To be truly Pro-Life, we need to consider all life, that includes those with disabilities, but what does the bible teach us about interacting with the welcoming and how do the Church Father’s inform our attitudes towards the Disabled in the Modern Day.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
I have had the blessing of being asked by a brother from seminary to speak to his youth group on the question: “Was Jesus Ableist?” tonight via Zoom. This is one of the reasons Generation Z gives me so much hope as a Pastor, they are willing to learn and their Christianity tackles the tough questions that all too often do not get asked. What follows here is a summary of the talk I will give tonight on the topic. I am hoping to speak more on this topic, so if you’re looking for someone to speak on it, let me know.
As many of you know I was born with Congenital Cataracts, meaning I was born mostly blind, I passed this condition on to my daughter however technology has advanced past the point where this is going to be a major hindrance for her as it was for me. Because of this though, I grew up with the language of ableism and know it well. As a Pastor one of my fears at the calling process was that a church would look at my disability and reject me solely on that aspect of my personhood. I have seen it in my father’s ministry time and time again but have only encountered it once or twice since entering ministry in 2014, though it was a constant problem in seminary. You want to get used to comments like: “I hope you can get your drivers license” or “Can’t you read that” or “Why do you have to hold your phone so close?” But you never do. It is not normal for an adult male to not have a drivers license (I was on track to get one and COVID-19 sort of tore up the tracks), it is not normal to hold your phone inches from your face. I was even told by several peers growing up that I should “kill myself’ because I would never amount to anything. For a long time my goal was to make people “forget” I had a deficiency, not realizing I was playing into the hand of what is commonly named by sociologists as “Ableism.” Looking back, the energy put into the wide range of skills and abilities I developed, such as being able to work on small motors to being really good at the Madden video games, all to “disprove the stereotypes” may have been better used to study the scriptures or perfect the musical ministry.
Ableism generally defined is: cultural understanding of “normal” and how it affects our view of those who do not fit that definition. Theologian Amos Yong, in his book: “The Bible, Disability and the Church” defines it more extensively as: “the discriminatory attitudes, negative stereotypes, sociopolitical and economic structures and institutions that are built on normative perspectives (what is normal) together function to keep people with disabilities from full participation in the world.” It is Yong’s definition that we will use throughout this article.
As an answer to the question: “Was Jesus Ableist?” the answer of course has to be “No” for two reasons. The first is that Ableism as a Sociological idea did not exist in Jesus day and therefore he could not have been ableist merely because there was no understanding of Ableism. This response allows us to avoid the fallacy of Presentism, reading our own ideas back onto ancient peoples. The second reason is more personal and less clinical, Jesus was not ableist because he is constantly acknowledging, giving dignity and agency too and restoring the disabled. He also refutes cultural understandings of disability such as its connection with sin that was prevalent among the Jewish Rabbi’s.
The Secular world commonly states that, Almut Caspary points out: “A Human being was (is) considered to be of value in view of his or her potential to contribute both materialistically and through acquired virtue of the family and of society.” This was true in antiquity and it is true today as see that a person is often defined by their profession (what they contribute) or their philanthropy (their virtue) rather than simply by the fact that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). In the ancient world then the deformed or disabled or ill were thought to be curses from the gods or evil “monsters” who were a sign of the disordered universe the gods put in order. For this reason, any child who was undesirable was “Exposed” or fed to the birds and the beasts. Only Judaism had any teaching, bound up in Genesis 1-3, that would tend towards the care of the disabled or elderly, but even the Rabbi’s made exceptions to this. The disabled were barred from serving in the inner sanctuary of temple by God himself because only those without blemish could approach God. This is all laid out in the Levitical Codes for the Priests set forth by Moses in the book of Leviticus. However, as Michael Bates points out, this did not mean there were no disabled priests, only the abled could entered the holy of holies, but a priest could be disabled and simply attend to duties in the outer courts. The disabled were also allowed to enter the temple and worship with the people and would even beg alms in and around the temple.
By the time Jesus entered the scene the Pharisees had all but excluded the disabled from any work or duty. Yes, they could enter the temple or Synagogue, but the only time a Pharisee might interact with the disabled would be as they were entering the temple handing out alms as a spectacle to others. There are exceptions to this, such as the Qumran community which regularly took care of the disabled, but for the most part the Jews had adopted the same attitudes towards human life as the Romans. Utility trumped created status. The Disabled were a means to make the Pharisees look good, through the giving of alms. Hence the reason Jesus exhorts his disciples: “When you give do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Matthew 6:2-4). Giving to the poor was supposed to be for the poor, not for the honor of the pharisees or any other wealthy individual.
