On Disability and Brokenness: A Letter to My Fellow Clergy and Clergy in Formation

This may not be an easy discussion, but it is a deeply, deeply necessary one. The subject I wish to broach today is one that is tremendously difficult for me personally, as it is for many people whom you will encounter in your professional and personal lives. The subject is language—specifically, language related to disability and the impact it can have upon folks when it is used casually or used as an analogy to express a point about the non-disabled experience, particularly when it is employed in the context of a sermon or other public teaching. It is often noted that language speaks volumes about a given society’s worldview, and one of the ways we can work to make this world just a bit better than we found it is by being intentional with our words and the ramifications they may have, ramifications which we may not even realize are present, because too many of us—and I place myself in this camp—are taught to be intentional with our words, but this has often not extended itself to being intentional with the words we use around disability. And indeed, for me at least, the fact that people often are utterly oblivious of the ramifications of their speech and the attitudes it conveys—subconscious and unintentional though they are–is what hurts me most profoundly.

I write this from the perspective of a blind Jewish woman and do not, and cannot claim to speak for all blind people, let alone all disabled people. There are as many perspectives as there are folks with disabilities, and my purpose in writing is to try to do my small part to make us the best spiritual teachers and leaders we can be, not to blame or shame or to insist that mine is the only perspective.

Over the past several decades, as societal views about those whom mainstream society has deemed “other”—the LGBT community, women, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, just to name a few—have undergone tremendous positive change, religious communities of all sorts have begun to recognize that we bring a wealth of life experience and perspective to the table and that our voices, previously marginalized, ought to be—indeed must be—part of the religious discussion. We have made concerted efforts to make our congregations welcoming and affirming, and I pray that these laudable efforts continue unabated for decades to come.

Nonetheless, religious communities, insofar as they try to be spiritually nourishing environments to which we may bring our whole selves are still the source of tremendous pain for many people. For many, particularly those on the margins, that pain stems in some part from the religious messages they hear about themselves from their clergy and others in positions of power and authority. It is too easy to use a casual metaphor or throw in a common expression without asking ourselves, “What did I mean to say here? If I embodied the physical state I am using metaphorically, how might I feel?” As clergy and future clergy, we need to own our part in that pain. We need to use our privileged position to spread a positive and affirming message of the worth of all people, and to spread that message from our pulpits.

Although our traditions do have positive things to say about disability, and those texts are omnipresent in disability-related sermons, religious theology about disability too often sees the disabled person as wholly other, apart from the able-bodied experience which is the dominant narrative. The disabled body is too frequently used as an analogy for the moral or spiritual failings of others. The disabled body is broken, other, and separate. The disabled body, with its physical markers distinguishing it from the whole, complete non-disabled body exists in this world, not because, as disability rights advocates argue, disability is a natural part of the human condition, but instead because God bestows God’s Divine favor upon it, and we can learn from God’s choice of an imperfect or defective Divine gift. I recognize I am being rather reductionist. Nonetheless, this sums up my experience and that of many others when hearing teachings which employ religious language about disability. What if we were to turn this understanding on its head? What would religious life look like if instead of speaking such messages from pulpits and other public venues we insisted upon the fact that the physical markers of disability do not mean that the personhood is broken, less than whole in some way, flawed? What would it mean for us if we spoke about the fact that everyone who engages with the sacred has ebbs and flows in their spiritual life without resorting to the use of disability metaphor when depicting our inner feelings of imperfection?

Society is rife with messages about the perfect body. We too often correlate bodily perfection with social value and personal worth. When such language comes from a religious setting, in which the teaching that we are all created in God’s image is supposed to be foundational, it can be incredibly painful. Instead of spiritually caring for all of those in our midst, we create pain, division, indeed exclusion. May we soon see the day when the perspectives of the disability community, and indeed all marginalized groups are fully brought to bear on religious discourse. May our communities spread the positive and affirming message—we are all whole, irreplaceable and unique. A disabled body does not mean that the person living in that body is broken.

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2 thoughts on “On Disability and Brokenness: A Letter to My Fellow Clergy and Clergy in Formation

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Lauren.

    I so appreciate the question you ask: “It is too easy to use a casual metaphor or throw in a common expression without asking ourselves, “What did I mean to say here? If I embodied the physical state I am using metaphorically, how might I feel?””

    As I read your post, I was convicted to recall how often I have used the word “blind” in a metaphoric sense to mean uncaring, closed-minded, disconnected, etc. without ever considering how my words might be experience by someone who was not sighted. I sense that I only “get” a small part of what you mean, but your mention of the perfect, idealized body also reminded me of my studies in queer biblical interpretation and how the body and wholeness may have functioned in ancient Israel (thinking of Jon Berquist’s Controlling Corporeality).

    I’m curious about how we come to see and know different-abled-ness as diversity-as-gift rather than divine lesson/reward/etc. For Lent, my congregation will be focusing on diversity within families, as part of our exploration of what it means for us to live out our commitment to be a welcoming community to LGBT folk. Your post has made me start thinking about how we might include disability in that also. Are there any resources that you have found helpful in talking with others? Thank you again for writing!

  2. Hi, Liz, thank you for your comment. I unfortunately don’t have any good resources off hand but can offer up some thoughts if that’s ok! In terms of looking at disability as diversity rather than as divine lesson or gift, I would start from the premise that for many disabled folks, disability is a source of pride insomuch as it is a source of frustration and struggle, and that disability is seen by many, including myself, as a purely naturally occurring thing, not brought about by God/a higher power. I tend to conceptualize disability not so much theologically in terms of its source or the larger reasons it exists. Instead, I conceive of disability as a naturally occurring part of the human condition which some human beings acquire earlier than others. So I would ask, in what ways can the disabled perspective or *a* disability perspective–as there is no single perspective–enrich the way I look at this text? How can my religious community become welcoming beyond the physical accommodations? How can I meaningfully involve people with disabilities in the life of my community beyond the inclusion committee? If we look at access as a basic right rather than as an add-on, we’re starting in a really good place. If we look to folks with disabilities to bring their whole selves and their talents unrelated to disability to the fore, we’re in a good place. Just as with other minority and intersecting identities, people with disabilities don’t want to talk about disability all of the time. The typical theological language one sees around disability has a place, but I would argue that place is confined to pastoral, one-on-one contexts and as part of a text study, in which the language is studied as a means of understanding the strain of thought without condoning it necessarily. I must say here that that language resonates with many folks and I am not one of them, and I don’t think it does the religious community any good to speak those messages from pulpits.

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