Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Liberation, Inclusion, and Justice:
A Faith Response to Persons with Disabilities


Nancy L. Eiesland is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. In 2000, she was a member of the teaching faculty for the first National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Disability Studies, held in San Francisco. She can be reached at neiesla@emory.edu.

I recently read an article entitled “Disability for the Religious” in theDisability Rag, a magazine primarily for disability rights activists. The article implied that religion offers no relevant answers to the query “What is disability?” According to the article’s author the answers available are the following: Disability is (a) a punishment; (b) a test of faith; (c) the sins of the fathers visited upon the children; (d) an act of God; or (e) all of the above (Majik, 1994). If these were the only choices offered by religion, I would agree that it has no relevant answers.

Religion, in particular Christianity, has often been cited as the source of destructive stereotypes about people with disabilities. For example, the introduction to a collection of essays by mostly Canadian women with disabilities includes this statement: “Many people, including the disabled, still believe the traditional myths about the disabled. Some of these negative attitudes have their origins in ancient religious beliefs that regarded the disabled as devil possessed, or as corporeal manifestations of family guilt” (Israel & McPherson, 1983). This statement may be true, but it is only partial truth that fails to acknowledge a growing movement of people with disabilities who have begun to articulate a liberatory theology of disability, and to address the particularities of religious and cultural milieus in which negative myths and beliefs about people with disabilities emerged. For example, the well-known historical theologian Carolyn Walker Bynum has recently contended that Christianity in the Middle Ages did not specifically distinguish impairments from ordinary life. She writes, “Infirmity [impairment] [was] part of God’s varied creation – the order of things. The response to difference was charity, spirituality and morality” (Bynum, 1995). She goes on to argue that it was not necessarily ancient religious beliefs that shaped the contemporary attitudes toward disability, but rather it was widespread Christian acceptance of the quest to control difference born of Enlightenment medical views.

If, indeed, this is the case, it may be possible to find within Christian sources and history glimpses of more adequate answers to the query: what are the theological responses to people with disabilities in our midst? Thus, the challenge for people of faith is first to acknowledge our complicity with the inhumane views and treatment of people with disabilities, and second, to uncover the hidden, affirming resources in the tradition and make them available for contemporary reflection, finding new models of the church in which full participation is a sign of God’s presence.

As in all theological endeavors, this liberatory theology of disability is situated within a context and a biography. Although I have a master’s degree in theology from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, my Ph.D. and my professorship are in sociology of religion. Yet, I am a theologian by necessity. As a person with a disability, I could not accept the traditional answers given to my own query of “What is disability?” Since I have a congenital disability, I have had opportunities to hear and experience many of these so-called answers through the years. They included “You are special in God’s eyes, that’s why you were given this painful disability.” Imagine it didn’t seem logical. Or “Don’t worry about your pain and suffering now, in heaven you will be made whole.” Again, having been disabled from birth, I came to believe that in heaven I would be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God. My disability has taught me who I am and who God is. What would it mean to be without this knowledge? I was told that God gave me a disability to develop my character. But by age six or seven, I was convinced that I had enough character to last a lifetime. My family frequented faith healers with me in tow. I was never healed. People asked about my hidden sins, but they must have been so well hidden that even I misplaced them. The theology that I heard was inadequate to my experience.

However, in my teen years, I became actively involved in the disability rights movement, the worldwide movement that has sought basic human rights for the now approximately 600 million persons with disabilities worldwide:*

  • 300 million of whom live in Asia (including 70 million children);
  • 50 million who live in Africa;
  • 34 million who live in Latin America;
  • 43 million who live in the United States (UNESCO, 1995); and
  • 37 million who live in European Community countries ( Commission on Equality for People with Disabilities, 1996).

Within the disability rights movement I came to understand why we people with disabilities have such depreciated views of ourselves and why so many of us are lacking in genuine convictions of personal worth. I began to see the “problem” not within my body or the bodies of other people with disabilities, but with the societies that have made us outcasts and viewed and treated us in demeaning and exclusionary ways. In the U.S., I was among those who organized sit-ins to achieve access to public transit, to seek access to public facilities, and to promote human and civil rights legislation. I became passionately committed to the view that society must be changed in order for our full value as human beings to be acknowledged.

Yet while the disability rights movement and activism addressed my experience, it didn’t always respond to my more spiritual and theological questions such as, “What is the meaning of my disability?” For a long time, I experienced a significant rift between my participation in the disability rights movement and my Christian faith. The movement offered me opportunities to work for change that were unavailable in Christianity, but my faith gave a spiritual fulfillment that I found elusive in the rights movement. Yet, I also had to name the ways in which Christian communities participated in our silencing. Within the church, often other people with disabilities were uninterested in political and activist matters. In the rights movement, fellow participants saw religion as damaging or at least irrelevant to their work.

