Disability and the church, chapter 2

Review part 2, part 1 see here

In the second chapter of The Bible, Disability and Church, Amos focuses his attention on the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” (his label, highlighting the importance of language and recognising that the Christian OT is the Jewish Bible). He begins with the topic that I have touched on before (see here), Leviticus 21:17 to 23. Amos is far gentler than I have been, seeking to explain the exclusion as being connected only to specific functions of the Levitical priesthood, outside of which “blemished” people had full access to the temple and its activities. Indeed, he makes the important observation that a focus on the exclusion of this passage should not override the emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible of God’s electing the poor and marginalised (i.e. Israel) and entering into a gracious and empowering covenant with them.

I would note, in response, that we should not try to dodge discrimination when we see it; that it is vital we unmask prejudice, especially when it is found in sacred texts. This is necessary because the scriptures, more than any other piece of literature, frame the attitudes and values of whole societies. To give Amos his due, he does not dodge the issue but rather than focus on the original intent of the biblical authors, he points his criticism at the various ways in which this passage (and others like it) have been interpreted. In doing this he moves beyond Leviticus 21 to address the Deuteronomic curses, which link sickness (and disability – which go together in these texts) to the punishing hand of God. As he notes:

This leads us to the heart of the problem for any traditional theology of disability: that disabling conditions and ailments seem linked with purposive divine action – curses, no less! – intended to deal with and respond to the disobedience of God’s people (Kindle Locations 343-344).

And again:

when the Pentateuchal scheme of things is read from the normate perspective, an understanding of God as the one who is without blemish, and an associated understanding of all blemishes and diseases, as well is the people who have them, as being an holy, imperfect, and ultimately symbolic of human disobedience against God’s law.”

Having set up the problem, Amos goes on to explore various ways in which the logic of the Pentateuch might be “redeemed.” He focuses attention on Leviticus 21, taking on various readings: spiritualised (which ignore the historical reality and speak of spiritual sickness et cetera) and Christological (which focus on Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant – who identifies with the disabled and redeems them). It is in these discussions that Amos is at his best, since he does not flinch at identifying the inadequacies of each of these readings, which inevitably render disability as constituting a person’s inferiority.

Rather than force resolution, Amos sets these difficulties in the context of the broader narrative of the Hebrew Bible, identifying alternate and liberative stories of disability: Jacob with his limp, King David and the crippled Mephibosheth, the story of Job, with its refusal to accept suffering as curse; the Psalms of lament. What becomes apparent is that, however one reads the covenantal connection between Israel’s sin and suffering, the God of Israel is, above all, the God who embraces the sufferer (and the suffering nation of Israel), who elevates their plight, who refuses to accept their oppression and who provides hope for all those experiencing hardship – whatever its nature and cause.

And in attempting to rush this summary I have obfuscated Amos’ clear and lucid argument. So if my work has left you confused, best to go straight to the source – Kindle version click here, Amos Yong, the Bible Disability and the Church.

Diary of a day: 1 PM

This task I set myself of writing a diary of only one day is proving harder than I thought – and I’m sorry if I am overloading your inbox. Should have picked a slower day, so you ought to feel free to hit the delete button. Fortunately for me today has been a little easier and I have had a couple of chances to catch some zzz’s. I did have to travel in the afternoon to the physio at Prince of Wales. Had coffee with a former inmate of the hospital, Paul, and we shared things that only make sense to fellow SCIs. Nothing much else to report, except a very perceptive young man on a bus who noticed me overheating and offered to take off my jumper. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to ask. But I am supposed to be talking about yesterday.

1 PM, I arrive at Hillsong church and try to find some shade to eat my lunch. Rachelle, my carer – have I described her? 22-year-old trainee nurse. Superefficient and supercool. She is capable, clever and pretty but doesn’t believe it. And if any of you are worried that my personal care is being done by a beautiful young woman she is also a proud lesbian, and I am already married to a beautiful woman. Rachelle has this bizarre habit of saying sorry all the time. It’s become something of a running joke and it gives us a good laugh – where was I? Rachelle has packed me a peanut butter sandwich but it is stale and scaly and while I may be trying to economise I am not poor enough to persevere. I head off to the shopping centre and buy a sushi roll. I am super careful about what I eat. I get absolutely no exercise sitting in this chair all day, aside from forced gym time that is not as regular as my physio would like (don’t tell her). My life expectancy is already potentially compromised without giving myself cardiac problems and it’s probably not a good idea to force my carers to lug any more weight. So I eat like a pigeon. No mean feat when your wife is as good a cook as mine.

By the time I get back to Hillsong it is about 1:20 PM. That gives me 40 min before class and time for another brief kip. I am expecting someone to come and help me set up my computer at about 1:45 and students to arrive not much later. The class is to be held in what is known as “the basement”. Hillsong Auditorium is a multipurpose facility and most of the teaching rooms are made up of soundproof screens that enclose the tiered section of the auditorium. For obvious reasons that does not work for me so the basement it is. At 2 PM no one has arrived and I suspect something is amiss. I make a call and it turns out the students had not been informed I was teaching. I trundle over to the lift ,head up to the top floor, poke my nose into the alternate classroom and discover my students. We all shuffle on back downstairs and the class gets started only a few minutes late.

In case you are not aware I teach theology and this is a three hour class. Before you groan too loudly, don’t worry I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account. This is a first year theology class and this week has some elements of interest. The lecture was creation, providence and the problem of pain and if this topic is not familiar to you, it is one of the central challenges of faith. While the wonder of creation and the graciousness of God is one of the reasons motivating belief, the corollary – the bloody horror that sometimes frames human life – is sometimes the basis for atheism or agnosticism. For obvious reasons this is a topic about which I have something to say. Aside from the fact that I was writing on the issue prior to the accident, I have also spent seven months in hospital wrestling various Christian responses. I also had the pleasure of weekly visits from my friend Prof Neil Ormerod (Australian Catholic University) and we spent considerable time mulling over the topic. So what is the answer to the problem of pain? You have to be kidding don’t you. This is a blog and not a systematic theology. But for those of you familiar with the issues I will say this. John Calvin is way off base! Hah, I had to get that in there for my reformed friends.

Whether, after three hours, I made any sense at all you’ll have to ask my students. I am bloody exhausted. It’s a little after five and to get home I attach a bus from Baulkham Hills to Parramatta, a train to Granville and another train Ingleburn. I sleep most of the way but one interesting titbit. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I face the back of the bus. On the back seat, presumably assuming that everyone was looking the other way, a couple were going at it. I swear they had their tongues down each other’s throats and their hands all over each other. This went on for about 10 min until they got off the bus. So here is yet another compensation of life in the chair! I arrive at Ingleburn at about 715 and Jeremy picks me up with new licence in hand. Home sweet home.