The discipleship model I was taught as a young Christian, was to invest my time and energy in those who were FAT—Faithful, Available, Teachable. They were the people going places and investing in them would give us the greatest return on our personal investment. The funny thing was that when I picked up my Bible I was repeatedly exhorted to invest my time and energy in caring for the wounded, the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. And I discovered that a sign of God’s Kingdom was the inclusion of those who had been marginalized, excluded and oppressed.
The Disabled community is often marginalized and excluded from Church life. While churches have had to accommodate people with disabilities because of the Americans with Disability Act (1990), that has often meant, providing handicapped bathrooms, and wheelchair ramps. Far less thought has been given to how disabled people fit within the mission of the whole church and the gifts they offer to the community. Benjamin Connor (Ph.D., Princeton), professor of Practical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, and director of their Graduate Certificate in Disabled Ministry, aims at enlarging the church’s vision to see the inclusion of disabled people as a ‘sign, agent and foretaste of God’s Kingdom.’
In Disabling Mission: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies, Conner strives to stimulate a conversation between disability studies and missiology on what it means for the entire body of Christ to share in the witness of the church (7). He also helps us reimagine “how we might [dis]able Christian theology, discipleship and theological education for the sake of enabling congregational witness” (7).
In Part 1 of the book, Conner describes his chief dialogue partners, disability studies, and missiological studies. Chapter 1 is an ‘introduction to Disability Studies for Missions.’ Conner rehearses issues which face people with disabilities such as unemployment, abuse, violence, poverty homelessness, and incarceration (28-33) and ways that the church may move intersectionally to minister to the needs of people with disabilities. In chapter examines the field of Mission studies to see what it has to offer disabled communities. Ideas that are particularly fruitful for framing Christian mission to people with disabilities are the Missio Dei (that the church participates in the Mission that God initiated), indigenous appropriation and contextualization, and Christian Witness (39-47). While much of missiological studies have not specifically engaged issues around disability, Cooper draws on insights from two missiologists that addressed disability explicitly (he’s drawing on Amos Yong, and more critically, the work of Lesslie Newbigin).
Part 2 introduces the practical outworking of this discussion between disability and mission. Using Robert Schreiter’s “Teaching Theology from an Intercultural Perspective,” Conner observes how disability cultures are homogenized (treated like they are the same), colonized (dominated by the dominant culture), demonized, romanticized, or pluralized (i.e. “we are all disabled”) However these approaches to disability (and other cultures) prevent us from seeing the gifts that disabled cultures offer the whole church. Connor examines first the deaf community (chapter 3), and those with Intellectual Disabilities (ID) (chapter 4).
By highlighting the d/Deaf community, Connor acknowledges that many in the deaf community would not regard the d/Deaf experience as a “disability.” Many d/Deaf people regard hearing people as disabled because of our limited perception visually, our manual language and our limited visual capacities (68). Nevertheless the d/Deaf culture (schools, societies. etc) developed in the context of 19th Century missions to deaf people’s. The deaf community has historically (and concurrently) marginalized by the audist (ableist community). Using Schreiter’s categories Connor points how while deaf culture has been homogenized and dismissed and their contributions devalued, colonized and dominated by audist culture, demonized (their deafness is seen as evidence of fallenness), romanticized, and pluralized (their different experience and contributions relativized to a non-meaning (89-92). Through a missiological lens (Missio Dei, contextualization and witness), Conner points to the gifts that the d/Deaf community has to offer the whole church, “enhanced communication, embodiment, different and more relational ways of arranging space, visual-kinetic ways of communicating the gospel” (101).
In discussing Intellectual Disabilities (ID), Conner notes the similar ways that those with ID are marginalized by the Ableist community. Through the lens of Orthodox iconography, Conner points to a way to understand personhood (and the Imago Dei) in a way that does not privilege rationality, and values the contributions of all to the total witness of the church:
People with intellectual disabilities expose the limitations of our words for conveying truth. They remind the church that truth is “not as a product of the mind” but “a ‘visit’ and a ‘dwelling’ of an eschatological reality entering history to open it up as a communion -event.” The goal of our iconic evangelism is, ultimately, communion with those whom we are bearing witness—and that communion is in Christ (130).
A faithful Christian anthropology embraces the limitations and contingency of all human existence, and it recognizes that the image of God we bear is expressed together in Christ and animated in us collectively by the Holy Spirit. People with intellectual disabilities are indispensable to their faith communities because among the other gifts and trials they offer, they remind their communities that our abilit to image God is externally grounded. All personhood—able and disabled, in all its diversity—is grounded in gift, animated by the Spirit and eschatological in nature. Stated succinctly, and borrowing Amos Yong’s phrasing: “People with disabilities are created int he image of God that is measured according to the person of Christ” just like everyone else. Our iconic witness doesn’t exclude anyone because it is not dependent on a strategy or capacity that is intrinsic to us (140-141).
While the focus of chapter 4 is on ID, the concept of iconic witness is applicable to other forms as a disability as well.
In chapter 5, Conner discusses ways to [Dis]able theological education by disabling constructs, disrupting myths of self-sufficiency, and dis-locating narratives (151-152), After sharing a couple of examples of ways in which disabled students have enriched the community of Western Theological Seminary, Conner challenges us to reconfigure our learning communities by including disabled students, being intentional about their participation in life, and the dimension they bring to the theological community (159-64).
Conner points to a more inclusive vision for missiology, that values the abilities and contributions of all, regardless of their physical abilities or mental capacities. The concept of iconic witness doesn’t place the responsibility for Christian witness on the autonomous individual—able or disabled. It instead, lays emphasis on the church as a witnessing community where all are included. This means that while disabled people (or, other-abled people) have a crucial place in enriching the witness of the church. Conners approach honors the unique contributions that disabled people offer to our ecclesial and missional life.
I highly recommend this book. Part and parcel to the church’s witness is the care for the vulnerable in society (James 1:27). As Christians make space to minister to and care for the vulnerable, they participate in God’s mission of redemption of the world. This book is valuable for an academic context (he envisions some changes for theological education), but as he traces the implications of disability for missiology, anyone who seeks to minister in the name of Christ will find this valuable. I give this five stars and think this book may be a real game changer. – ★★★★★