Book Review: Conner, Benjamin T. 2018. Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies

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Benjamin T. Conner (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is professor of practical theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. There he also directs graduate education in disability studies and practical ministry. His critical plea consists of the observation that the church does not make use of the potential that lies in people with physical or mental disabilities. The church is not fulfilling its mission of gathering all social groups in reflection of human diversity. Disableism (USA ableism), the rejection of disabled persons, and paternalism prevent the faithful from opening up to this group of persons.

Conner begins by describing his observations within the church when it comes to people who do not follow the church’s daily life as expected. His etic ethnographic descriptions form the starting point of a non-disabled person positioning himself in Disability Missiology, an entirely new field. The relevant missiological questions for Conner are, first, what concepts or practices are appropriate to approach disability studies in a way that speaks to people with physical or mental challenges? Second, he is interested in the questions these individuals pose around missiology (p. 11).

Using several examples, Conner explores the question of what “disability” is and how to speak of it. Although about 15-20% of the world’s population falls under the WHO definition of disability, the life experience around “disability” is a topic in the middle of society, since everyone has been or will be temporarily physically or mentally limited due to age. Following the social disability model (UK), “disability” is constructed by the non-disabled. This is done in order to distinguish oneself from those who are supposedly “different” in their physical or mental state of life (p. 20-21). This is a heterogeneous group that cannot be limited to single criteria. Moreover, these constructs vary and change globally and locally depending on ethnicity and their cultural-linguistic worldviews. Conner ventures into transcultural perceptions of “disability,” but only in a very limited way and only for Native Indians and one North African ethnic group (pp. 22-24).

Conner then stays in the North American context and provides an overview of the particular problems of disabled people’s inactivity, abuse, and violence against them in family, homes, or workplaces (pp. 28-30). They are also particularly threatened or affected by poverty, homelessness, isolation, criminalization, or incarceration in the context there.

Missiology as a practice-oriented discipline should do justice to the diversity of human societies (p. 36). In the last century, North American missiological circles self-critically stated in the so-called Hocking Report (1932) that their mission was mostly accompanied by colonialist expansion. Conner now counters this with a concept based on the Missio Dei, i.e. God’s initiative in the mission, secondly on becoming native through contextualization, and thirdly on the Christian witness as a proclamation of the social pluriformity of Christian presence (p. 39). Particularly noteworthy is his emphasis on conversion as the central process of becoming indigenous within the contextualization (Andrew Walls; p. 42). Furthermore, missiology represents the discipline of Christian witness. Christian witness here includes proclamation to the outside world and communion to the inside world (pp. 50-54). On the latter, Conner troubles James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (1979), whose article Not Whole without the Handicapped pointed out the church’s disableism due to physical and spiritual exclusion of disabled persons.

In the third part, Conner points to the situation of the deaf. The missiological orientation of his observations reveals the paternalistic attitude of church workers when it comes to meeting people with aural limitations. The deaf community is particularly interesting in this regard, as there are groups within its ranks who value themselves as non-disabled. They argue that Deaf language is a fully inclusive communicative base that is open to everyone. This means that there is no restriction for this community. According to their interpretation, the construct “deaf, mute” obviously serves to stigmatize this group, even though there is no objective criterion of “otherness.” Conner informs readers of their racial discrimination, such as that exhibited by Alexander Graham Bell (*1847-†1922), inventor of the telephone (p. 73). He called for the complete extermination of this deaf defective human race. Similarly, the evangelization of deaf or hearing-impaired persons, as practiced by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (*1787-†1851), reflected a paternalistic arrogance. To him they were “heathens” to whom he was sent. Conner rightly asks why a “physical otherness” is equated with paganism? As a consequence, Gallaudet founded a pedagogical home, which was supposed to break through their sickness of spirit and their limitation of intellect in order to reach religious knowledge (p. 79). Conner points out that Gallaudet later applied the same arguments to indigenous Hawaiians. Nevertheless, based on his pedagogical premises, Gallaudet supports sign language but discriminates against those who fail to reach perfection in tongue reading or in learning written language (pp. 83-85).

Conner ventures a critical comparison with the indigenization of Christianity in Africa. There, Bible translation contributed significantly to the development of distinct Christian theological expressions after indigenous exegetes broke away from Western influence and found their own approaches to the Gospel. The deaf community also broke away from words and interpreted, through sign language, the implied interpersonal events described in the events. Their warm interpretation is enriching the church, Conner says (pp. 97-98).

In the final section, Conner describes his hermeneutical approach to iconic witness (p. 103). He has mental disabilities in mind. He counters their stigmatization with a change of perspective from rationalism to relationalism of human being. According to this interpretation, the iconic nature of our human existence is based on the mutual encounter and represents a sacrament of creation that brings God to bear in all human beings (p. 139).

Conner provides an anthropological-theological study that offers room for further research. To what extent the hermeneutical concept of “iconic witness” he presents is new or helpful in this regard remains to be seen.


missiology ; intercultural theology ; deafness ; deaf-mute ; iconic witness ; hermeneutics of symbols ; iconic witness.