by David Morstad
In everyday language – my own included – the disability-related metaphor has become so commonplace, it is unlikely that many of us even think about its connection to actual people with actual disabilities anymore. There’s a problem in that, mostly because phrases that employ disability metaphors never seem to convey anything positive. Blind ambition is a sign of greed or self-centeredness. An effort can be described as lame, and everyone knows that means weak, inept or otherwise futile. It might be pushing the point a bit, but a disabled vehicle in the roadway will likely be a distraction or even an impediment to everyone else until it is hauled away (some might say “segregated”) from the rest of the traffic.
For people of faith, the disability-as-metaphor issue is an uncomfortable reality. We come face to face with it so frequently in scripture. Disabilities – particularly blindness and deafness – are freely used as metaphors for disobedience, spiritual ignorance, unbelief and sin in general.
- “Hear, you deaf; look you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention: your ears are open, but you hear nothing.” (Isaiah 42:18-20)
- “Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf. (Isaiah 43:8)
- So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. (Isaiah 59:9-10)
In the vision of Isaiah in the temple, the Lord sought to make the people blind and deaf in order that they might be fully convicted of their guilt. “Go and say to these people: ‘Keep listening but do not comprehend. Keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.'” (Is. 6:9-10)
As abled people, of course, we are free to pretend that our rhetoric is innocent, and that absolutely no inherent imperfection relative to the disability or unworthiness of the people who have it is implied. The trouble is that we don’t get to make that call.
In her landmark book, The Disabled God,1 the late Nancy Eisland identifies the pairing of disability with sin as one of three theological themes that are responsible for creating what she refers to as a “disabling theology.” Words, it turns out, have meaning.
Faith communities that are predominantly and culturally non-disabled (which is nearly all of us) must deal with a dicey issue of accessibility and inclusion here – one that is substantially more complex than putting a ramp at the doorway or making our bathroom stalls wider. If we’re serious about achieving true belonging for all, we will need the courage to dive deeply into a rich and challenging conversation about the message and the accessibility of our own theology and practice.
1 Eiesland, N.L. (1994). The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press. p. 73