Book review: The Bible disability and the church, Amos Yong

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Amos Yong’s, the Bible Disability and the Church. The book is a biblical theology of disability, although I would not want its readership to be limited to people with a disability. It is really a form of liberation theology, using the lens of disability to explore the ways in which the scriptures confront and overturn attitudes and cultural prejudices that marginalise, stigmatise and belittle people who don’t fit within the supposed norms of society.

The impetus for the book is Amos’ love for his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, although the book is concerned with the broader concept of disability. In his earlier Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Amos recounted his brother’s story in detail and developed a more systematic and scholarly analysis of disability. Where the previous book is scholarly (one Amazon reviewer who loved the book nevertheless noted “I have to admit I didn’t always necessarily understand everything being said as the language is much more geared toward theologians”) The Bible and Disability is written for a lay audience. It would, for example, stimulate rich conversation in a small group or around a family dinner table. For those of you in Australia, the soft copy is available from Koorong for $15 (see here). I read the Kindle version, which will only set you back $10 (see here).

** I should admit that this point that Amos is a friend of mine, although he has not bribed me for a positive review **

over the next little while (and sorry, I’m notoriously slow) I might make a few comments on each of the chapters. In terms of the first chapter I have the following observations/comments (and if you decide to download a (legal) copy why not add yours):

  1. the first question that arises concerns the definition of “disabled”. Amos touches on this issue only briefly but I feel the matter is vital. The lines between ability and disability are grey indeed. In the case of down syndrome or spinal-cord injury (SCI) the situation is normally clear-cut, although a person might have a disabling SCI and look relatively “normal”. Likewise, how do you draw a distinction between a person with an intellectual disability and someone of below average intelligence? (An issue that is especially troubling in a court of law) How do we distinguish between illness and disability, especially if the former is permanent? How severe must a physical or intellectual limitations be to be classified as a disability? And how do we distinguish between the degradation of old age and disability? All of this leads me to conclude that the question of disability is in fact not just about people living on the margins but is pertinent to us all. There is every chance that at some point and in some way we shall all be disabled, and this fact makes Amos’ work all the more important.
  2. What language do we use to speak about disability? Amos notes the difference between the nomenclature “disabled person” and “person with a disability”. The former highlights the disability whereas the latter highlights the person. What labels are appropriate and what are derogatory? In hospital, my friend and I would call each other spastic, and especially enjoyed what we called “spaz pong” (ping-pong for those of us whose arms spasm and pretty much miss every shot). Was this derogatory to others or ourselves? Is it appropriate between friends but inappropriate now that I’ve put it on the page? Does it matter who uses the label and how they use it? These might seem like insignificant issues, but they get to the heart of the problem that Amos is trying to address. The language we use matters, because it reflects the attitudes we have about disability.
  3. Amos addresses a fascinating issue about whether we should judge disability as something needing to be fixed. Let me quote him in full:

Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives – they don’t need to be healed. More complicated are the congenitally disabled. Still, people who were born without certain appendages or who have grown up without certain sensory capacities live quite well-adjusted and normal lives with what they have. Should we try to “fix” those who are different among us so that they can be just like us? Most problematic are those whose disabilities are a constitutive part of their identities. My brother Mark is a case in point. How can we fix or erase his chromosomal condition without eliminating him altogether?”

Which brings us to the primary point that Amos is trying to make, and again it is best if I quote him in full:

Historically, and even across wide swaths of contemporary life, ableism presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule. And just as with racism and sexism, the excluded minority population internalizes the views of the dominant culture so that people with disabilities also come to understand themselves and act in ways that confirm the expected stereotypes. This book opposes the exclusions legitimated by our ableist worldview, and seeks to challenge normate assumptions with perspectives derived from the experience of disability.”

What Amos is saying is that disability is not primarily medical but social. The tendency for us is to think, “how can we fix this person? ” A much better question is, “how can I respect this person?” The truth is, that as a person with an SCI I generally do not feel excluded or mistreated. In fact, my friends and family, and the broader society, normally treat me as they would any other person. But I am fortunate in this regard, because the experience of most people that act a little different and look a little different is that they are treated differently. The extent to which the Bible is used as a document of exclusion or inclusion is the focus of Amos’ work.

all that in chapter 1 – and in some future post I will comment on his analysis of the scriptural contribution.

