http://petersontoscano.com/blog/. His writings will continue to be about LGBTQ issues, but will also take on to climate change action. He has also increased his social media presence at Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/p2son), Tumblr (http://petersontoscano.tumblr.com/), Pinterest (check out What Would Jesus Pin? http://www.pinterest.com/p2saki/), Facebook (https://http://www.facebook.com/pages/Peterson-Toscano/111797695547075“>http://www.facebook.com/pages/Peterson-Toscano/111797695547075
    https://http://www.facebook.com/pages/Peterson-Toscano/111797695547075“>http://www.facebook.com/pages/Peterson-Toscano/111797695547075), and will soon start producing new YouTube videos (http://www.youtube.com/p2son).

    ——————————————
    About p2son productions: Peterson Toscano offers original, one-person comedies and lively lectures about LGBTQ issues, the Bible, facing and overcoming religious oppression, and climate change. Peterson, a Quaker, lives in Sunbury, PA and tours throughout North America and Europe. For more information visit http://www.petersontoscano.com.

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