THEIR banner in the high street proclaimed “Jesus heals today”, and my heart sank. Their eyes lit up in eagerness: I was their perfect target. Why? I am a wheelchair user, suffering from a deteriorating form of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) for the past 22 years.
Although I long to be healed, and appreciate prayers for me, it is emotionally exhausting to have strangers tell me that I am healed when I am not; and, when Christians blame my disability on my sin, it feels abusive.
This approach is not only potentially damaging pastorally, it is also damaging to mission. An article published recently on the BBC website was written by Damon Rose, a non-religious but open-minded journalist, to accompany a World Service documentary that he presented, Heart and Soul: Pick up your stretcher and walk! He was put off Christianity by strangers who prayed to heal his blindness. Now, he is drawn to disabled Christians’ reshaping disability theology.
THE Church has typically viewed disability as something to be fixed, since Jesus healed blind, deaf, and paralysed people. Disability theologians such as Nancy Eiesland and Professor Candida Moss, however, celebrate their disabilities, arguing that they would expect, or even wish, to remain disabled in heaven. For Eiesland, Jesus’s post-resurrection scars indicate that heavenly, perfected bodies include the quirks and scars of our earthly life. Instead of being erased, is it possible that disability might be celebrated in heaven?
In January, I was preparing a lecture on disability and pastoral care, to be delivered at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Intrigued by Eiesland’s theology, I ran a quick survey on social media which asked disabled people how they felt about their disability, describing it as either “suffering”, “an inconvenience”, “a blessing”, or “I want to keep it in heaven.” Out of 96 respondents, a significant minority of seven wanted to keep their disabilities in heaven. These included cerebral palsy and psychiatric illness.
If heaven is perfect, why would disabilities be there? One reason is to do with identity. In my survey, those who were most positive about disability were those born with it. The Christian author Lyndall Bywater was quoted as saying in the BBC article that, other than wanting to drive a sports car in heaven, she has “enjoyed being blind”.
How do you feel about your own body: skin colour, height, hair, the shape of your eyes? I am short, and sometimes that’s a disadvantage. While I would get rid of ME in a heartbeat, I would feel strange being six foot tall in heaven. Everyone’s body has imperfections, but they’re ours: why should disabled people feel differently?
The second reason for disabilities in heaven is that disability is often caused by society, not people’s bodies. For example, if the world’s infrastructures were built for people with dwarfism, it is average-height people who would be dis-abled and would need aids to navigate a world not built for them.
In heaven, perhaps we should not expect an end to disability per se, but pain and limitations around disability. I met Sam Seaver at university: an intelligent, soulful scientist. His response to my survey is quoted with permission: “I don’t suffer because of my deafness, I suffer because of the lack of awareness and overt audism on display by hearing society . . . and, no, I wouldn’t change who I am: it’s an integral part of my identity.” When the Church’s ableism and prejudice causes more suffering than the disability, something needs to change.
My limited research revealed not so much a theology of heaven but the spectrum of attitudes that disabled people hold about their body; responsible pastors should also hold space for all these views. Some autistic people are proud of their non-neurotypical brain; others hate it. This was borne out in my survey: one in five autistic people wanted it in heaven, but the same proportion viewed their autism as suffering.
DISABILITY can be suffering, a blessing, or somewhere in between. It is vital for the disabled individual to have the freedom to choose how his or her disability is described, and that churches do not expect disabled people to conform to a monochrome, constrictive theology of disability.
Before Jesus healed people, he asked, “What do you want from me?” — perhaps because he did not always assume that it would be healing. The Church should be asking similarly neutral questions of disabled people. Chronically ill Christians are leaving pastorally insensitive churches, and Rose’s story illustrates how ableist attitudes can wound non-religious people with disabilities, too.
Approximately one in five people in the UK is disabled. If we want to serve disabled people, we must let them define their own bodies. We must ask neutral questions, not push solutions; and listen to them rather than treat them as incompleted projects or awkward reminders of suffering.
Finally, the Church must be willing to be taught by disabled Christians about theology and healing prayer — and mission. Damon Rose speaks for many outside the faith. We owe them good news.
Tanya Marlow is an author, speaker, and broadcaster on faith and spirituality, and a campaigner for those with chronic illness, disability, and myalgic encephalomyelitis. She is a former lecturer in biblical theology. Those Who Wait: Finding God in disappointment, doubt and delay is published by Malcolm Down Publishing at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).