Civility is not passivity

In reply to my previous post, Lauren asks

“civility is … nice but what about ‘virtues’ like sarcasm, parody, anger, grief or silence.  Do these characteristics also have a space in discourse and debate?”

This is a really good question and, indeed, the potential problem with an emphasis on the virtue of civility is that it comes to serve the status quo, that it forgets that sometimes a harsh response is necessary. In my recent trip to Voices for Justice, one of the participants in my session noted that Jesus was not always civil, e.g. Turning over the tables of the money changers at the temple.

In response to both these observations, a few things are worth noting:

  1. Virtue ethics should not be applied in any absolutist sense. Morality always requires the wisdom to know how to deal with conflicting norms – potentially even conflicting virtues. The virtue ethics tradition argues that wisdom/prudence is needed to determine in any particular instance which virtues to exercise and how to exercise them. So, for example, Augustine and Aquinas include “justice” as one of the Cardinal virtues (of more significance than civility). The just person is the one who gives each person they’re due; and in the social setting, distributive justice insists upon fair distribution of resources and just treatment of minorities etc. In the face of distributive evil, the civil person will not be precluded from anger; which leads to my second point
  2. Civility is not passivity. On the contrary, the person exercising the virtue of civility may well be best equipped to carry forward an agenda in the social realm. As recent riots by (a minority of) Muslims in the Sydney CBD have shown us, uncontrolled anger is self destructive and self-defeating. Civility is the social expression of self-control and when embodied by the wise person, parody can be used to potent effect; and, finally a little bit of nitpicking.
  3. A virtue is a habit of character, a pattern of attitudes and dispositions to act. Sarcasm and parody are modes of communication. Anger and grief are emotions that might be expressed by silence or sarcasm (or by rioting or in any number of ways). So I can envisage many a time where the just and self-controlled (civil) person may need to turn over tables, to stand in front of tanks, to refuse to speak, to give a speech.

At this point I realise I am sounding like a teacher (or a pompous git). Perhaps I should simply have said, “yes, Lauren, sometimes we need to get mad!”


PS I am not really sure about sarcasm. I wonder whether it is ever a useful device. By its very nature it tends to belittle opponents and entrench division. Having said that, intelligent sarcasm is capable of getting to the heart of an issue.

PSS of course in reality virtue often falls over into vice. If virtue is the midpoint between two vices (per Aristotle) then the border between the vice of passivity on the one hand and rudeness on the other is not easily achieved. The sad truth is that I tend to the latter.

Reply from Andrew Paine

As I noted in my previous post, Andrew’s active faith is a challenge to us all. He sent me this very thoughtful reply that is well worth sharing with you all:

Hey Shane, thanks for writing this and I appreciate your views. I think that there should be discussion on these issues, so I love to hear reasoned debate from people even when they disagree with me. Just to clear things up, I actually was involved in the chapel squat in spirit only. I’m squatting in Brisbane though for similar reasons (although that is another issue that could be discussed elsewhere in more detail).

Firstly, while I don’t claim to be a greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas, I disagree with the theory of just war. Well I don’t necessarily like to make absolute statements but I will say that I certainly don’t believe there has been anything just about the wars Australia has been involved in recently. While I’m aware and constantly trying to grapple with the more bloody parts of the Old Testament, I find it hard to justify war from the message of Jesus (after all, he did say we are to love our enemies). Instead, we find in Matthew 5 Jesus advocating forms of non-violent resistance to an oppressive imperial power at the time (there is lots written about this in a lot of detail, especially by Walter Wink, for anybody interested in checking it out).

Your second point though is something I am always conscious of and still trying to work out. I don’t really enjoy confrontation or abuse and I definitely don’t want to alienate people. I have always tried (probably not always successfully) to show as much respect as I can for military personnel and everyone else I have come into contact with while doing these kind of actions. But I think it is worthwhile here to explain why I believe in direct action as a method of protest and have taken the actions that I have.

