Disability and the healing mission of the church.
On losing my sight thirty-seven years ago at the age of sixteen, the impression I had was that the world had come to an end for me. No consolation could be given by the encouragement to start life anew by learning Braille, and continuing with my education as the School for the Blind was offering to help me do. My understanding was that I was sick and what I needed in order to continue with life was a cure. The doctors had surrendered in their efforts and wisdom to cure me, and had recommended that my place henceforth was the blind school. This was a place I had heard very little about and where I could not imagine how people lived, let alone learnt. The doctors having failed, my yearning for a cure was as a result of religious influence and to a very great extent pressure directed to faith and miracle healing. There were many in religious circles around me who considered this a viable option, and, even long after my blindness began and I had made a lot of adjustment, their reminder that God owed me a cure kept on following me. I did with all earnestness seek faith healing over a long time before I came to understand and accept that blindness had become a part of me.
Although I have no doubt God can heal, I believe that he can do so only at his own will and timing, and even then it cannot be done to everyone. An emphasis on physical healing has at times worked out very negatively on the faith of many persons with disabilities. Many have felt it embarrassing either to attend worship or crusades by the so-called great world evangelists because when they do so the ushers at such events cannot conceive of the idea of one going to such an event purely for spiritual blessings and nourishment. They always assume that you have gone there for physical healing, and will often coerce you to go to the front for divine healing prayers. If no healing takes place one is presumed to have no faith and is more often than not told exactly that.
These experiences of Christian practices that put their emphasis on faith healing are something that I myself have gone through, and I can witness to the feeling that comes to one when such a thing happens. I can weather it today but it was much more difficult in those early days of my blindness. I have grown to understand the gospel and to know that God has his own ways of dealing with us that are very different from the human understanding. In this respect, I am reminded of St Paul the apostle who, though he had performed many miracles ranging from healing to raising the dead, he himself lived with a problem, which he refers to in 2 Cor. 12:7-9 as a thorn in the flesh. Paul testified that he pleaded with God over this three times but God's answer to him was, "My grace is sufficient for you". My understanding of this is that God will heal us if he considers it necessary but our physical conditions should never be grounds for stopping us carrying out the mission God appoints us to fulfil. He will accompany and give us the necessary grace to handle our situations.
It is the duty of the church to support persons with disabilities to reach this stage of faith. Much is as yet to be done in this respect. Recently, I informally raised the subject of faith healing and the participation of persons with disabilities in church life during a board meeting of the national umbrella body for the organizations of people with disabilities in Kenya. In that meeting, there were blind, deaf and physically disabled people. Three quarters of the group informed me that they do not go to church and that they do not believe in miracle healing. When I asked why they do not go to church, some of the answers given were that they were embarrassed because, on being seen in church, the preachers often ignore their prepared sermons and instead preach on disability. Such sermons will centre on God's mercy and kindness to those who are suffering, among them the disabled, questions of curses over generations and how God can remove these curses, and the deliverance of those who have faith from their curses, diseases and, of course, disabilities.
The group felt that most sermons condemn them as a poor, wretched and cursed lot that cannot receive God's mercy because they have no faith. They also complained of a prosperity gospel common to churches today whose message is that you get blessed in accordance to how you give in the church. Disabled people being generally poor, this kind of message condemns them to a lot that cannot be blessed because they are unable to give like the rest of the worshippers. Another problem cited was isolation. One physically disabled woman said that whenever she walks into a church and sits down, all other worshippers who come after her make sure that they sit as far away from her as they can. She comes alone and has to walk out alone even though there is a lot of interaction among other worshippers both as they come in and go away.
On healing, the people to whom I spoke all said that they had at one time or another in their life been subjects of faith healing prayers. None of them in all their life knew anybody with an obvious disability that was ever healed through prayers, though they had constantly heard that people are healed. They had no reason to believe that this happens as they have all through their lives been in constant touch with people with disabilities either during their school life or their adult life. One of them, a partially sighted woman, said that during her school days she was prayed for in a major Christian meeting and, due to her residual vision, she falsely thought that she had received a healing and left the meeting with that kind of a testimony. She only realized later that there was no difference in her degree of vision. She believed that many, especially those with less obvious conditions, go through the same type of illusion. However, the testimonies of such people get so widely made public that even when they discover that their condition is unchanged they do not have the courage to correct the perception. The group argued that God these days heals through hospitals, and what the church should do is to support the development of medical science and growth of well equipped medical facilities.
