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The Holism of Healing: Integrating Disability and Faith into Accounts of Healing

In the summer of 2015, as I was walking out of the subway station at Bloor and Dufferin in Toronto, and about to get groceries for dinner, I heard a soft voice behind me. A young woman with dusty blonde hair called out to me; I thought she had an Australian accent but couldn’t be certain. She had noticed that I had cerebral palsy, and asked if she could pray for my “difficulty.” I told her that I was a systematic theologian, and didn’t really need prayer, but she was welcome to pray anyway. She did so passionately for a few moments, and graciously asked if I’d felt anything. “No, not really.” Emboldened, the young woman prayed for me again, and seemed lightly disappointed when her second equally sincere prayer had no measurable effect.

As a person with multiple disabilities, I think about encounters like that a lot. I’ve often wondered whether I should have been grateful for the young woman’s kindness or horrified by her ignorance. (On my less-charitable days, I tend towards the latter!) For me, the problem with that experience was the young lady’s discounting my agency when she offered me prayer. She saw my disability as a hindrance to my living a “normal,” rich, and full life, when it isn’t really. She saw healing as a monolithic construct where the Divine would reach down and correct, in me, what she saw as an imperfection. Amy Kenny calls folks like that young woman “prayerful perpetrators.” I have frequently wanted to argue, at length, with that sort of perspective, because it prioritizes the comfort, and convenience, of believers of able body.

Healing is integrated: it’s physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and social.

In this blog, I’ve written quite a bit about what equity would look like for people with disabilities in the larger Church. Part of that orientation towards equity involves my stance on healing. Thus, in what follows, I want to explore what healing might look like for people with disabilities, as simply and clearly as I can, and assert part of my own idea of that concept. Healing, and the hope of heaven, are unified, but not unitary; these hopes require a holistic perspective on healing, so they need to address healing’s diverse and diffuse aspects. Healing is integrated: it’s physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and social. In what follows, I’ll use varied scriptural and theological sources to back up that claim.

In her substantive, gentle, and incisive text A Healing Homiletic, liturgical scholar Kathy Black distinguishes between healing and cure. Cure refers to the removal of symptoms of disease or illness; by contrast, healing refers to a general sense of wellbeing, in physical and social terms, when one’s needs are met. For instance, Black (among others) points out that Jesus doesn’t just restore Bartimaeus’ sight in Mark 10:46-52. Because of Bartimaeus’ boldness, Jesus treats him as a person, asks the crowd that had previously mocked him to call him over (10:49), and asks him the question that all people with disabilities and our allies want to hear: “What do you want me to do for you?” To that question, the steadfast Son of Timaeus replies simply, “Rabbi, I want to see again” (Mark 10:51, NRSV). Then Bartimaeus throws away his cloak and joins Jesus on the road from Jericho into Jerusalem—a path that will lead to the latter’s death on a cross (10:52). Jesus doesn’t just heal Bartimaeus’ eyes; he heals some of his social relationships, by getting the crowd to call him over, and heals his spirit by giving him a purpose—quickly and joyfully following Jesus on his Way of love.

Yong is suggesting that healing—in this life and in the life to come—is an expansive concept that affirms human identity, across the spectrum of ability.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and ethicist who resisted Nazism, had a similar holistic understanding of healing. Theological ethicist Bernd Wannenwetsch explores Bonhoeffer’s concepts of sickness and health in the compendium Disability and the Christian Tradition: he writes that Bonhoeffer’s 1933 visit to Bethel, a town open to all people with disabilities, convinced Bonhoeffer that people who are sick demonstrate human interdependence, vulnerability, and trust more openly than those deemed “healthy,” and that healthy and sick people are, thus, interdependent. Bonhoeffer also asserts, preaching on 2 Corinthians 12, ““The Christian relation between the strong and the weak is that the strong has to look up to the weak, and never to look down. Weakness is holy; therefore we devote ourselves to the weak.” That last sentence really rings in your mind, doesn’t it? Weakness is holy. People who are vulnerable—people like me, and people like those you know—embody aspects of the Divine in our limitations. Moreover, United Church of Canada theologian Tom Reynolds adds that, to truly experience the wholeness of healing, people need to be “vulnerable and available” to each other.

In fact, Bonhoeffer’s vision of the interdependence of the “strong” and the “weak” can help us to envision what the Body of Christ looks like both in the present, and in the future. In his perceptive text Theology and Down Syndrome, Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong suggests that people with disabilities may experience a unique version of the afterlife because of our unique bodies and minds. Yong claims, first, that in 1 Corinthians 15, “Paul teaches a resurrection of the body that preserves but also transforms personal identity.” In Yong’s re-reading of Paul, all risen human bodies will contain the glory and power of God’s Spirit and will behave the same way as the resurrected Jesus’s wounded body. Moreover, based on his interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa, the Church Father, Yong also writes that people with disabilities may be resurrected with our wounds, because our physical impairments are part of our “phenotypical features”—in short, part of what makes us ourselves in the eyes of God. Thus, as in our re-reading of Mark 10 above, Yong is suggesting that healing—in this life and in the life to come—is an expansive concept that affirms human identity, across the spectrum of ability.

Let’s summarize. I’ve claimed that healing is holistic, involving all the parts of human identity. First, we’ve seen in Mark 10 that Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus isn’t just his physical restoration of his sight. He heals the formerly blind fellow both emotionally and socially too. Furthermore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that people who are sick demonstrate human interdependence, and further argues that “weakness is holy” – that people who have limitations display an important aspect of the sacred. Finally, Amos Yong claims in a couple different ways, using both scripture and the Church Fathers, that people with disabilities gesture towards a different kind of life in God—a life that is vivid, vital, and powerful—and that healing can come to us without erasing our disabled identities. If I had had these resources at my fingertips, I think that the young Australian woman and I would have had a much more fulsome conversation.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

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