I think it’s great that groups like Voices For Justice are lobbying the government, and I definitely agree that our politicians need to be faced with these issues more than the troops. But I also think that politely asking politicians to change their minds is not necessarily the best way to bring about social change. Even in theory, in our democracy politicians are in power because they were voted in by a numerical majority. Because a majority of the population believes something, does that make it right? Like if the majority of people in one nation believes it is right to destroy the Earth to perpetuate our lifestyles? Or that it is right to go to war in another country?

But the reality is that our politicians do not represent a true majority. When our policies affect other nations, where is their voice? On trade, on climate justice, on war? Do they even represent a majority in Australia? (It’s worth remembering that the majority of Australians have never been in support of the Afghanistan war.) Large corporations certainly seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power compared to most Australians, either through corporate political donations or just brute economic strength. If I pay a visit to my local MP, they might listen to me (or at least, someone will pass on the message), but will they pay as much heed to my concerns as they will to the company that is funding their party?

Who is actually represented in our parliament? A quick scan of our politicians seems to represent a limited sphere of ethnicities and of socio-economic backgrounds. Both our major parties represent also a pretty limited range of policies. It’s hard to find much difference in their ideology when it comes to issues like military, asylum seekers, aboriginal issues or the environment.

So what is left for the rest of us? Those who represent the minority? Who stand for values that are not held by either major party? And remember the kingdom of God is based on very different values to earthly kingdoms. Do we wait until a majority of people believe the things we do? Do we exercise our power once every four years when we vote, or once a year when we travel to Canberra to meet with politicians? Because those whose values are wealth and power don’t seem to wait around.

Direct action is an ideology that says that we can stand for the things that we believe in now, and try to build a movement that will influence those in power. That we can demand our voice be heard, by acting on the things that we believe. Non-violent direct action was used by Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the USA, and countless others over the years, as a way of expressing views that were contrary to those in power, until their voice could no longer be resisted.

Of course, direct action should not be read just as protest marches, or blockading military vehicles. True direct action is about creating the world that we want to live in, making our lives our picket lines. It’s about not accepting that this is just the way it is, but instead searching for creative alternatives. So in my personal relationships and by my personal choices I attempt to create a better world. But my personal lifestyle choices are not enough to stop innocent people dying in Afghanistan, or stop the elite minority destroying the Earth. In these instances we must use whatever means we can to get our message heard. By breaking the law we make it impossible for the state to ignore our dissent. When powerful people around the world put a lot of effort into war and the preparation for war, those of us who believe in peace need to recognise that just believing in peace without action is not going to be enough.

Of course, the other reason that we take actions that may end in us being arrested is that creating controversy is a way of trying to bring attention to this issue, which mainstream media refuses to touch and most Australians would rather not think about. The fact that you have written this post says to me than in a small way we have succeeded. May the conversations continue. Go in peace.

War, peace and protests

A former student of mine, Andrew Paine, has been blogging about his recent experiences protesting against the Australian military in North Queensland:

Andrew has become what might be labelled a radical disciple of Jesus. Describing his faith he notes “This is why despite everything I’m still proud to call myself a Christian. Because the incarnation of Jesus, and his message of a kingdom where power and wealth are rejected for love and service; where the weak and broken are lifted up; is still completely radical and counter-cultural. In a world so broken and so unjust; and I include in this the trouble I have in my own life trying to live out this kingdom; the message of Jesus gives me hope.” From what I can gather in following his Facebook profile he has taken to squatting in St Michael’s College at Sydney Uni – a vacant building and by the Catholic Church – in protest against a lack of affordable housing, the high rate of homelessness and unjust “capitalist” systems of property ownership (see news story here). He recalls his recent experience of activism against war, “It was a pretty busy couple of weeks, full of demonstrations, blockading roads (getting arrested), trespassing on US military property (getting arrested again), court cases (my own and my friends), peace concerts, vigils and marches, talking to locals about war, trying (and occasionally succeeding) to talk to soldiers about war, doing media duties, facing the wrath of people with opposing viewpoints both”.

