The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God

The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God
Amos Yong

In The Bible, Disability, and the Church, Amos Yong presents a well-reasoned and compelling biblical theology of disability. The content is refreshing and challenges our theological understanding of disability. Throughout the book Yong asserts the value of re-reading biblical texts with different eyes en route to forming a disability-inclusive theology of the church.

Does our current understanding of church reflect that those who are blind, deaf or mute, those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and those with chronic illnesses are in fact authentic worshippers and disciples of Jesus? The author asserts that the people of God are to be marked by their weaknesses in such a way that people with disabilities become the most tangible and honoured expression of God’s mode of operation in a world wherein they are otherwise despised.

Amos Yong (professor of theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Va.) grew up alongside a brother with Down syndrome. Yong challenges us to understand how our able-bodied perspectives have shaped our reading of Gospel texts in reference to disabilities, and also how we relate to those with disabilities.

The author investigates Old Testament narratives regarding disability, curse, and blemish, highlighting the status and personhood of people with disabilities. Recalling the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the author asserts that Jesus fulfils his priestly functions with a disabled body. Yong also concludes that the apostle Paul was the first to articulate a theology of weakness that has far-ranging implications for adopting a more inclusive theology of disability (Galatians 4:13–15 and 1 Corinthians 12:22). The result is more of a redemptive view of the blemishes and so-called impairments that characterize the body of Christ and also the communities in which we live.

Through the concept of lament, Yong challenges the connection between sin/disobedience and disability by recognizing the human heart’s cry for divine justice. Lament is inspiring prophetic action that grieves over, interrogates, and ultimately transforms the world into a more inclusive and hospitable place. Yong points out that what is at stake is not the biological healing of disabilities or the removal of blemished bodies from the holy sanctuary, but the purifying of the unholy stigmatization that socially excludes, divides, and pollutes the people of God. What is at issue is that people with and without disabilities stand together in solidarity in repentance and reconciliation.

Yong challenges our theological assumptions and our own exclusivity as congregations. What might it mean for us to fully appreciate, accept and include those with visible disabilities? The author asserts that all people are created in the image of God and bring wholeness to the body of Christ – rather than some being seen as a blemish or wounded appendage. What might our churches be like if we became places of inclusion where we moved beyond tokenism to accepting and valuing the contribution of everyone, including our sisters and brothers with disabilities?

Yong’s book is an invitation for each of us to be part of a renewed biblical community in which the stigmatization and marginalization of people with disabilities will be no more. The Bible, Disability, and the Church is a call for the church to carefully think through its beliefs about disability and to envision ways of engaging with and including people with disabilities. Re-visioning our theology of disability will have a significant impact on how the church proclaims and embodies good news to all people whether or not they have disabilities.

Yong’s intent was to write a book that would appeal to a broad cross-section of readers, but my concern is that many parents and friends of those with disabilities, care givers, and healthcare professionals who would greatly benefit from this book would not have the patience to weed through the theological language. Readers might do well to have a theological understanding before attempting to unpack this book. The text would be more approachable if the author had created a glossary of terms at the back of the book with definitions for theological words used throughout the text.

This book should be read by those preparing to serve in pastoral ministry and is a welcome addition to any pastor’s library. We would do well to re-consider our perspectives on those with disabilities, as they represent a large and often silent segment of our local communities. The task for pastors and denominational leaders will be to use this text to apply a new biblical theology of disability to congregational life, pastoral care, and outreach.

As we seek to apply what is presented in Yong’s book, it’s worth noting that our own Mennonite roots include ministries such as Bethania, a mental health facility established in 1910 in the Choritza colony in Ukraine; its indirect successor, MB-owned Bethesda, Vineland, Ont., celebrating its 75th anniversary this year; and assorted Mennonite mental health hospitals across North America (many inspired by WW II Mennonite conscientious objectors working in state-run mental hospitals), and one in Filadelphia, Paraguay. It’s helpful to recall that Mennonite churches and families have had a tradition of serving those whose lives have been affected by mental and physical disabilities. Today’s MB church has all the right DNA to continue this approach as it reaches out and demonstrates love in practical ways.

Yong concludes: “I envision a fully inclusive church – at the congregational, parish, community and missiological levels – to be one in which people with disabilities are honored and in which they are fully ministers alongside non-disabled people… Hence, the church should be at the vanguard of showing the world how to value all people, how to receive the full spectrum of gifts, and how to channel what each of us with our diverse abilities has to offer others.”

—Tom Balke is a member of Cedar Park (MB) Community Church, Delta, B.C., and is stewardship director for Communitas Supportive Care Society, a social service agency that provides care and resources to, and advocates on behalf of persons living with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities.

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