The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing

My latest journal article, “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing:,” Pneuma 36, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 204–25, has just been published by Brill. if I can be forgiven a boast, I received the following response to the paper:

I have to say that in the twelve or more years I’ve been copyediting Pneuma, this is the best article I’ve ever read. Nancy de Flon, PhD

To give you an insight into its content, the abstract reads:

  • This paper explores the relationship between disability and pentecostal theologies and practices of healing. First, it draws on the testimony of people with a disability, describing the challenge of being the “elephant in the room”: the obviously unhealed in a social space in which supernatural healing is understood to be connected to the gospel, a reward of faith, and a central part of a life and ministry of the church. Second, it deconstructs pentecostal theologies and practices of healing, identifying their potentially alienating effect. Finally, it proposes an alternative orientation, replacing the emphasis upon divine healing with a focus on well-being. To this end, it draws on the holistic intention of the pentecostal Full Gospel and relates this to the virtue tradition, with its concern for long-term flourishing in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

I know that journal articles are not everyone’s cup of tea (especially in this era of five-minute attention spans), but I do hope that some of you take the time to read it– available here. I’m certainly happy to engage in any discussion/criticism in the comments section below.

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.

The Virtue of Civility

I am heading down to Canberra for this weekend to attend the conference, Voices for Justice 2012. its purpose is to remind politicians of their commitment to the millennium development goals, and to challenge them with the fact that they have not lived up to their promised foreign aid spending.

the voices for justice website states the following about the participants:

At Voices for Justice 2010 gathering, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referred to Micah Challenge supporters as “nagging prophets” for our persistent effort lobbying politicians to care about global poverty, and he urged us to continue.

the conference is an exercise in what is sometimes called public theology. We are attempting to outwork the values of our faith in the realm of politics and culture. the term “nagging” started me thinking about the lost virtue of civility, and the difference between firmly and respectfully communicating an argument and rudeness. A person who embodies the virtue of civility is respectful to everyone, and treats even those with whom she disagrees with respect and dignity. Civility is a social virtue, contributing to the health of relationships, to the progress of ideas and to wise decision making. Civility goes hand-in-hand with some other virtues. the civil person is:
• humble, recognising that they have something to learn from others;
• curious, open to fresh insight
• respectful, recognising the dignity of others, especially those with whom you disagree

Now, the truth is that civility is hard. I have studied 16 years after finishing my HSC, published books and articles and I am absolutely certain that my theological opinions are better than yours. Or so the arrogant, close minded, rude and untamed part of my character presumes. some of my recent dealings with the issue of Christians who support the submission of women to men evidence my own tendency to the vice of rudeness.

I was reading an article by Anne Summers during the week entitled “her rights at work” (see here), which explored the obnoxious and sexist way in which the Australian media, the opposition and the general public have attacked Australia’s first female prime minister; terms like “Juliar”; “Bob Brown’s bitch”; “ditch the witch.” And that is only the start. In his book, Hope (see here), Tim Costello, describes an address he once gave to parliamentarians (including Kevin Rudd) noting that good people, enmeshed in an increasingly rude environment, have lost the public virtue of civility. the consequence is that Parliament is no longer a forum for rational discussion and wise decision making. Instead it is an ongoing brawl. the tendency to attack political opponents ends up undermining the very purpose of Parliamentary discussion.

like politicians, protest its can also be horribly uncivil. And because that is so they undermine their own message, abrogating the right to be heard. Our challenge, in the face of parliamentarians whose politics we might fundamentally oppose, is to embody a different spirit. Costello notes that “Civility has to be cultivated; it is a learned art. Australians can do a lot better at it in all contexts.” If the theological virtues of faith, hope and love really do colour our moral life, then the virtue of civility must be part of the habits of our character.

Disability and The Death Penalty

For those of you familiar with some of my recent teaching and writing, I am something of a dilettante in the virtue ethics of Aristotle. He has much to say that is of interest and use today and I have used his work in a recent article to explore the concept of happiness as it relates to my experience of spinal-cord injury. My enthusiasm, however, only goes so far, especially given that the prejudice that is so much a part of the outlook of his day impacts his thinking at key points. He argues, for example, that women and slaves are unable to be happy, in the fullest sense of the term, because they lack the freedom to make their own decisions, which restricts their exercise of virtue; “For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority” (Politics 1060a). More than just the cultural blindness of this position, what is noteworthy is that this restriction on the possibility of complete happiness extends to people who are chronically ill, mentally deficient and even ‘ugly’.

For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, [1099b] as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. (Nicomachean ethics 1099b).

For Aristotle this conclusion was obvious. Ill-health, mental deficiency and ugliness – characteristic ways of describing disability – are not only undesirable for their own sake (how could anyone consider the disabled life to be a good life), but they necessarily restrict the full exercise of intellectual and moral virtue, at least as he understands these concepts.

Now, before we ‘stand up’ in righteous indignation it is worth noting that this perspective is all too common. It finds its way, for example, into the scriptures, in texts such as
Leviticus 21:16 – 23 (“no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed … is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD” – see my earlier blog here). I hope to discuss a biblical theology of disability at a later point (if the gaps in my blogging improve, I intend to take us through some of the writing of Amos Yong in The Bible Disability in Church) but before any of us in the 21st century get too self-righteous, it is worth noting that such perspectives are too common today.

There is the simple inability that most people have to look a disabled person in the eye, to talk to them naturally and treat them as we would any other person. Behind these actions may well lie pity and compassion, but this can be similar to the perspective of Aristotle, since it arises because we presume that the disabled are unlucky and necessarily unhappy – and very few of us are capable of looking directly at suffering. Of course these attitudes are understandable. I have been there myself and I’m sure compassion is often warranted; but it should not be assumed, since assumption is the ground of prejudice. Much more importantly, however, is the fact that prejudice against disability stands behind some of our arguments for both abortion and euthanasia. It is now the almost universal practice to screen the fetus for any signs of disability. If such is found (or even suspected) abortion is presented as a possible course of action, leaving parents in the invidious position of having to decide whether or not to terminate their pregnancy. At the other end of life, it is generally believed that people with severe acquired disability would want to commit suicide and, if they are unable to do so because of the limits of their function, should be helped to die by an indemnified doctor.

I should note, at this point, that I am not making an argument in this post for or against the legalisation of abortion or euthanasia. These are far more complex issues than many on the right or the left allow and morality is generally best kept out of the hands of politicians and law courts. I am speaking simply about prejudice. So to end where I started. Aristotle may be a misogynist racist but at least he wasn’t suggesting termination as a solution to the problem of disability.