Andrew (“Mudgee” as I used to know him) is a great guy and in many ways his lifestyle presents a challenge to the unthinking passive faith of too many of us Christians. But while I don’t want to be one of those spewing “wrath” against his heartfelt convictions, I do not think I can endorse his current approach. I will leave aside his analysis of capitalism for the present (an economics degree biases me in any event), and concern myself with his active pacifism. My difficulty is twofold.

First, he seems to presume that the military is simply about unfettered violence – “those guns are for killing people and nothing else.” This is extremely simplistic. There is such a thing as a just war – the wielding of the sword for Justice – and to deny this (those guns are just for killing) is to allow evil regimes their victories. It is Thomas Aquinas who first sets out the principles of just war, grounding them in principles of virtue ethics. At the least a just war requires legitimate authority, a just cause, a right intention, proportionality, a reasonable hope of success and it must be a last resort. These are complex principles that require explanation beyond what is possible in this brief blog. It is true, however, that a strong case can be made that some of the current wars Australia is engaged in do not meet these just war principles: is there legitimate authority in Iraq when the UN did not endorse the invasion (but is the UN, with all its foibles, a place of meaningful authority)? Is the ’cause’ and ‘intention’ for going to war the protection of Western oil interests (or is it justice for the Kurds who had experienced the genocide under Saddam Hussein or the liberation for those oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan)? Is a military response proportional when our weapons so greatly outweigh the opposition’s (or does this military superiority facilitate proportionality)? Was there a reasonable hope of success when war seems to be interminable (or did the military might of the West imply the likelihood of success)? Was there other ways of confronting injustice (or were oppressive regimes likely to resist calls to change other than those at the end of the sword)? And beyond all of these questions, having gone to war (since we cannot go back in time), it is not as simple as saying “take our troops home.” To leave now might well create a power vacuum that would be very unlikely to bring the peace that we all hope for. All of this to note that the ethics of war are complex, and it is a complexity that the sort of direct action undertaken by Andrew does not and cannot address.

Okay, so we disagree on the theory of war – pacifism versus the possibility of a just war. In fact, this disagreement might not be as massive as one might assume, since I would like to be a pacifist (if I could) and generally I am not an advocate of American military aggression, nor of Australian support therein. But my second and more serious difficulty with Andrew’s action is the discourtesy it displays to our service people and their families. To join the army and fight for one’s country involves a certain fortitude or courage, apparent when a soldier risks harm to themselves, even death, for the sake of the defence of their community and for what they believe to be a just cause. Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (the principal virtues upon which other virtues depend). A courageous person does not seek danger for dangers sake but nor do they remain passive in the face of injustice and the threat of death. Instead, they stand firm, rising above fear, for the sake of others. So while Andrew has faced the wrath of those with opposing views (as well as a police force and a court case) the people he pickets face death. He was especially concerned about the family opening day for a three-week event of military training. He was shattered by “the spectacle of war being promoted as a fun family activity, with camouflage face paint and kids sitting in the driver’s seat of a tank”. What this misses is the fact that this event enables families to appreciate something of the experience of their loved one – yes, even to celebrate their achievements: the virtue of their courage in travelling away from their families and friends at the command of their parliament.

Whether any particular battle is “just” is beside the point. These people do not deserve protests and pickets, and so it is not surprising that Andrew and his “comrades” (his term) were subject to abuse. If there are concerns about the wars currently being waged, these are better directed at our parliamentarians. As I write this post Micah challenge is gathering in Canberra for the Voices for Justice 2011 gathering (see here). This involves “hundreds of passionate advocates in Canberra for four days of action, to call for MORE and BETTER aid – Using their voice to ensure environmental sustainability for the poor and to help save the lives of thousands of women and children in the world’s poorest communities.” It is a legal protest properly aimed, targeting our politicians who decide where and how to spend our government’s budget. And precisely because it is legal and properly organised and, most importantly of all, civilly conducted, it is more effective – or at least more likely to be effective then trouble making at military family days and training exercises.

Andrew, let me say again that I applaud your passion and conviction. I am challenged about my own passivity. But perhaps in reflecting on your own experiences you might also have something to learn from the more deliberate wisdom of groups like voices for Justice. In any event, as you might remember me saying to end my class, “go in peace.”

