Book Review: Yong, Amos 2011. The Bible, Disability, and the Church

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In missiology, unlike in theology, Disability Studies have not yet arrived. Disability Studies have an influence on missiological issues (church building, Bible translation, evangelism) based on hermeneutical and anthropological grounds. Amos, as a systematic theologian, provides an inclusion-oriented ecclesiology.

He writes from the perspective of a theologian whose brother Mark, 10 years younger, lives with Down syndrome (pp. 1-5). The father is pastor of a small, vibrant church in Northern California (p. 2). Amos briefly describes his observations of how his parents, church members, strangers, and even friends interact with his younger brother. He has already done so in detail in his worthwhile first publication, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (2007. Waco: Baylor University Press; note p. 5). The physical complications of “Down syndrome” come up as well (pp. 2-3), as do the mutual psychological-physical interdependencies between caregivers (nurses) and Mark (pp. 3-4). In this work, he focuses on interesting missiologist-ecclesiological and sociological questions regarding Disability Studies.

The author takes the reader on a search to the “theological meaning” of disability/disability (p. 5). In doing so, he is aware of the critical, theological insider voices that argue on discrimination against the disabled in the Biblical revelation (p. 6; “deniers”). He critically engages with these serious voices. Amos, however, wants to counter this perspective, by the redemptive hope about the experience of “disability” (pp. 6-7).

“Disability” for Amos is demarcated both, for one from “illness” and also from “not being disabled” (pp. 9-10). Although there are obviously no clear boundaries, those that address themselves as being meant know about a clear dividing line in society. They notice this immediately in the exclusion from and the marginalization by “the Normal”, defined in the term “being different”. This “otherness”, applied from the outside, also leads to manifold hostility towards the disabled (ableism). But what if the Christian community itself nurtures such tendencies, if the Bible itself fuels “ableism” or if such conclusions are drawn from it? Amos demands a tremendous courage of self-criticism from the Christian reader here (pp. 11-12).

Amos throws three premises into the field in order to argue in a result-oriented way despite generally existing prejudices (p. 13:

1) People with physical or mental limitations are made in the image of God (imago dei). Such is especially true through the filter of weakness in the person of Christ (imago Christi).

2) People with physical or mental limitations are first and foremost “human beings” and only secondarily “people with limitations”. They alone – not the “normals” – are entitled as agents to dispose of their limitations.

3) Still, physical-psychic limitations are present them as “the evil” (sin, satanic influences), or blame them of blemishes (ugliness, auxiliary tools, missing extremities) to be eliminated.

Amos’s gradation begins with theological reflections on the Hebrew Bible. Its cultic (purity) laws (e.g. Lev. 21:17-23) reflect God’s ideas on holiness. Priests with restrictions, are mentioned, but excluded from the cult such as the sacrificial service that is the entry into the Holy of Holies. They are forbidden certain services, but not participation, such as eating the sacrifices. Interestingly, people with aesthetic external limitations (not hearing or sensory limitations; p. 20) are also affected by the prohibitions. Deut 28:15-68 provides a broad outline of cultural and social exclusion based on disability and disease. Amos reflects on common Judeo-Christian commentaries (pp. 23-29). He places these in the context of other Old Testament references. For example, Jacob’s encounter with God resulting in a walking disability (hip; pp. 30-32), Mephibosheth’s (Saul’s grandson; pp. 32-34) paralysis, and at length Job’s “deformities” (monstrosity; pp. 35-40). Amos tries to summarize the Hebrew Bible’s treatment of disability under the aspect of “lamentation”, following the Psalms (pp. 40-47). Lament includes the common, searching question of being with God along people with and without disabilities (What do you want to say, O God?).

With regard to the New Testament, Amos uses mainly the Gospels for a clarification of the question of theodicy. Either the blind man (John 9; pp. 50-57) or demonic possession (p. 61), always the forgiveness of sins precedes the healings of the sick (pp. 60-63). Sin as such and disability/illness, as well as possession, are placed in close proximity to each other in the biblical context. Amos uses the strict separation of healing and forgiveness as taught by Jesus as a starting point to separate these three areas. He distrusts the conventional interpretations in common commentaries that do not make a clear separation (pp. 62-63).

Pentecost becomes for him the absolute turning point (from p. 73). Healing proceeds from God’s touch. From Pentecost on, all “believers” are directly touched by God, without any limitation (multisensory epistemology and holistic spirituality p. 78). Besides this being included, of people with limitations, in the divine covenant, Amos moves progressively to the Pauline texts. There he develops an inclusion-oriented “theology of weakness” (p. 88). He derives it from the presumed weakness or limitation of the apostle Paul. On this he builds his inclusive theology, which is based on the weakness of the church as an image of the weakness of Christ (chapter 4). The church itself, like an inclusive classroom that gathers people with limitations as well as the gifted and the “normal,” represents a holistic body. “With each other” one benefits “from each other” and thereby represents a holistic church social system.

In the final chapter, Amos outlines an inclusion-oriented ethic for the church. It is based on a) Jesus the high priest “compassionate in all things” (Heb 5), b) the church’s banquet hospitality open to all (e.g., Lk 14:15-24), and c) God’s rule over all and everything (Mt 25:31-46; pp. 130-136).

Amos works in a balanced and deliberative way toward an inclusion-oriented theological design. This emphasizes the meaning and value of people with limitations. For missiology, especially diacony and evangelism, this provides an opportunity for active enriching participation of all in the body of Christ. Critical is his positivistic view of biblical narratives and pericopes, which (un)consciously overlooks the ancient, paternalistic approach in dealing with people with limitations. However, it is his merit to cut extreme positions and to strike a balance between those in need of help, their intrinsic value and those willing to care.