Books in Review

The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability ( Abingdon Press, 1994)
Nancy Eiesland

While many congregations grapple with ways to include more minorities in the life of the church, most mainline denominations still don't know how to handle the country's largest minority group, according to Nancy Eiesland. She is referring to the 43 million Americans with disabilities.

Eiesland, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology of religion and adjunct professor of theology at Candler School of Theology, speaks out of her own experience with disability and the marginalization of so many others. Her new book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, examines how churches and other religious charitable institutions still assume that disabled people should adapt to society rather than society accommodating and including them.

"Those very attitudes prevent us from moving forward and disadvantage people with disabilities," said Eiesland. "The issues that are important to people with disabilities are marginal within many congregations." As proof of their widespread disillusionment, Eiesland points to a recent national survey showing that two-thirds of the disabled who don't go to church say their churches do little or nothing to include them.

"Many churches think they've done enough for the disabled if they provide toilet access and a ramp to get into the building," said Eiesland. "But if all we had done at the end of segregation is take down the `blacks only' signs, then we'd still be in an intolerable situation."

Eiesland calls for people of faith to embrace "new religious images, ideas and values about disability" as a first step in seeing the disabled not as passive victims or the objects of pity or charity, but as equal and active participants in ordinary life, including the life of faith. Among the new images she proposes is that of a God who fully embraces all people, including those with disabilities.

"The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment," Eiesland said. In other words, "the resurrected Christ of Christian tradition is a disabled God." She suggests that the resurrected Christ represents "a human-God who not only knows injustice and experiences the contingency of human life, but also reconceives perfection as unself-pitying, painstaking survival."

Eiesland's decision to write The Disabled God grew out of her own experience with a congenital disability and years of surgeries, braces and joint replacements. Growing up in rural North Dakota, "I thought I was a bother," she said. "People were accommodating, but it always seemed like everything was being reinvented for me."

Traditional Christian theology tends to isolate, not embrace, the disabled, Eiesland explains in her book. "The persistent thread within the Christian tradition has been that disability denotes an unusual relationship with God and that the person with disabilities is either divinely blessed or damned," she said. Of course, she added, neither belief reflects reality.

"The doctrine of perfection is implicitly connected with being physically whole," said Eiesland. Of her own disability, she has often been told by those who would comfort her: "In heaven this won't be a problem." But being disabled "is a part of who I am," said Eiesland. "What these statements are saying to people with disabilities is that you can't be who you are and be a part of eternity."

In the Old Testament, linking physical disability with moral impurity is a common theme, said Eiesland. She cites a passage in Leviticus prohibiting anyone "blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes" from performing priestly duties. Remnants of that theology persist today, said Eiesland, with some denominations preventing the disabled from pursuing religious service by either overt actions or subtle attitudes.

Christian liturgy also can be alienating for the disabled, especially when worship centers around standing or kneeling. Eiesland cites the experience of Texan Nancy DeVries, born "without lower limbs and with above-elbow upper extremity stumps," who was denied a place in her church's choir because "it just wouldn't look right."

Eiesland stresses that the book is not meant to be combative but eye-opening. "I don't feel there's anything accomplished in simply saying that the church is falling short," said Eiesland. "I'm trying to say that the Christian message is for all of us, the entire body of God, that we need to transform the church to reflect that."

-- Elaine Justice