Can we critique the wearing of the Burka?

I had the joy of watching my close friend, Jacqui Grey, as a panellist on ABC’s Q&A last night (available for the next two weeks on ABC I view for repeat viewing). I have to confess to not being a big fan of the show. Many of the questions asked seemed to bare little relationship to the expertise of panel, and the time given to panellists for response was inadequate–only superficial answers were possible. Notwithstanding this, Jacqui did an absolutely brilliant job.

She did, however, get a little ambushed on the penultimate question. She was asked to respond to Australian concerns about Muslim women wearing the  Burka. While she was sympathetic to the free choice of  Moslem women to wear whatever they want–whenever they felt comfortable with– she nevertheless was prepared to state that a garment  that completely covered a  woman’s face is a symbol of male domination and female oppression. She was immediately  attacked by all and sundry thereafter.The

The worst of these was feminist Eva Cox, who  interrupted Jacqui and went on to insist on a woman’s choice, and to lambast  feminists  (such as Jacqui) for daring to criticise this element of Moslem religion.

Now, anyone who knows me will know that I think that Christian faith requires a generous response to those of another faith–we are, after all, filled with the spirit so that we can love our neighbour.  I’ve invited Muslim imam to the college so that he can share with our students about his faith. I absolutely hate the way Australian society (including too many Christians) have vilified Islam and Muslim people. Indeed, I believe my faith  in Jesus compels me to work for peace between the religions.

Nevertheless, none of this means we should stand silent when injustice and discrimination occurs in the name of religion.  indeed, I’m the first to challenge the church when her message of grace is replaced with one of hatred.  And for this reason, Jacqui Grey was absolutely right to assert that the Burka is a symbol of female oppression. Eva Cox’  concern for free choice completely ignores the fact that ideology, especially religious ideology,  effectively  undermines an individual’s ability to make free choices.

Now, at this point I need to clarify my criticism. I have no problems with Moslem women covering their head–the hijab  is a modest and beautiful  piece of clothing.  In the context of our sexualised culture,  it is also an appropriate declaration that women should not be mere sex objects. More than this, it takes real courage in  Australian society to wear it.  The hijab is a bold symbol of faith, and I applaud people who are prepared to stand up for their belief,  notwithstanding the fact that they are likely to be stared at,  talked about and potentially subject to verbal abuse.

There is, however, a difference between the Hijab and the Burka.  The hijab  helps to establish a  Moslem woman’s identity, the burka  obliterates it.  in doing so, it removes her from social interaction with the community. It thus symbolises and facilitates sexism,  and excludes women from the social structures and hierarchy of society.

Anyway, well done to Jacqueline Grey. She modelled throughout the interview a generosity to people of other faiths. But she also took a stand for equality in the face of the inevitable challenge she was going to receive by the bombastic Eva Cox.

Hopestreet Sleepout

I am drafting this blog post with a certain degree of reluctance, aware of the danger of presenting myself as a ‘heroic’ Christian, brave enough even to sleep on the streets!  Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth but I write, notwithstanding the risk of an inflated ego, because the gift we received on the streets of Sydney is worth sharing.

As part of their studies at Alphacrucis, students enrolled in a Global Poverty class were invited (required actually!) to spend a night sleeping on the streets, with the purpose of trying to learn something about homelessness in Sydney.  We were being hosted by Hopestreet Urban Compassion and the exceptional Tim Kurylowicz.  The itinerary involved a guided walk around the city, discussion of urban homelessness, an overview of various Hopestreet programs (Cafe, Arts space, women’s space, terrace housing etc.), dinner at a ‘soup kitchen’ (actually, a food van in a local park) and an evening outside in a sleeping bag on concrete.

The experience began with a discussion of statistics.  The ABS estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Australians that are homeless, with around 15000 of these sleeping ‘in the rough’.  It has been suggested that these stats are understated (the difficulty of homelessness is that it involves people who are ‘off the radar’) but whether or not that is so, it is startling to discover that so many Australians are living under such conditions.  Of course stats are one thing, but the tragedy of the numbers are brought home when, as night falls, men stake their spot on the sidewalk under any cover they can get.  It was raining this night, but the community seemed unperturbed.  Rolling out sleeping bags and wrapping themselves with scarves and beanies, prime locations were full of sleeping men by as early as 7pm.