Although I began to answer my own question of the meaning of my disability by articulating God’s call for justice for the marginalized, thus including people with disabilities, I nonetheless felt spiritually estranged from God. However, the return path towards intimacy with God began to be cleared as I read a passage from the Gospel of Luke after an encounter with several other people with disabilities. The setting was the Shepherd Center in Atlanta – a rehabilitation hospital for people with spinal cord injuries. I had been asked by its chaplain to lead a Bible study with several residents. One afternoon after a long and frustrating day, I shared with the group my own doubts about God’s care for me. I asked them if they could tell me how they would know if God was with them and understood their experience. There was a long silence, then an African-American young man said, “If God was in a sip/puff** maybe He would understand.” We talked about the image for awhile and concluded.

Several weeks later, I was reading the gospel passage in Luke 24:36-39. It is set within the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but its focus is really on his followers who are alone and depressed. The passage reads: “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them. They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.” It wasn’t God in a sip/puff, but here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are – disabled and divine. Reading this passage, I realized that here was a part of my hidden history as a Christian. The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear marks of profound physical impairment. In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their salvation. In so doing, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven, but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is compatible with the experience of disability. This disabled God understood the experience of those in my Shepherd Center Bible study as well as my own, and called for justice not from the distant reaches of principle, but by virtue of God’s incarnation and ultimate knowledge of the uncertainties and accidents of human existence.

This encounter with the disabled God was the source of the liberatory theology of disability that I have written about in the book,The Disabled God, which calls both for justice and for the recovery of vital Christian symbols and rituals (Eiesland, 1994). This theology is now increasingly read by liberation and feminist theologians as well as growing numbers of ministers and lay persons who have disabilities or are temporarily able-bodied. It identifies that although sometimes Christianity continues to buttress prejudice and exclusion, it can also foster vision and commitment to change toward a better society, a more adequate theology of humanity, and a model of the church in which all participate fully. In promoting this vision, we also counter the prevailing sentiment that the religious practices and history of the able-bodied constitute the only relevant spiritual pulse and narrative, and that whatever is outside this ambit is of little, if any, significance.

A liberatory theology must support reflection and action to promote justice for people with disabilities and the temporarily able-bodied. What is justice? While we may all have definitions, I contend that justice and just action are primarily virtues and practices of full participation, of persons deliberating about particular visions of human flourishing (fullness of life) and working together to remove barriers in their institutions and relations so that they embody reciprocity and mutual appreciation of difference. Thus justice is first about just listening. Not simply listening, but listening for the claims for justice made in the process of everyday life.

Just listening means attending to the ways in which everyday talk (and sometimes commonly accepted silence) makes claims about justice. They are not theories to be explicated or fully developed agendas to be followed, they are instead calls, pleas, claims upon some people by others. Personal and social reflection on the demands of justice begins in hearing, in heeding a call rather than in asserting and mastering a state of affairs. The call to be just is always situated in concrete social and political practices. Too often temporarily able-bodied people have been eager to devise strategies of response to what they deem as the unhealthy lives of persons with disabilities, before they have just listened. They have attempted to speak for us, deciding how and where we can best serve God, before they have just listened. They have pronounced us sacraments of grace, without listening to our fierce passion to be participants not sacraments. The process of examination of church and society must begin with listening, hearing the calls for justice expressed by people with disabilities who are among us.

*Note: The discrepancy between the total and the regional statistics given is due to missing statistics for some regions and countries.

**Note: A "sip/puff" refers to wheelchairs and other assistive technologies that are maneuvered by sipping from or puffing into a straw-like apparatus.


  • Bynum, C. W. (1995). The resurrection of the body in western Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Commission on Equality of Opportunity for People with Disabilities. (1998). Raising employment levels for people with disabilities: The common challenge.

  • Eiesland, N. L. (1994). The disabled God: Toward a liberatory theology of disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

  • Israel, P., & McPherson, C. (1983). Introduction. In G. F. Matthews (Ed.), Voices from the shadows (p. 14). Toronto: Women’s Press.

  • Majik, P. J. (1994). Disability for the religious. The Disability Rag and Resource 15. 24–25.

  • UNESCO. (1995). Overcoming obstacles to the integration of disabled people. Switzerland: Geneva.