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The Bible and Disability

August 2018 Credo

Secular scholars who write on disability are often critical of religious accounts mostly because of the latter’s allegedly negative approaches. They point out that in Christianity – for example – disability is often associated with sin and divine punishment.

To be sure, there are passages in the Bible that speak of God inflicting disabilities such as blindness as punishment for sin and disobedience. For example, we find in Leviticus clear warnings that disease and disability are some of the dire consequences of idolatry: ‘I will bring upon sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain your life away’ (26: 16).

In similar vein, the Deuteronomist lists insanity and blindness as possible punishment for disobedience: ‘The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28-29).

Not only does the Bible associate disability with sin, it even appears to exclude people of disabilities from participating in the worship of God in the temple.

For example, in Leviticus we read: ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand …’ (Leviticus 21: 16-19).

Judith Adams succinctly summarises this passage thus: ‘In the most perfect of places – that is, the temple – in the presence of the most perfect entity – that is, God – only the perfect of persons, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished)’.

Christian authors like Nancy Eiseland have eschewed traditional interpretations of these passages and advanced a new hermeneutic – in her case, liberationist – in order to make sense of them. To Eiseland, traditional hermeneutics must be rejected because it is in subtle ways complicit in the unjust discrimination and ostracization of people with disabilities.

‘The history of the church’s interaction with the disabled’, she writes rather despairingly in Disabled God, ‘is at best an ambiguous one. Rather than being a structure for empowerment, the church has more often supported the societal structures and attitudes that have treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism’.

However, to focus only on what some passages have to say about disabilities and neglect the others is to fail to appreciate the Bible’s nuanced and complex treatment of the issue.

For example, alongside the passage in Leviticus cited above we have this remarkable injunction: ‘You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:14).

The juxtaposition of such passages should give pause to any reader who is inclined to conclude, all too hastily, that the Bible puts disabled people in a negative light or that it encourages their oppression.

The careful reader of the Old Testament cannot fail to notice that in the remarkable passages that speak of the restoration of Israel, the inclusion of people with disabilities are repeatedly (and quite deliberately) mentioned.

An example of such a passage is Jeremiah 31 where God reassures his exiled people that they will return to a restored Jerusalem: ‘Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest part of the earth, among them the blind and the lame’ (v 8).

In similar vein, in Micah we read: ‘In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame … and the lame will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation’ (4:6, 7).

Scripture does not only speak of the inclusion of disabled people, but their healing and restoration as well.

‘In that day’, Isaiah writes, ‘the deaf will hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see’ (29: 18). And again: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (35:5-6).

These passages about restoration and healing in the OT surely anticipate the ministry of Jesus himself, who in inaugurating God’s kingdom healed the sick and people with disabilities. The healing miracles of Jesus are signs of the divine kingdom that will be consummated when Jesus returns, a new heavens and a new earth free from sin, disease and disabilities.

To understand what the Bible has to say about disabilities, one must therefore go beyond the exegesis of individual texts and get a sense of the profound and comprehensive picture it presents – of creation, human beings as bearers of the divine image, the fall and redemption.

Most significantly, we have to glean what the Bible has to say about the eschaton, the consummation of the kingdom of God, the universal resurrection and the transfiguration of this sin-marred world into the new creation.

However, this eschatological vision – found in Scripture and taught by the Church – is seen by some theologians writing on disability not as a testimony of hope but rather as the basis for discrimination. This is truly regrettable.

But this stupendous vision of the things to come is indispensable if we are to achieve a realistic appreciation of the world in which we live.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg has put it: ‘Only in the light of the eschatological consummation is the verdict justified that in the first creation story the Creator pronounced at the end of the sixth day when he had made the first human pair: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Only in the light of the eschatological consummation may this be said of our world as it is in all its confusion and pain’.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.


Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


Notes:

[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.