I say men because most of the homeless we encountered were middle aged men.  In fact, however there as many homeless women as men and the largest number of homeless people are aged under 25.  Women and children were less visible in the streets of the cross – not exactly a safe place for women and children.  Exactly where they spent the night i have no idea, but we were surrounded by men.

In any event, it was so hard to fathom that this was the city of Sydney.  I have experienced poverty in Asia, noting the disparity between the rich and poor in places such as Manila and Kuala Lumpur, but I had presumed that Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, did not have the same problem.  But it turns out that, while we can spend billions of dollars on a failed insulation project, promise 40 billion for upgrading internet services, we don’t seem to be able to provide enough public housing to keep people off the streets.  What this means is that right next to Australia’s most expensive real estate, surrounded by luxury and excess and less then 2 minutes walk from the Ferari and Mazerati showrooms, people fall asleep on concrete.

At 8.30 we joined the throng at the food van.  The people doing the serving are remarkable group.  Food was distributed by volunteers from the Exodus Foundation, in this instance people from the Orthodox church although, apparently, various Christian and Muslim groups perform this service.  Also present was a mobile coffee van serving Vittoria coffee.  The owner had been in business 6 months, but was giving his time and coffee away free – a means of using his business as a way of blessing others.

And so we lined up with the crowd for food.  It was certainly a humbling and, if I am honest, embarrassing experience to eat in this way. We were discovering that it is sometimes easier to give than to receive.  To be the recipient of charity is to be in a position of powerlessness.  Even so, there was a remarkable generosity about the group.  People accepted us without question, and conversation flowed freely.  There was nothing of the awkwardness that normally accompanies new people invading a community.  It was a remarkably friendly environment, a long way from the stereotypical assumptions of ‘dog eat dog’ ‘mean street’ poverty.

This is not to say the conversation was ‘normal’ (whatever that is).  These were broken people.  No doubt we are all victims to greater or lesser degrees, but many here suffered from some degree of mental illness.  The causes of homelessness are many and varied but, whether the result or cause of living it rough, it was certainly clear that managing mental health was a challenge.  In saying this, I am wary of the stigma that comes with the description I have given.  These were nice people, whatever their challenges. In fact, they were much more open and engaging and generous with conversation then any other community I have met. Many churches could learn a lot from this.

And so we returned home to get ready for bed.  At this point I am going to tell a story that makes it clear just how shallow I am.  Along the way,  I came across a man involved in an activity that would normally be reserved for behind closed doors.  I burst into laughter but later realised how appalling my reaction was.  Most people enjoy the privacy of a home to conduct all the business that goes with being human.  To be homeless, however, is to be subject to ongoing indignity, to be exposed, on a daily basis.

Concrete beds are hard, and I am not used to sleeping under a streetlight.  We tossed and turned our way through the night, woken occasionally by the rattle of a train, by crooks in our neck, and by the cold.  When morning eventually arrived, we debriefed, prayed and made our way back to our homes in the burbs – stopping along the way for coffee and breakfast that others could not afford.  The fact is we knew nothing of what it was to be homeless.  To live it rough is not to go home after one night, but to live day after day, month after month, year after year on the concrete in the cold, with little hope for a different future.

Not that things are hopeless.  Thank God for the ministry of groups like Hopestreet, Exodus Foundation, Wayside Chapel and others.  And thank God also for the countless volunteers who work in and with this unique community. Indeed, many of the volunteers working the op-shops and the cafes are themselves homeless, people who in an through their poverty have learned what it is to be generous.

I would love to hear the comments of the students who joined me on this tour.   You are truly beautiful people, and i loved spending the night with you all.  Michael, Odette, Emma, Aaron, Elianne, Shane, Anna, Primrose, Melanie, Kaity, Peta, Georgi, Shantal – tell us your stories and your insights.