I think it is important in reading the story of Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed to note that Jesus’ first and foremost pronouncement is not “be healed” but “your sins are forgiven you”.
My wife tells me this story: She was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect which meant for most of her life she walked with crutches but now later in life she has to use a wheelchair for her mobility. In college, a group of friends invited her to what they called a “praise and worship” concert. As a Christian who loves good music she goes. “Growing in faith, and great music – what a great idea,” she must have thought. What she did not know is that they were taking her to see a popular TV “faith healer”. She was horrified as she was ushered forward for this man to stretch forth his hands and tell her to be healed. Since I mentioned she uses a wheelchair now, it is obvious nothing happened. When it became clear nothing happened, the preacher blamed her for this. “You don’t have faith. If you only had more faith you would not need those crutches any longer”.
Afterward she encountered others who viewed her disability as a result of sin or lack of faith. As folks often do when trying to ostracize people who identify as LGBT, so they used the same book to condemn her for her disability. They opened up the book of Leviticus where it says in chapter 21: “‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles…”
They told her because of this verse that somehow being born with a disability was her fault, a sin that kept her from really belonging in the house of God. She knew the Lord and loved the Lord herself, so she rejected this interpretation of Leviticus as totally out of step with what Jesus taught.
But in the days of Israel this text was known and, just as occurred with my wife, often misinterpreted. The message became not (as the text actually was intended) some obscure rules about how animals would be sacrificed in the temple but rather that something is wrong with you if you have a disability. Clearly you sinned in some way and that is why you are like this. Maybe it was not your sins but your parents’ sins being visited on you, to punish them. Perhaps it is simply that you do not have enough faith.
By focusing first on the question of sin – and proclaiming this man’s sins already forgiven – God is not just announcing to us (as true as this statement is) that all that is necessary for reconciliation with God is already completed on God’s side but also further pushing aside any connection between sin and disability. Similarly when asked what was clearly in the minds of the people here about this man with paralysis about a man born blind, Jesus answers in John 9:3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This text calls us to embrace that in God our sins are forgiven, yes, with an open path to a living God. But more than that, it invites us to put away all sorts of blame for their disability to those with disabilities. We do not know why some have certain disabilities and some don’t in the grand scheme of things. But we know God’s purpose is not to punish them or others for anyone’s sin but rather so that through them some work of God might be revealed that would not be revealed without the journey that disability gave them. Embracing this reality means embracing people with disabilities as gifts whose unique experiences add to the beauty of life, just as we are learning to more fully embrace people of all colors, races, cultures, sexualities, and gender expressions.
In truth, as a spouse to a minister with a disability, I can say first hand we are very bad about this.
So often businesses don’t obey basic rules of accessibility and equal services to people with disabilities. More often than not, in searching for housing the options are slim and by no means equal. Jobs find ways without being obvious to discriminate against those with disabilities. And don’t get me started about how parking, access ramps, hallways regularly are blocked so people with disabilities don’t have access!
The church, which follows in the footsteps of Jesus, ought to be better. But often, people of God, we are worse. It amazes me how many churches which loudly speak of going into all the world to preach the Gospel to all people don’t have any wheelchair accessible entrance to the church, let alone appropriate seating or program to bring in sign language interpreters if needed. It amazes me more that this is rarely any better for progressive churches which so loudly speak up for racial justice, economic justice, and LGBT inclusion.
And so often when someone raises this concern, the response is as if people with disabilities deserve this outcast status, a very punishing and shaming response. I find this to be more true in the church than in the business community, though I would wager more because businesses know they can be sued over exclusion.
I think recently of my speaking about a very prominent progressive Christian conference at a campsite in the mountains of NC and how physically unsafe it is for people with disabilities. The response I got, not so much from its leaders, but from many who attend it was one of shaming, justification, and snark. As if the people with disabilities deserve to be excluded, pushed out, and rejected.
We know from Jesus’ example this is not the way that involves following in the footsteps of Jesus. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to learn to make welcoming all people as fully as possible into the community of God, an approach that may not fix all problems at once but includes within it a commitment to not just full inclusion of all kinds of people but also beginning to include people with disabilities as stake-holders and decision-makers in our communities.
Here are some interesting links about how we can integrate an awareness of the challenges for human rights in our world and inclusion in the church people with disabilities face:
Let’s embrace God’s call in Christ to, like the friends of this man with paralysis, tear down every wall that society has built up to exclude people with disabilities.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,