Sunday, October 21, 2012

Disability and Grace: The Prophetic Witness of the Vulnerable

“. . . as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised,
and we held him of no account.” Isaiah 53:3

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Christ Church Cambridge
October 21, 2012 – Pentecost XXI

In August, just before the academic term started up again, my brother and his family traveled north from their home in Frederick, Maryland, to stay with Pat and me for a short vacation. One of the highlights of that visit was that we were able to celebrate the birthday of my nephew, Quinn, who turned twelve that week. Quinn is a lovely little boy who was born with a complex of disabilities – some genetic, some the result of trauma during birth. Quinn has impaired cognitive skills and a limited command of language; he struggles in regulating his behavior, his attention, and his emotional life; and he can be prone to obsess over things that might seem inconsequential to those around him. Quinn can also brighten up a room with his laugh, or make you feel instantly loved by unexpectedly planting a kiss on your cheek, or reveal a truth by blurting out in his own special language an insight that everyone else is too polite or too afraid to speak.

Every time I am around my brother and his family I marvel at the ways in which they have adjusted their lives to make room for Quinn and to accommodate the quirks of his way of being. They practice a patience and gentleness with him that is extraordinary, and Quinn, in turn, often opens their eyes to a wonder in the world that they otherwise might miss. From watching my brother and his wife raise Quinn, I have learned that what he and other disabled children deserve is not pity, so much as an open-hearted willingness to set aside our able-bodied and able-minded norms to see and feel the world as they do. I do not for a minute want to minimize the heartache and pain that parents of disabled children experience as they cope with the differences that such children present, but I also would not want to overlook the grace and beauty and strength that so often is revealed in human disability. Indeed, I am convinced that living open-heartedly with disabled persons can teach profound lessons about the relationship between human vulnerability and God’s love, while at the same time challenging our most basic assumptions about what it means to be able-bodied or able-minded in the eyes of God.

Today’s text from Isaiah 53, which is part of the famous ‘song of the suffering servant,’ helps us to make some of these connections. The song, which actually begins at the end of chapter 52, is a darkly mysterious portrayal of a messianic figure who, Isaiah tells us, God will ultimately “exalt and lift up” (52:13), but who for now is “marred” in his appearance “beyond human semblance” (52:14), and who has a “form beyond that of mortals” such that he “shall startle many nations.”  (52:14-15). This new messiah, Isaiah prophesies, will not be a reprise of the Davidic warrior-king. There will be nothing “majestic” about him; nor will there be anything “in his appearance that we should desire him.” (53:2).  Rather, he will be a man of suffering, “acquainted with infirmity” (53:3), who will be “despised” and “rejected” “as one from whom others hide their faces.” (53:3). He will bear “our infirmities” and carry “our diseases.”  (53:4). And yet, “out of his anguish” this suffering servant “will see light” (53:11), and “through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.” (53:10).

No doubt many of us recognize this text from Handel’s Messiah or remember it as one of the cornerstones of our Good Friday liturgy in the Prayer Book. As these uses show, the dominant interpretation of the song is to read it as a prophetic prediction of the Passion, and to understand Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s suffering servant vision. Even though the author of Isaiah wrote the song several hundred years before Jesus’ birth during Israel’s exile in Babylon, as Christians we read it as an inspired foreshadowing of God’s decision centuries later to become human in Jesus, to dwell among us in the flesh of a humble servant, and to suffer and die on our behalf. When we interpret Isaiah 53 this way, reading it through the lens of Christ’s life, we naturally tend to understand this suffering servant to be an able-bodied person (like Jesus was) who for our sake endures torture, pain, suffering and ultimately death inflicted upon him by others.

Yet, in an important book published last year by Oxford University Press,[1] biblical scholar Jeremy Schipper argues that there is another plausible way to interpret Isaiah 53 – namely, that the “marred,” “diseased,” and “afflicted” servant who suffers in this song is in fact a disabled person. Through a close examination of the images used in the Hebrew text, Schipper (who himself lives with cerebral palsy) argues that the language of infirmity that is used to describe the suffering servant of Isaiah is imagery typically associated with disability in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature. Schipper argues that we tend to assume that the suffering of the servant must be an able-bodied person’s suffering because that is the cultural norm, even though the actual language of the text is more consistent with the suffering of a person with disabilities.

