Monday, October 27, 2014

Disability, Limits, and the Church

A couple weeks ago, the World Council of Churches called for more inclusivity of people with disabilities in churches. The coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network apparently said this:

“The communion of the churches in unity and diversity is impaired without the gifts and presence of all people, including persons with disability.”

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this statement since I first read it. There's so much to unpack here with respect to my theological interests.

Ever since I started trying to do embodied theology, theology that is in and of and about the flesh, I have been compelled by the image of the Church as Christ's body. This is already a powerfully rich and evocative image in New Testament literature. The image is present in Paul's letters to the Romans, the Ephesians, and the Colossians, but I suppose it gets its most extensive treatment in 1 Corinthians 12.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.
I often think about taking this image quite seriously. Given what we know about bodies – from queer theory, from crip theory, from critical race theory – what does it mean that we the Church are, collectively, Christ's body? And what does it mean to call this body, for whatever reason, impaired?

On the social model of disability, “impairment” usually refers to a physical fact about a specific body, while “disability” as such is caused by social and environmental factors. Any disability theory worth its salt from the last five years or more will, of course, note that this distinction is as necessary a step and as unsustainable a dualism as the sex/gender distinction: one can no more conflate these things absolutely than one can separate them entirely. Impairment (/sex) the physical fact and disability (/gender) the social construct are hopelessly entangled, to the point that even what we call “the physical fact” (of impairment or of sex) is itself a social construction.

Deborah Beth Creamer proposes a model of “limits” to displace or supplement the social model's inadequacies. Limits are not identical with either “disability” or “impairment,” and are inherently value-neutral. As a society we naturalize some limits (a person who cannot fly is normal) and pathologize others (a person who cannot walk is defective). As in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of “misfit,” our understanding of limits tends to be circumscribed by the relations between human bodies and their environment, but attention to the limit or misfit can enable us to interrogate the “default” bodies we construct. Disability becomes “an intrinsic, unsurprising, and valuable element of human limit-ness” (Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, 96).

So far, so human; but what of God? What about the limits of God? The classical theological notion of kenosis, self-emptying, proposes that God took on limits in the incarnation; but, traditionally, this was in order to overcome said limits through glorification and resurrection. But if the Church is Christ's body – a body of bodies, human bodies, defined by the having of limits – is God, then, not still flesh? Still material? Still limited?

The Church is Christ's body, but it is also a (or many) human institution(s), and as such it is deeply flawed – perhaps even impaired, in the most negative sense – and never more so than when it practices the exclusion of those whose bodies are too disabled, too queer, the wrong color. The Church is the communion of saints, but it is also a temporal coalition of temporal bodies, and as such it has limits – limits that are not necessarily intrinsically good or bad, but limits that are constitutive of it as a body.

I wonder what that means.

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