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In heaven, as on earth

26 August 2022

Please don’t pray for me to be made ‘whole’, says Amy Kenny


The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio (1602-03)

The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio (1602-03)

I AM certainly not the first person to think of God as disabled. Nancy Eiesland, who pioneered disability theology, imagined God in a sip-and-puff wheelchair. After a friend declared that her disability would be removed in heaven, Eiesland was horrified, because she felt that that would erase a part of who she was and how she understood God.

To non-disabled people, this is particularly difficult to understand, because of the hypothesis that disability is always bad, or a result of the Fall, something to be redeemed from in the new creation. To imagine God as disabled seems to diminish God’s power or presence.

“God can’t be disabled,” they inform me. Another retorts: “That’s insulting to the heart of the Creator of the universe.”

What’s insulting to God is when we don’t consider disabled people image-bearers. Or when we can imagine paradise only by erasing one quarter of humanity. Or when we don’t feed the least of these when it is well within our power to do so.

I am not interested in adding to the will-we-or-won’t-we-be-disabled-in-heaven conversation. On some level, it doesn’t matter if our heavenly bodies will be disabled or not. No one can know that. It is out of my control, and does nothing to restore the way I am treated now. But, at the very least, I would like to be able to go to church without listening to folks imposing their unexamined theology on me.

And without being bombarded by so many “some days”, and “at leasts”, and “you’ll be running/kick-boxing/flying/fixed/whole/human in heaven.” How we think about eschatology influences how we treat people today. We can’t simply put eschatology in another box in our brains. If we believe that disabled people are not whole until they cross an enchanted threshold into the afterlife, that will certainly have an impact on the way we engage with them in the here and now.

We talk about God’s Kingdom as the now and not yet: the in-between space that we get glimpses of, but are not fully a part of yet. Treating disabled people as image-bearers only once we get to the not yet has an impact on the now. Let disabled people lead in imagining what new creation could be for us.

For some, that’s using wheelchairs; for others, it is not. For some, it includes God using ASL. For others, it means seeing. Who’s to say it will be the same for all of us? The disability community is a diverse group of various physicalities, mentalities, and beliefs. Learn from us when we tell you how we imagine restoration. Let our imaginations for restoration light the way.

THERE are those who will counter that I am a beloved child of God; so it doesn’t matter what my body looks like, or how it functions. This one is well-intentioned, but it fails to understand a key aspect of my identity. I am disabled. I don’t say that to garner pity or to overemphasise my disability. I fully recognise that it is not the totality of my identity, either.

But the truth is, being disabled is a core part of the way I interact with the world and with God. Kind acquaintances often want to justify erasing disability by saying that it just doesn’t matter. “God doesn’t see you as disabled,” they promise. Why should it matter if we celebrate that there are no more disabled people in heaven, when your core identity is in Christ?

Here’s why it matters. Imagine if folks cheered for a song that touted “No more brown eyes in heaven.” That’s a quality that you didn’t choose, and you can’t change. Perhaps some days you don’t even like your brown eyes. None of us can know if our eye colour will endure in a new-creation reality.

But a whole crowd chanting, cheering, and celebrating that your eyes won’t be brown might feel a bit squidgy. Imagine how you might feel with them belting out, “No more brown-eyed girls, because we’ll finally be healed and whole.” I guess God isn’t a fan of Van Morrison.

Folks who want to erase my disability in the name of embracing how God understands me are still erasing my disability. The idea that our bodies don’t matter to God is a lovely idea that comes from a warm place with a cosy blanket, but it is not true.

To be sure, I am a beloved child of God, but it does matter what happens to my body. Our bodies matter. If they didn’t, why would Jesus bother with the incarnation? Seems messy to go through all that spit and sweat and suffering if it was merely about souls. Jesus could have snapped a finger, Thanos-style, and waved goodbye to the dominions of darkness. It certainly would have been so much cleaner (and less painful) that way.

But Jesus chose to take on a body and enter what it means to be human, even all the snotty bits we blush about. The Word became flesh, and we try to turn it back into words again. Our theology is incarnational because bodies matter.

TO SAY that it doesn’t matter if I am disabled is to dismiss the incarnation. Maybe if we started acknowledging that, we wouldn’t treat prayer like a genie granting wishes. Maybe then we could acknowledge someone else’s pain without quickly changing the subject. Maybe then we could stop blaming disabled bodies on the Fall. Maybe then we would understand that all of us — disabled and non-disabled — are made in the image of God.

It isn’t about whether disabilities exist in new creation: they exist now. If you can’t imagine a restored world without getting rid of 25 per cent of the people in this country, and 15 per cent of people globally, there is something askew with the imagination. It is simply too small for our big God.

Whether we have brown eyes or wheelchairs in new creation, we shouldn’t celebrate the erasure of those traits here and now. Most people don’t even realise they are doing this. They have conflated disability with suffering and assume it’s best to erase both.

The issue is, not all disabled people suffer from their disabilities. Not all disabled people want those disabilities changed. But all of us suffer from ableist assumptions about people’s bodies. All of us suffer from limited imaginations that confine God’s creation to replicating Barbie-doll versions of humanity.

What if wheelchairs became like glasses? Glasses are correctives, to be sure. We know they act as ocular prosthetics to assist folks to see more crisply. Yet I have never learned of anyone with glasses targeted for curative prayers or shaming calls to repentance.

Glasses are a fashion statement; so they are specifically tailored to someone’s aesthetic that some don specs just to look geek chic. Cat eye, aviator, shield, rimless, tortoiseshell; the shapes and styles are boundless. What if we did the same for mobility devices? Instead of stigmatising wheelchairs, scooters, and canes, what if we celebrated them as fashion statements for disabled folks?

Mobility devices should be functional and effective, but that has never prevented us from designing beautiful, quirky glasses. My cane is royal blue, but what if it were moulded to look like Wonder Woman’s magical sword? Seriously, can someone make this for me? What if my scooter had fiery images inside the wheels to create a flip-book effect when I’m zipping down the pavement?

My wheels liberate me and allow me to operate in tandem with my scooter, Diana. Her tyres grip the pavement, absorbing the shock waves that my legs would otherwise have to endure. I lean into her slightly as we curve around a corner, like water gently caressing the riverbank as it flows. I feel the texture of the earth, the rhythm of the cement. I hear the symphony of vibrations as we drift from concrete to cobblestone.

My physicality does not stop at the tip of my toes or the crown of my head; it extends to the frame of my cobalt chair, able to transport me to new worlds. Just as in Ezekiel’s vision, I am fused with these wheels that are my ticket to freedom. I am body, wheels, and fire.

If only people could imagine my wheels in the way they do glasses. My nieces and nephew certainly do. To their vibrant minds, my scooter makes me cool. They don’t interpret anything about my mobility devices as tragic, which shows the impact of the kill-or-cure narratives we construct around disability. They think it’s exciting that I get to zip around.

Perhaps if we recovered this childlike faith of witnessing the beauty in all bodies, we could sing about new creation in a way that included all of us. I do not know if I will be disabled in new creation, but I know that there won’t be pain, and it’s painful for people to celebrate erasing part of me.

Maybe what needs healing isn’t my body, but society. Maybe people will come to appreciate that disability is not a sad form, but a cultural identity with its own wealth of lessons, just like my nephew and nieces do.

Maybe what will be healed is ableism.

This is an edited extract from
My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church © Amy Kenny, 2022, used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The book is available at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.59); 978-1-58743-545-4.

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