The WCC interim theological statement provides some insights on alternative ways to view the subject of healing and disabilities in the modern age. The healing section differentiates between healing and cure. The gospel healing stories are seen not merely as a cure of the body but more of the individual's restoration in and into society. Healing in this instance is an act of making people human and therefore joining them up with the rest of the community in their day-to-day preoccupations. When the blind Bartimeus's sight is restored (Mark 10:46-52), he immediately joins in the procession with others. He is transformed from the beggar on the roadside to a member of the crowd that followed Jesus. He is no longer isolated, ignored, despised or rebuked. His transformation transcends the mere ability to see to becoming an equal participant in the daily life and happenings of his society.
When the physically disabled man at the beautiful gate (Acts 3:1-10) has his ability restored, he joins other worshippers in the temple. This was something he had never done before. He is accepted as one of them and no longer as a stranger. This is a great transformation brought about not only by the cure but also by the act of reconciliation with those who previously had nothing to do with him. His act of worship also signifies reconciliation with God. This is a full process of healing as it brought about the man's restoration of his humanity, and therefore his acceptance by those who had always considered him less than human.
In the John 5:1-18 story of the man who had been at the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years, we are told that after his cure he met with Jesus in the temple. This could well have been the first time that he had ever been to a temple because, prior to that, his disability according to the Jewish culture and religion made him unclean and therefore unworthy of being in a holy place. Like the other two, he had been restored, set free, made human and therefore reconciled with the rest of the Jewish people.
The cardinal message in these stories is that when we create an inviting environment and provide space for full participation and active involvement of people with disabilities in church life, we are participating in Christ's healing ministry. This is all true in my own life. Although, like all other human beings, I have gone through some ups and downs, the opportunity and assistance given to me to continue with my education, secure a job, enjoy family life and be accepted as a contributor in the ecumenical vineyard, where I have now worked for the last fifteen years, have given me a sense of full restoration despite my visual impairment. Like Paul, I can say that my life is an example that God's strength is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-8).
One of the problems of today's expression of the Christian faith concerns the differing teachings, doctrines and theologies that are put forward. Some of these, as I observed in my meeting with the organizations of persons with disabilities in Kenya, have at times led to serious and unhelpful paternalistic and patronizing attitudes in the church. The continued interpretation and belief among some churches that there is a relationship between disability/sickness and sin has led to the development of an attitude of pity and sympathy to those who are disabled or sick. To those who hold this view, the presence of people with disabilities in the church is a sign that the church is unable to combat the devil, who is the source of these infirmities. The response to this is endless prayers for those who are disabled or sick, and when these prayers do not field the expected result the victim is blamed for having no faith. The consequence is that the person in question will opt to stay away not only from that particular church but also from the Christian faith. This explains why, more often than not, persons with disabilities feel alienated, marginalized, embarrassed and, in some cases, offended by the treatment meted out to them by the church. Whereas we cannot blame a church for the interpretation of the Bible that they may adopt, it is necessary in this age that a more inclusive and empowering theology, and therefore interpretation of the Bible be adopted.
Most important, in this modern age, with all the assistive devices that exist to enable persons with disabilities to function in society and to take part in nearly all aspects of societal life, miraculous cures or the fixing of impairments to the body should not be the central reasons for presenting the disabled or sick to God. Those who take the contrary view have failed to understand that the soul, which is the ultimate subject of the gospel mission, is more important than the physical body. People need to hear and be reached with the gospel, irrespective of their bodily condition. They also need to partake in getting the gospel to others, and any impairment they may have can neither be a cause for the remission of their sins or an excuse for the failure to play their part in the extension of the kingdom. This is best illustrated by the already-cited example of Saint Paul and his bodily condition that he calls a thorn in the flesh, and that troubled him. Paul prayed three times to have this condition taken away. Instead of a cure, God assured him that God's grace was sufficient to uphold him (2 Cor. 12:7-8). Is that same grace not sufficient today to persons with disabilities to march on as crusaders of the gospel and partakers of the kingdom?
(1) Samuel Kabue's plenary presentation will be published in the Conference report. It can be consulted on the CWME Conference Webpage via www.wcc-coe.org (what do we do/Mission&Evangelism).
(2) Published in IRM vol. 93, Nos. 370/371, July/October 2004, pp. 505-25.
Samuel Kabue is the coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), which is a decentralized programme of the World Council of Churches (WCC). EDAN operates from Kenya under the auspices of the All Africa Conference of Churches but its mandate extends to all the WCC regions
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|Publication:||International Review of Mission|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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