As I said before, Jesus had a different purpose for disability, it was, as he said in John 9: “So that God might be glorified through Him.” But in glorifying God through them, Jesus did something else for the disabled, he gave them a dignity they did not previously have, an agency in their healings and restoration. He did this first and foremost by acknowledging them even when the crowd wanted him to keep pressing on, such as in the case of Blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:26-42. He cried out, the crowds tried to silence him, but Jesus noticed him, heard his request, and healed him. The simple acknowledgement of the Disabled beyond just throwing a couple coins their direction, in and of itself, restored dignity to the person. Jesus willingness to listen did as well. Healing and restoring them restored them agency they once had or even never had. Remember, in that society most of the people Jesus healed would have been killed at birth. The sick that he healed, especially the lepers, would have been consigned to a life of solitude unless there was a leper community nearby. For all to be healed meant they could become members of society in a capacity that allowed them to contribute.
The Apostles, for their part, continued the teachings and way of Jesus forward into the rest of the New Testament. When Peter and John, in Acts 3, come across a man with a disability begging outside the temple, Peter does not give him silver and gold, something that will only help him for a little while, they heal him in the name of Jesus Christ. The poor and the disabled, often the same group, then became a central focus for care for the people of God. It was part of “Considering others greater than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) to care for the disabled. The Church Father’s spoke of the Imago Dei as being intrinsic and not having been totally lost in the fall. This prompted Christians to take in infants that had been “Exposed” and raise them as their own children. Their approach to human life was such that since human life was created in the image of God, they should value and care for that life in all its forms, including the disabled. As Peter Enns notes in his commentary on Exodus: “Human life was so valuable to God that its very violation was an offense to him.” Irenaeus made an unfortunate mistake when he failed to recognize the similarity between the Greek words translated “Likeness” and “Image.’ The two words are synonyms in Greek, but it caused Irenaeus to separate the image into the form of a person, and the likeness into the character of a person. This would develop into the Imago Dei which was broken but not totally lost in the fall and the Simillitudo Dei or the Character of God which was lost completely in the fall, both had to be restored by Christ and could not be actualized without Christ. Eventually these two ideas would come back together in Aquinas and Calvin, but they were largely left separate throughout the Medieval Period.
The Cappadocian Father’s are particularly interesting on Disability. They are Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great, two brothers and their friends. Basil is particularly interesting because he receives credit as being the first to develop a Hospital in his “New City.” A former desert monk turned Priest in the 4th century AD. Basil thought the monks were not living out the full life of Christianity, yes, they were close to God, but how could they care for others? So, he moved from the Desert and began his ministry in the Cappadocia at Ceasarea Mazaca. It was outside Caesarea Mazaca that he would establish what was called “The New City” which contained apartments and hospitals complete with surgeons and other medical personnel. It was a place for the poor and disabled and diseased to come and live and be cared for. Gregory Nazianzus offers the justification for their concern for the poor in equating care for the poor, sick and disabled as doing so unto Christ. He is worth quoting at length:
“I revere greatly Christ’s ointment box, which invites us to care for the poor, and the agreement of Peter and Paul, who divided up the preaching of the Gospel but made the poor their common concern, and the way of perfection of the young man, which was defined by the law of the giving what one has to the poor. . . . Let us take care of Christ while there is still time; let us minister to Christ’s needs, let us give Christ nourishment, let us clothe Christ, let us gather Christ in, let us show Christ honor. . . . Let us give this gift to him through the needy, who today are cast down on the ground, so that when we all are released from this place, they may receive us into the eternal tabernacle, in Christ himself, who is our Lord.” (Oration 14, 39-40)
As I said earlier, Medieval Christianity says very little about disability, through Thomas Aquinas does try to recover the image of God, saying that it resides in the intellect and is present whether or not the person has their faculties or not (See Summa Theologica 2-2.15.1). Martin Luther, in the Reformation Era is of no help to us as he once chided that a disabled child was a “monster” who made him sick to look at. Calvin gets us closest to what the Church Father’s taught concerning the image of God when he says: ““although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.” (Institutes 1.15.3 and 1.15.4). This would have been applied to the disabled as well, as they are included in those whom Calvin believed the Pastor and Deacons should visit on a regular basis.
