Thesis By Natalie Stitt Regent Preparatory – Student, Guest Author

Here is Part 2 of Natalie Stitt’s senior thesis. If you missed Part 1 of Natalie’s article, check out the first half online at
www.communityspiritmagazine.com.

Just as ancients did, many in the Church today assume that disabilities are due directly to sin, and therefore have the overarching, if not sole purpose to be healed (Cross 317). Although this concept is visible in the Old and New Testaments, it is fundamentally a pagan idea: the notion that at any turn, a slight mistake could offend the gods and leave the sinner suddenly struck by lightning or turned into a cow terrorized the ancient world, and as Christianity spread, this idea was mixed with Christian thought. This concept of divine punishment heavily influenced both the early and contemporary Church (Moss).

In Jesus’ teachings, his disciples once asked, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2-3). We tend to think that if something is bad, it is always divine punishment, but Jesus’ words in this passage should dispel any thoughts that disabilities are the results of God’s wrath (Yong 87). On the other hand, I do not mean to suggest that God is absent from the creation of those with disabilities; Scripture is very clear that there is purpose behind every individual, especially those with disabilities. When Moses confronted God about his speech impediment, asking Him to choose someone else, the Lord responded with, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). His response shows how purposeful each individual with special needs is: they are fully created by God, disability and all.

While it is folly to attribute disabilities to be direct effect of God’s wrath, sin might have something to do with the existence of disabilities, and for this, we must turn to Thomas Aquinas. When discussing physical impairments, Aquinas contends that disability, along with several other experiences that he deems “features of the human condition,” is not on direct account of sin, that is, divine punishment, but yet another manifestation of original sin in this world (Cross 318). The human condition does not only include disability, but all the ways that sin manifests in humanity: being prone to lie, having an addiction to alcohol, being born without the use of the legs, and having Down syndrome are all aspects that fall under Aquinas’s categorization (328-329). Despite physical appearances or mental abilities, theologically, there is no distinction between someone with or without disabilities.

In a sense, all effects of original sin are hindering in some manner or another: we are all disabled to a certain degree. I’d like to turn to Bach, a scholar of disability in theology: Both [disabled and not] are respectively created by God; both live in the fallen creation; both (as damaged creation) are dependent on the salvific deed of Christ; both are reconciled to God through Christ; both are members of the Body of Christ, both deficient and dependent upon others; both gifted with divine gifts, both expectant of salvation (Bach, as cited in Kunz, as cited in White 20).

In this light, the state of original sin unifies humanity, especially within the Body of Christ. One cannot treat a fellow sinner with contempt or arrogance because “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When Christians have a misconception of sin as it relates to disability, they see an individual with special needs as a mistake, if not a punishment, that requires healing. Nancy Eiesland, herself living with a disability, comments on the issue from experience: “our bodies have too often been touched by hands that have forgotten our humanity and attend only to curing us . . . healing has been the churchly parallel to rehabilitative medicine, in which the goal was ‘normalization’ of the bodies of people with disabilities” (Eiesland 244). She claims that instead of being welcomed into a loving and accepting community, she was merely viewed as an imperfection that needed healing and normalization.

Theologically there is nothing wrong with intercession for healing, but as Eiesland emphasized, one’s humanity and one’s disability cannot be separated for the purpose of healing, and healing with normalization in mind, is not without danger. In the gospel, it is very clearly stated that there should be no partiality in the Church (James 2): nothing about an individual should cause the church body to treat her in a better or worse manner. We are all defective, we are all broken, and we are all sinful, and no one is more or less than another. We should always keep this is in the forefront of our minds when we interact with anyone, with and without disabilities. The Lord does not bestow weaknesses or disabilities upon humanity in order to discourage them, but rather, through the relationship established on the cross, to make them perfect in his strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). Any suffering that we experience on earth should be a reminder for what Christ accomplished on the cross: he trampled Satan, and in death, gave us life.

The first step towards inclusion must begin with how we view individuals with special needs. In the New Testament and especially in the examples set by Jesus, diversity was obvious: men and women of all different backgrounds were unified as they worked to further the kingdom of the Lord. Jesus’ image of the Church as a body emphasizes unity over difference. Jesus even commanded that his followers “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). He did not say “open your doors and let them come” but rather “go, and bring them in” (White 12). Later the Apostle Paul elaborates on Christ’s teaching concerning inclusion; in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 he says that: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Painting by Natalie Stitt

As Paul states, there is unity in diversity: “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The unity that Christ instituted in the body of the Church was not motivated by a mere embrace of diversity, but it came from seeing each and every individual as a bearer of the Imago Dei; their value was nothing that could be proven, displayed, or won, it was instilled through God’s breath of life.

In today’s culture, where we base a high priority on rationality and intelligence, a hierarchy of humanity and, consequently, of disability, has been constructed from the measure of one’s intelligence and has been deeply ingrained within our society. People, Christian or not, usually view a neurotypical individual as on a ‘higher level’ than an individual with Down syndrome, and likewise someone with Aspergers is ‘rated higher’ than one with a profound mental disability. Although life on earth functions on the basis of classifications such as these, there is no tier of humanity even hinted towards in the Bible. “The value of a person, in God’s sight, is not measured by his or her knowledge and accomplishments. The value of a person is ultimately in the realm of love” (Edwards 73). People have no justification in classifying their fellow humans on any basis other than the love that the Father has freely given. It is for that love that Jesus came to earth as a man and died on the cross: it wasn’t for the intellectually qualified alone, but also for those that the general population has consigned to a lower category, perhaps irredeemably so.

