Is Christianity ableist?
The danger of comparing spiritual understanding to physical abilities.
Ableism had left its mark on my disabled body long before I knew its name. As hard as I scrubbed, I couldn’t rid myself from the sticky residue on my skin, or remove the thorn that pierced clear through to my bones. It was a part of me as much as Jesus was, but I had no awareness that the ableism that stung the most came from those who claimed to love Jesus, too.
The conservative Baptist church in which I grew up formed not only my Christian identity but also my disabled one. The two never came together: Jesus was only concerned with my heart. But the world around me cared about the body I moved through the world in, how well it functioned according to pre-set standards, and how every deficiency or flaw stacked against my odds of survival and having a “good life.” The latter, I learned only in my 20s, was ableism – a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with disabilities. This puzzled me. Why hadn’t I heard about ableism in church?
Throughout Scripture, disability often symbolizes spiritual inadequacy. Conditions like blindness and deafness are used to signify how humans cannot grasp the workings of God. This perpetuates the belief many hold that a lack of spiritual understanding is synonymous with physical failure, giving way to an ableist mindset within the Church. But is this Scripture’s fault or our faulty interpretation? If “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (II Tim. 3:16), how do we reconcile the truth of the Word with texts that propagate ableist ideals?
Disabled people have been marginalized within the walls of churches, and verses that paint disability as equal to spiritual inadequacy are a main part of the problem. Being blind or physically disabled in Scripture are used for two purposes: to promote the healing power of Jesus and as a representation of sinfulness. While Jesus makes it clear that sin is not the cause of the blind man’s disability in John 9, other passages, like II Corinthians, use disability to emphasize the parts of being a Christian that are undesirable.
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,” the apostle Paul says, “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (II Cor. 4:4). In writing that God has “blinded” the minds of unbelievers, Paul is correlating physical disability with a spiritual inability to know or understand God and his Word; until one becomes a believer, they are “disabled.” Disability now becomes synonymous with inferior spirituality, which propels the view that disabled people are not only physically inferior but spiritually as well. Using the language of disability to exemplify spiritual deficiencies is to make a mockery of disabled people and to further marginalize them within the Church. To say that one must “see God,” “hear the Word,” or “walk in his ways” alienates people who live with these disabilities and allows ableist beliefs to flourish.
Is this ableism or a lack of understanding about the context in which the Bible was written? I’d say both. Ableism as a social construct did not exist in Biblical times, and the authors of the Bible are not ableist. But the language they use is ableist because it demeans disability and equates it with a spiritual inferiority that is clearly unbiblical when taken with Jesus’ ministry to all people regardless of any man-made division.
Scripture itself is not ableist, but Christianity, due to the faulty interpretations of Scripture by Christians, often is. This is why many disabled people feel isolated from the Church. When disabled people aren’t a valued part of the body of Christ; when there’s little to no representation of disability except within the realms of healing or pity; when disabilities are used as cautionary tales, it’s little wonder then why there’s a disconnect between the disabled community and the greater community of Christian believers.
Language that uplifts
It’s why I’ve struggled to find my place in the Church, not knowing how my disabled body would be accepted or treated by my fellow Christians. In being told that someone who doesn’t believe or is in a tough spot is “more blind” than I’ll ever be, my blindness has become a metaphor and a secondary part of my identity, rather than an equal part that works together with my faith to glorify God.
How can we, as the Church, transform our thinking and actions to align with God’s perception of all people as equal and beloved? I’ve found one guiding principle that works. We do this by seeing disabled people as Jesus did: people, flawed in their humanity but redeemable and worthy of the grace and salvation only found in him. In practical terms, it’s not as complicated as it sounds: We simply need to believe in the value of disabled people and commit to using language that uplifts rather than tears down. Language has power, and while we do not need to erase any mention of disability or its challenges from our vocabulary, we must be mindful of how our language of disability reflects the image of God that is bestowed on all his children. Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can use that to glorify the Creator of all people, able-bodied and disabled.
If you liked this article by Rhianna, you can find more of her thoughts at notyourblindwriter.ca.
Your clarity of vision has nothing to do with your eyes. Your question is very refreshing because it compels us to struggle with something you have been seeing. Those of us who haven’t had to struggle with that likely need to rethink some of our assumptions. Without questions of this nature are we able to consider our own blind spots.
I find it interesting that the author refers to God using masculine pronouns when it’s clear that God has no gender or perhaps encompasses all genders. Another example of bias?