Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church
My wife and I are the parents of three children, two of whom have Down syndrome. I vividly remember a church service some years back when a well-meaning parishioner came up to our family during the greeting. During our conversation he looked at my son, and asked, “Is he healthy?” I knew what he meant: “Does he have Down syndrome?” (or possibly, “What’s wrong with him?,” but the former assumption seems more charitable). My wife answered truthfully, “Yes, he’s healthy.” The gentleman looked a little confused and we wrapped up the conversation in fairly short order.
This is exactly the kind of understanding that Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox seeks to address in her book Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church. The conversation above reflects different perspectives about the idea of “healthy.” These perspectives naturally relate to different ways of understanding that which produces health, i.e. healing. Fox artfully lays out a number of these perspectives from the vantage point of those who hold them, including physicians, clergy, and people with disabilities, and interweaving all of them with insights from the scriptures.
The fundamental issue at the heart of her book is how we understand what it means to live life with disability (in ourselves or others) and believe in a God who heals. The way that this issue is and has been addressed by many communities of faith has all-too-often led to pain and confusion. Dr. Fox describes her observations thusly: “Jesus met people who were blind, deaf, with chronic illnesses, physical pain, and paralysis – and after the encounter these individuals responded positively and were often filled with faith and gratitude. Yet many [people with disabilities] today… have expressed how unhealing they have often found churches ‘healing’ practices to be” (p.1).
One of the most helpful aspects of her book for me was Dr. Fox’s discussion of and distinction between “curing” and “healing.” From a practical perspective, being clear on this distinction may go a long way towards changing some of the more “unhealing” outcomes of how churches pursue healing ministries. Dr. Fox denotes curing with a narrow focus on the alleviation or removal of impairing symptoms while healing is seen as being a more multidimensional bio/psycho/social/spiritual approach to creating or restoring shalom in the individual and their community. This distinction may go a long way toward addressing one of the deeper issues in how churches approach both the fact and the idea of disability in their corporate functioning:
“Several churches talked about having children with intellectual or developmental disabilities in their congregations now or in the past, but they could not think of any adults with these disabilities in their communities at present… The stories pastors told about people with disabilities were almost entirely about them needing help or accommodation… These narratives reinforce the mistaken idea that people with disabilities in the community are mere recipients, creating burdens and practical tasks for the church’s leadership that benefit only the people with disabilities themselves” (p. 134).
This points to an important takeaway from the book. One of the simplest, but certainly not the easiest, ways to correct (or repent of?) less helpful practices relates to how people with disabilities may be more deeply included in and connected the Body of Christ. This necessarily requires us to be clear in how we understand the ways that people of all abilities are required for wholeness/shalom in our churches and communities as well as how we are profoundly deficient when all abilities are not present. I found this reflected most profoundly in the words of Rev. Lisa Levelle McKee, a member of the clergy who identifies herself as being diagnosed with cerebral palsy, raises three questions that have pervaded her life as a result of her experiences in the church: “Am I enough? Where do I belong? Is there any space where I will not have to negotiate spiritually, physically, or emotionally with persons different from me to feel comfortable acknowledging my wholeness?” (p. 162).
While Dr. Fox’s diagnosis of the shortcomings of how churches address disability may be painful to consider, I did find her overall approach to be profoundly strengths-based. No one does this work perfectly, but there is also a lot of good going on in churches from which we can learn if we are open. To this end, she includes “The Seven Marks of Healing” as being a practical framework for building on existing strengths within churches while addressing those areas most in need of correction.
I am grateful to Dr. Fox for her rigorous examination of healing, disability, the church, and what it means to follow Jesus. I appreciate the rigor with which she approaches securing and representing the diverse and multi-faceted voices that she reflects in her work. Would that more of these voices were reflected in our churches and communities of faith.