As society has developed in the west in the post-reformation era ecclesiological attitudes towards the disabled have looked more like first century pharisaic attitudes than that of the Church Father’s. There has been a long-standing debate in the church over what the Image of God in man is and whether it is present at all, something the Church Father’s seemed to have taken for granted. In the South during Slavery (and in the North as well) the image of God was only reserved for the White Male slaveholder. Those who looked and talked a certain way were accepted as having been made in the image of God and Blacks and women were considered to not carry the image at all. In fact, considerable ink was spilled to justify the belief that blacks were less than human, that ink also often followed inhumane experiments on Blacks who were, to quote a prominate southern Pastor: “Mere savages.” The irony here is that it was Black and Brown men and women who first handed down to us the doctrine of the “Imago Dei.” This attitude was also applied to the disabled who could not possibly be made in the image of God because they were deformed or imperfect or blind or deaf and therefore did not deserve fair or humane treatment. They were, like Blacks, subjected to dehumanizing and horrendous experiments by Doctors. In the majority world the practice of Exposing disabled infants was and still is common. Disabled children were undesirable because they could not contribute to the world at large, since they were lacking utilitarian ends they were treated miserably. This problem persists today. In fact, there appears to be a consensus among prominent Evangelical Conservatives that the Imago Dei is permanently lost in the fall and thus has no bearing on how we treat others. The Doctrine of the Imago Dei is seen as a “Liberal” puppet, though Liberal Christians have even less of a sense of the doctrine of the Imago Dei when it comes to disability.
Even though Tertullian argued that human life began when seed met seed (conception) and carried the Image of God from that point, Liberals Christians often support the cultures desire to see Abortion available for all. There is a group calling themselves “Whole Life” as in, from conception to grave, but they are relatively small. For the disabled, Abortion has been a means of systematic Genocide, so while Conservatives might cut funding to disabled programs, liberals argue that we have no right to exist. The argument that gets employed is that the persons “Quality of Life” will be lowered because of the disability and so, a person should be exterminated. This is the ideology that caused Iceland to claim they had “cured” Down Syndrome when the policy is to abort as soon as the extra chromosome is discovered. France recently banned the ads that portrayed children with down syndrome in a positive light to keep the mothers who aborted their downs children from feeling guilt. Planned Parenthoods founder Margret Sanger wanted to use the organization to advance the cause of eugenics and named blacks and the disabled as her targets. It is for this reason that I would have a very difficult time ever voting Democrat, though currently it is equally as hard to vote republican for similar and different reasons. Further, half of all police deaths in 2017 were of the disabled and there is a servere lack of training for officers in how to communicate with those who cannot communicate with them. By the way, the answer is not defunding the police, but reforming and better training would go a long way towards solving this crisis. The ADA, which was signed in 1983, was bad law, it may have helped in some ways, but it is largely unenforceable and lacks teeth. It also does not apply to churches and religious organizations. All of these things, especially the “Quality of Life” argument rely on the language of ableism and its normative perspective to determine the value of a human being.
On all these topics, the church in modern America is largely silent. Even on the topic of Abortion which conservatives have a movement against when it comes to disability. And the Doctrine of the Imago Dei which the Church Father’s developed for us? Well it is largely forgotten, and Churches are sadly seen as unwelcoming and unfit for disabled parishioners. Joni Erickson Tada and Joni and Friends have done a lot to restore teachings about the Imago Dei and there have been a good amount of books written, some of which are cited in this piece, but the general attitude within the Church towards humanity is that of utility. A person is valued for what they can contribute, not simply because they are made in the image of God. We have been discipled by the culture more than the Word of God and that has led to seeing people through the lens of utility rather than through the lens of God. Churches then should adapt to help those whom Jesus considered, by making buildings handicapped accessible and worship handicapped accessible. To work with the mom whose child is on the spectrum or who has down syndrome and needs special attention and care. Providing large print or digitally accessible bulletins for the blind and visually impaired or, if you can, braille. Churches with Deaf Members can hire signers or ask members fluent in sign language to sign the sermon and worship. You can also Contact Joni and Friends for more wisdom and advice.
Jeri Jewel, the first disabled actress, once said that: “The real disabilities are the human ones, fear, anger, hatred, bitterness, bigotry, envy and strife.” God is the only one who can remove these disabilities from the hearts of men and women, from all of us. We as disabled people need also to learn to forgive those who are abled and have harmed us or been indifferent to us.
The Church Father’s taught us that the Imago Dei is present from conception and though it is marred by the fall, it is still present in every human being whether they be rich, poor, abled, or disabled. It is also fully realized in everyone through a relationship with Christ Jesus. The Church Father’s show us a Christianity modeled after Christ who gave people dignity, agency, and restoration. When we treat the poor or disabled with contempt or with indifference, we are treating Christ with contempt or indifference. God has made us in His image, and we should work towards seeing that image restored in everyone we encounter through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ableism is to be rejected and we should gather in the sick and the lame and the disabled and care for them and treat them as though we are caring for Christ himself. That way we can hear the words we long to hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
 Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 2011, WB Eerdman’s Publishing, Grand Rapids MI Kindle Edition
 Almut Caspary: The Patristic Era: Early Attitudes towards the Disfigured Outcast, as found in Disability and Christian Tradition, Ed. Brian Brock and John Swinton, WB Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids MI pg 24-38
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.