Whether you agree with Schipper’s reading of Isaiah 53 or not, I submit that his larger theological point is worth listening to:  that our tradition has too often adopted a hermeneutic, a way of reading the Bible, that has foreclosed interpretations such as his from the start. Disabled people should not be so readily written out of a biblical text simply because the experience of the dominant culture is an able-bodied experience. Such a one-sided appropriation of profoundly important texts like Isaiah 53 leaves little room for disabled people to claim this suffering servant as one of their own. Just as Hollywood and Madison Avenue have historically excluded disabled persons from the array of characters who populate our mainstream media because we’d rather not recognize disability as an acceptable way of being human, so too has the history of biblical interpretation tended to elide disabled characters from its narrative.

So, why, you might ask, does all this matter? Among other reasons, it matters because at the heart of the gospel is Jesus’ claim that we are too often imprisoned by false conceptions of who is clean and who is unclean, who is righteous and who is unrighteous, who is healthy and who is sick, who is powerful and who is weak, who is able-bodied and who is disabled. We think we know who is in and who is out, but more often than not, we don’t.

Take today’s gospel lesson. Like the other disciples, James and John have been following Jesus around Galilee for some time now, and have heard Jesus explain on three separate occasions that his messianic fate is to be arrested, to suffer at the hands of the Romans, and to be killed. And yet, each time, the disciples don’t get it. Ignoring Jesus’ repeated predictions about his future, James and John are convinced that surely Jesus is destined for great things and they want their share (more than their share, actually) of the fame. Like petulant children, they demand: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  With perhaps a touch of exasperation in his voice, Jesus tries to tell them that they know not what they are asking.

Seemingly able-bodied and able-minded disciples, James and John are in fact spiritually deaf to what Jesus is telling them, spiritually blind to the reality of the Kingdom Jesus is inaugurating, and spiritually lame as so-called followers of Jesus. They think they are on the inside, and yet in their obtuseness, they remain on the outside. By contrast, the people who typically ‘get’ Jesus in the gospels – who see him as messiah, who hear and heed his words, and who welcome his presence – are those who are in some socially relevant way ‘dis-abled,’ whether they be lepers, paralytics, persons possessed by demons, or ritually unclean women.

Indeed, we will see this inside/outside logic of the Kingdom come to a crashing crescendo next week in the text that immediately follows today’s lesson in Mark – the story of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus. In contrast to the Twelve, Bartimaeus will instantly recognize Jesus as the messiah, will throw down everything he has to reach out to him in faith, and will follow Jesus toward the Cross. At the end of Mark’s gospel, the perfect disciple ends up being not James, not John, not even Peter; but rather, a visually disabled beggar, sitting by the roadside, yelling his head off for Jesus.

Which brings me back to my nephew, Quinn. Quinn is fortunate to live in a suburban county in Maryland that has the resources to provide high-quality special needs education, and where nearby there are intentional communities of disabled persons that can provide resources and support for him. He has a future that is hopeful, if not free of its own real challenges and difficulties. It wasn’t always so, of course.  Throughout most of history, disabled persons like Quinn were shunned, forgotten, pushed outside the boundaries of community, or worse, even by the most ‘advanced’ of civilizations.

It was less than a century ago that the Supreme Court of the United States in Buck v. Bell upheld compulsory sterilization for the so-called feeble-minded, a decision that technically is still on the books even though its reasoning has been roundly criticized. Writing for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the greatest minds ever produced by the law school across the Commons, explained the Court’s reasoning thus: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . .Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

I try to imagine what it must be like to be a disabled person listening to these words, listening to the highest Court in the land essentially say: we would prefer that you were not alive. Fortunately for Quinn, fortunately for all of us, we have moved past this Holmesian view of a eugenically engineered society.

If we are looking for an authentic vision of the Kingdom, I suggest that Justice Holmes is a far less reliable guide than Angela, a profoundly deaf woman I recently encountered, who, when asked about her spiritual experiences, described a dream she once had about meeting Jesus in heaven.[2] She and Jesus were alone, and talked for some time. Angela reported that she had never before experienced such peace and joy.  “Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be,” she exclaimed. “And his signing was amazing!

For Angela, the Kingdom is not a place where her deafness is eliminated. Rather, it is a place where the social, relational and communication barriers that restrict her life in the present no longer exist. In her dream, what had been a ‘disability’ now became the norm; that which had led to exclusion, anxiety, separation and loss of opportunity became the precise mode in which Jesus addresses her. What Angela’s dream teaches us about Kingdom is precisely what Isaiah 53 and the gospels teach us:  It turns out that the world of human disability is the very world that God in His love freely chooses to inhabit.



1.  Jeremy Schipper, Disability and Isaiah's Suffering Servant, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

2. Taken from John Swinton’s “Introduction” to Stanley Hauerwas & Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2008), pp. 12-14.

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