Blind Doves and Lame Sheep

How would a disabled Christian go about navigating the Bible’s seemingly rampant ableism?

Manual wheelchair in an empty room
Source: Doug Maloney on Unsplash

Creating social structures that serve to alienate others while claiming to help them makes about as much sense as honestly taking pride in serving rotten food in a restaurant. Yet, that is what disabled people in the church face when they interact with the church’s traditional attitudes towards disability. Every day, we contend with a structure that is designed to push us aside and deny us our full humanity. After all, that’s what Jesus did to disabled people. He turned them into teaching moments by “fixing” them.

Ableism in the church has its roots in numerous passages in which disability is equated with inadequacy. In the Bible, mainly in the Old Testament, disability is largely attributed to God’s wrath or to moral inadequacy. In Leviticus 26:15–16, panic attacks, wasting diseases, and fever-induced blindness are listed as punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments while in Genesis 19:11, the men who were trying to break and enter into Lot’s house were rendered blind.

Sensory disabilities such as deafness or blindness were often used as metaphors for ignorance or sloth, which implies on some level that people choose their disabilities. Isaiah 56:10 spells this out by likening blind watchmen to lazy dogs who cannot bark. Matthew 15:14 underscores this point as the originator of the “blind leading the blind” metaphor and, in verses 23:16–17, uses “blind” synonymously with “ignorant”. Likewise, Psalm 28:1 is a plea for God to not be deaf to someone praying. This language of equating blindness with ignorance can mislead someone into thinking that a lack of eyesight indicates a lack of intelligence.

Deformities were seen as a form of imperfection or unworthiness. To drive home ancient Israel’s fixation on perfection, Leviticus 21 lists explicit rules against allowing the disabled to engage in certain aspects of community worship. Something as simple as a limb length discrepancy or a birthmark in the wrong spot could make a person unworthy to approach the altar or offer the bread of God. Even sacrificial animals were subject to rules that related to disability (although one could argue that this rule could relate to concerns about the transmission of zoonotic diseases).

Other disabilities, mainly seizure disorders, were attributed to demons. The boy in Matthew 17:14–20 had a demon that caused him to fall “into the fire, and often into the water”. This can lead to false attribution of all seizure disorders to demonic possession before ruling out other causes. When one looks at the Bible’s troubling track record of ableism, one must remember that this book was written in ancient Israel. The ancient world did not have the best track record of treating the disabled well. However, the Bible notes some exceptions to the trends of poor treatment.

When looking for remaining members of the house of Saul, King David came across Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth had a disability that affected his feet. David’s actions flew in the face of ancient Israel’s perfection-obsessed culture when he told Mephibosheth to eat at his table. 2 Samuel 9 subverts these deep-seated cultural expectations by giving the disabled a place of prominence. If an earthly king can give a disabled person a seat at his table, how much more does God invite the disabled into His presence as people?

Jesus Himself challenged old perceptions of disability. He gave the man born blind his sight, but not before answering the Pharisees’ question about the man’s blindness. The Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was the man’s sin or his parents’ sin that made him born blind. In doing so, they implied that the man or his parents had done something wrong to deserve his disability. However, Jesus managed to upend their own logic with this often-overlooked statement:

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:3 ESV

Looking at the way the Pharisees worded their question, it was plain that they did not simply ask Jesus a question out of curiosity. Instead, they suggested an answer in their phrasing by implying that someone’s sin had caused that man to be born blind. This line of thinking has persisted for generations and generations, which is a far greatest barrier to church accessibility than a lack of finances or understanding of how specific disabilities work.

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Valentine Wiggin

Valentine Wiggin

Death-positive, sex-positive, and LGBTQ-affirming Christian. Gen Z. I hate onions. She/her