This Will Help Them: A Theology of Disability

Study the image above for a minute. It’s called This Will Help Them by the Clayton Brothers: mixed media on two large wood panels, measuring together 67” x103”. It’s currently on display through November right across the street from Fuller at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The piece tells the story of a boy who grew up on the same street as brothers Rob and Christian Clayton. He was mentally disabled, and they remember him being a difficult playmate to have. The painting depicts one particularly striking memory they had of him attempting to give his medication to the local wildlife in the neighboring wood.

The painting has an ominous quality to it, driven primarily by the drug-influenced, anthropomorphic animals and the look of terror on the face of little girl who is trying to prevent the boy from causing any more damage, the contrast between their two faces striking: shock and delight, knowledge and blissful ignorance.

And his face seems to be melting. Why is that? Certainly, there’s no concrete answer. It could be a result of his actions, he could be feverish with anxiety—but no practical explanation seems to do the power of his image any justice. What is important here is the grotesqueness of this representation of disability. The boy is somewhere between human and animal, not just spatially in the painting, but in terms of his features. He is oddly proportioned, and in some ways is closer to the female squirrel than he is the female child.

Disability is perhaps the most widely ignored, widely misunderstood aspect of Christian anthropology. It makes us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is one of the feelings this painting is supposed to evoke the moment you lay your eyes on it. That is a visceral reaction. It’s a reaction that nearly all of us have had at one time or another in our lives to disability.

What do we do about it? If you attend even a moderately sized church (over 150 members) you probably have attendees with mental handicaps of some kind. Is it enough to just say hi to them awkwardly, to pat them on the back, to say, “I’m glad you’re here!”

Do we really mean that?

I genuinely believe that some people do—those people who honestly could love anyone with the love of Jesus. They have a gift. Their visceral reaction is to love. The rest of us need to think about things a little harder. It has to start with theology.

Greg Boyd, in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a really strong case for why evil exists in the world: True, Absolute, Perfect Love requires the free will of moral agents. God’s love means nothing and our love for him means nothing if we don’t have the free will to express it or not. You can probably see where it goes from there. It is a strong argument for why horrific, terrible, atrocious things happen to good people who have never harmed anyone, and it flies in the face of Augustine’s blueprint model (i.e. bad things happen because they are part of a divine plan we just can’t comprehend.)

However, when it comes to what is commonly termed “natural evil,” Boyd encounters a problem. His entire argument (both in this book and in the one that precedes it, God at War) is driven by a belief in spiritual warfare. I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not demons and angels exist—that really has nothing to do with my critique. Boyd’s explanation for natural evil is tied up completely in spiritual warfare. To put it bluntly, demonic forces are the cause. Ignoring the questions this begs about the existence of demons, we could say that this would be an acceptable argument for tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters: demons are moral agents who have free will. If they have the power to control natural forces (which Boyd clearly believes they do,) then they can choose to be destructive with that power.

When we start talking about illness and disease, we begin to cross into darker waters. Is cancer caused by demons? Chicken pox? The common cold? What about a scraped knee, a broken arm, a stubbed toe? Or are those things all a part of a divine plan? In other words, it’s easy for a proponent of spiritual warfare or the blueprint model to ascribe supernatural or divine causes to immense disasters, but there’s no distinct line between immense and inconsequential.

Here’s where things get really sticky though: Is a child born with Down Syndrome a victim of a moral agent exercising free will? Is his or her disability a part of God’s divine plan that we just can’t understand? I think the answer must be a resounding “No.” I know—the demoniacs in the book of Matthew were mute. Couldn’t we say that they were potentially mentally disabled in some way…?

Just going to let that trail off there for a second. There is absolutely no point in trying to make a case like this or to say that disability is simply an unexplainable part of God’s plan as a theology of disability because at the end of the day, it does not allow for us to care for our disabled brothers and sisters the way that we should. We can ask these sorts of questions all day long. I don’t think the point of Jesus’ exorcisms was so that we would know that the cause of disability is demon possession.

Let me set forth an example for consideration: From the time he began first grade, Tommy has had trouble keeping up with the rest of his classmates. His teachers have taken notice, filed reports. He’s having trouble reading, and he hasn’t been doing homework assignments. His third grade teacher is at a loss with him, and wants to meet with his parents. They come in, and the teacher tries to explain that if Tommy does not improve, he may be held back a grade or may even need to attend the Special Day class. His parents don’t understand.

But their lack of understanding isn’t because they are at a loss for words, unable to comprehend how they could have brought a boy like Tommy into the world. They don’t speak English. They’ve immigrated from Guatemala and have been living with Tommy’s aunt and uncle for the last three years. Tommy, as you have probably guessed, is having trouble because he barely speaks English. In fact, the reality of immigrant education is that even if he were moved into a Spanish-speaking classroom at this point, he still would not have the skills in his own language to succeed.

What do we say about this? Do we say that a demon caused Tommy’s circumstances to be less than desirable? Do we say that God desires this? Is that what we say about those who live in the third world? Those who live in government housing? Those who are homeless? Those who are simply less fortunate than we are?

A theology of disability, then, must recognize that disability is not a significant marker of difference. If we allow it to become that, then we make the disabled in our congregations into the grotesque figure of the painting. If we call fellow Christians around the world our brothers and sisters in Christ and claim that even though we live differently, we are all the same in Christ, recognizing that Christ calls us to serve those who are less fortunate than we are and simultaneously be able to be in relationship with them, then why should disability, no matter how severe, be any different?

The disabled are just as human as we are. I refuse to see disability as an evil that can be explained away as a mysterious transcendent good or the result of a supernatural moral agent’s will. People are born into difficult circumstances. We are called to serve those people not just by helping them but by being in relationship with them. That is certainly not an easy thing to do. For some of us, it’s always going to be challenging. But if we belong to the church, to Jesus, then that’s the life we’ve chosen.

It’s that simple.

by Joel Harrison

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