As stated above, there is no theological difference between a completely dependent individual and you or me. The Church may not openly classify people on the basis of intelligence, but they do make classifications as to how much charity an individual requires, which is based off an assumption of a caste society. Charity, when properly motivated, should only prove to be beneficial to society: believers, as commanded, should always reach out to those in need. An issue does arise however, when an individual is stripped of their personhood and viewed as an object of charity, which is almost always for the satisfaction of the giver. It typically happens in one of two manners: in some cases, an individual with special needs is given special treatment, condescended to as if they are a child, or ‘helped’ by a member of the congregation. Although these actions in themselves may not appear malicious, they can be degrading to that individual’s inherent value, and in some cases, that individual can detect the air of false charity. The so-called ‘giver’ in this situation feels like a saint, a perfect benefactor to a person, whom they deem to be less than themselves. On the other hand, the misuse of charity may take place between an entire congregation and those with disabilities, not just between one member and another with a disability.

In many cases such as this, the Church will ‘invite’ an individual with special needs into their congregation and present them as their ‘special’ member. It gives that specific church a more diverse appearance and also makes them feel as if they are helping those in need. Although this situation, like the last, appears to be an honest attempt at inclusion, the heart is nowhere near the right place. Both of these situations stem from a selfish desire to be seen as good, not to simply fulfill the commandments and do good. Christians, as fallen and selfish beings, must always be reminded that works, for the sake of the good and not for the sake of self-satisfaction, without recognition are the most fulfilling way to show love; in Matthew it is written, “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Charity, when properly motivated, should only prove to be beneficial to society: believers, as commanded, should always reach out to those in need. An issue does arise however, when an individual is stripped of their personhood and viewed as an object of charity, which is almost always for the satisfaction of the giver. 

The most vital aspect in the repositioning of the heart is love. Love, as has been perfectly demonstrated by the Father through Christ, is one of the hardest yet simplest things we need in order to include those with special needs into the Body of Christ. In I Peter 4:8, it does not say, “love those who are convenient to love,” but rather “above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Loving is not something that is convenient or easy: Christ’s death on the cross was the opposite of those things. There is no better way to truly experience love, than when the object of your affection becomes unlovable (Lewis 118). That is not to say that individuals with special needs are unlovable; in most cases they are quite the opposite, but oftentimes they have no way to reciprocate the love given freely to them, just as we have no way to earn or repay the Father’s love.

There is no better model to admire here than Christ (Hoekema 22). Theologians have dissected the defining aspects of humanity over and over, but just as a scientist can break down an element only up to a certain point, there is a baseline which theologians cannot proceed past. Humans, as centuries worth of philosophy displays, are complex and unique creatures layered with desires and flaws, but each and every human being is made in the holy Image of God. Whether it is acknowledged or not, this intrinsic value is something that can never be added to or subtracted from; it places all humans, despite race, gender, socio-economic status, intelligence, and physical ability under one category: children of the living God.

For centuries, people with disabilities have faced discrimination and contempt, even in the Church. Their intrinsic worth has been overlooked, and consequently, they have been ignored, they have been refused access to the sacraments, and they have even been marginalized from God-ordained community that the Body of Christ is to provide. An individual’s value, whether they are at the cognitive level of a toddler or of a genius, is nothing that can be added to or subtracted from: it rests solely on the basis of God’s breath of life, his holy image (Lewis 116). It is something that spans across all of humanity; every individual must be treated with the utmost respect: if they are not, not only is their humanity marred, but the sacred image of the Lord is defiled. This factor should dispel every air of discomfort, indifference, and most certainly pride, and should establish and enforce full inclusion of those with special needs in the body of the Church. In all of your future interactions with those with and without disabilities, always remember Jesus’ words, “let all the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

Works Cited in Thesis 

Admin, Gardens. “Oklahoma Disability Statistics.” Oklahoma Department of  Rehabilitation Services, 13 Aug. 2018. 

Cross, Richard. “Aquinas on Physical Impairment: Human Nature and Original Sin.” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 110, no. 03, 2017, pp. 317–338. 

Edwards, June. “Children with Learning Difficulties and the Sacraments.” Children with Learning Difficulties, 1994, pp. 70-81. The Way, 17 Jan. 2019. 

Eiesland, Nancy L. “Sacramental Bodies.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, vol. 13, no. 3-4, 2009, pp. 236–246. 

“Five Statistics We Can’t Ignore: Disability and The Gospel.” The Banquet Network, 4” Sept. 2018. 

Greenberg, Ben. “Inclusion Is a Jewish Imperative.” My Jewish Learning, 8 Apr. 2015. 

Hoekema, Anthony A. Created In God’s Image. 1st ed., Eerdmans, 1994. Print. 

“Jewish Values and Disability Rights.” Religious Action Center, 3 Dec. 2015. 

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. HarperOne, 2017. Print. 

Moss, Candida R. “Disability in the New Testament.” Bible Odyssey, 1 Oct. 2014, www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/video-gallery/d/disability-in-the-nt 

“Orthodox Theological Perspectives on Disability.” World Council of Churches, 21 Oct. 2015.

Reinders, Hans. Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008. Print.

“Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public

Life Project, 11 May 2015. The Bible. New International Version. Biblica, 2011. Bible Gateway.

White, George. People with Disabilities within Christian Community. 2014.

Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church: a New Vision of the People of God. Eerdmans, 2011. Print.

Our Governor’s daughter has a beautiful heart. However, if you just read the article and don’t take action, you just might break it. Natalie prayerfully prepared her thesis hoping God would use it to impact our community . . . to change us. We have an opportunity to become different, to do things differently—in our churches and our schools. Both entities of God’s Kingdom need to reconsider our positions to make sure we’re in alignment with the challenging words of this teenager. I challenge you to think about what your next steps could be to help make amazing life altering changes to our ministries.  Then #GoDoBe.