Disability Studies and Intercultural Theology


Disability Studies and Intercultural Theology

Eberhard Werner: werner (at) research institute (dot) net



Until today, intercultural theology has not done much research in the field of disability studies. In particular, this applies to research on actors who themselves have had physical or mental limitations, or research that focuses on those with such challenges. For the former, some biographies do not explicitly address disability experience. Examples are for the latter, the founders of the Christian agencies Luise A. Cooper for the Hildesheimer Blindenmission (HBM) and Ernst Jakob and Hedwig Christoffel for the Mission to the Blind in the Orient, today Christoffel Blindenmission (CBM). This article will cover the history, motivation, and discourses around disability studies that arise from these fields of Christian activity. The interdisciplinary approach of intercultural theology determines the parameters to be applied in order to delineate the boundaries to the social sciences.

Disability Studies - an Overview

Disability Studies are composed of a multitude of individual disciplines. Disability History deals with historical relationships around people with physical or mental limitations (e.g. Nielsen 2013). Disability Worlds deals with life worlds, embodiment and social references and spaces of encountering people with and without physical or mental limitations (e.g. Whyte & Ingstad 1995). Disability Anthropology depicts ethnographic-biographical life worlds of physically and mentally challenged people (e.g. Gelya Frank 2000). Disability and Gender describes the power movements and the influences on people with physical or mental limitations with regard to the gender question. The special disadvantage of disabled women is in this regard (e.g. Jacob, Köbsell & Wollrad 2010; Boll, Ewinkel et al. 1985). Disability Theology describes the exegetical and hermeneutical deficits with regard to people with physical or mental limitations in theology (e.g. Young 2011). Disability Missiology is a currently evolving discipline. In this context, it is questioning historical descriptions based on inclusion, exclusion or discrimination of people with physical or mental challenges. As part of postcolonial studies, these relationships are captured in intercultural theology. At the same time, the proceedings of the Christian development aid research are made available in foreign contexts by disabled researchers or in regard to a target group of people with physical or mental challenge. Because the life worlds of people with and without physical or mental limitations are in constant motion due to social, political and environmental changes, this list cannot be conclusive.

Normality and otherness – Research on Normalism

Disability Studies (DS) negotiate aesthetic and social discourses that move between the categories “normality” and “abnormality, deviation” (Schildmann 2009: 204-205). The definition of these social parameters is dependent on culture and environment. In the European social environment, a visual impairment is less sanctioned, in the Asian contexts, for example, an aesthetic deviation is more sanctioned as mobility impairment (for general classification see Cloerke 2007: 124-125). Such categories define the terms “normality” and “deviation”, they are framed by the sociological categories of discrimination, exclusion and rejection. The flow of power in the case of social reactions is always directed against the supposedly weaker, but this may vary, as the definition of “normality” and “abnormality” is in flux. Inclusion, as currently being discussed, seeks to broaden the perspective on “normality” by extending the standard notions of “norm” and “normality” to those people with physical or mental limitations. Accessibility to buildings and the Internet will bring about the participation and presence of previously excluded people not getting a chance to contribute to the social life of a society.

Expanded “Normality”

In the context of public perception and given the active exchange of life experiences by people with and without physical or mental limitations, the understanding of “normality” or “norm” is expanded. At the same time, there is a meeting place of the life worlds of people with and without physical or mental impairment, which reduces the fear of contact and prejudices. However, one must not forget that ideological fear, such as racism, nationalism or Ableism (hatred of disabled people; UK disableism) are also unconsciously stoked. Migrants, those living with state help, unemployed lone parents, or sexually same-sex-oriented people with physical or mental disabilities are the main causes of such fears. These groups of people represent social diversity and touch on those whose ideological orientations are targeting a society that does not allow for pluralism.

Transcultural-transnational aspects in Disability Studies

A look into the transcultural perception of disability and disabled people raises the question of universals. It is clearly stated that disability is a universal phenomenon and has been, and will be, socially sanctioned or stigmatized to a certain degree everywhere and at all times. The aim of Inclusion is thus to reduce and bridge the gap but never to resolve it.

Universals of transcultural encounter "Disability"

In addition to the external physical sanctions, as expressed in structural obstacles or lack of resources, there are internal social sanctions, ranging from ignorance, Ableism to euthanasia. Historically, Plato (here: de polis) and Aristotle are known for their idea of killing newborns with physical or mental damage for the good of society (utilitarism). Those were denied a “soul”, in the sense of the non-mortal essence of man; they were considered lifeless or worthless. In later social Darwinism, this is taken up again, by utilitarism, the idea of humans being useful, for both the individual itself as well as for the collective, the society. A society, according to Plato, which is not consistently functional must get rid of his “useless” participants, or prevent such by selection (abortion, infanticide). In Brave New World (1932, Aldous Huxley) this utopia is expressed by fiction. At the end of the 20th century, bioethicist Peter Singer puts it briefly, when he calls for abortion, pre-natal diagnosis and the pre-selection of human characteristics as a necessary and responsible way of planning society. In his opinion, this protects future generations from unnecessary costs and forms societies that can meet their needs. There has been an inclusive movement that seeks to integrate and empower people with physical or mental disabilities in contrast to this utilitarian approach. It is tragically evident that the physical and mental damage resulting from war traumas (World War I and WWII) brought with it the need for rehabilitation and thus (re) integration. At the same time, these guidelines limited the ability of people with physical or mental disabilities to recover lost abilities. The “normal” became standard and left those affected to re-access to the life-world of the “normal”. The stigmatization as “others” was the basis of all thinking and lead to paternalist acting on people with physical or mental limitations. The formation of one's own life-world, ways of life and the interfaces to other life-worlds are not taken into account, encouraged or desired in this approach. The driving force is health care, which, in direct collaboration with the world of work, reduces participation in the community in terms of employability and rehabilitation, preparation and introduction back into it. Remaining social niches such as art, humanities or creative life forms are reserved for only a few people with physical or mental limitations and are rarely financially attractive.

Social Aspects - Occupational Inclusion

The community must purposefully overcome social sanctions. The political fight against Ableism (disability hostility) is a laborious and persistent urge for inclusion and shifting the perception of “normality” towards the inclusion of people with physical and mental challenges. The borders are where the community has to guarantee public security and service. Thus, certain safety-related professions (e.g. police service, fire service readiness, and emergency services) remain and remain closed to people with certain physical and mental limitations, as long as they cannot offset their restriction. Only a subsequent disability allows participation, e. g. at the office of such facilities. Physical fitness plays an important role here. However, as these professions require an exceptional level of ability, which is already demonstrated by the qualifications in the job (e.g. physical and mental abilities), they do not represent the social "norm" of the professional world.

Intercultural Deacony - Pedagogy as Inclusion

In the encounter with foreign or other cultures, the position of the actor is of no minor importance. During the colonial era, the Western Christian actor was the initiator and the financially controlling center for the processes of transcultural encounter. Due to militarily supported financial superiority, the locals or local actors were controlled. This is illustrated by the example of Ernst Jakob and Hedwig Christoffel, as they sought to help visually impaired people in East Anatolia, first during the years 1904-1906 in Sivas and later from 1908-1923 in Malatya followed in 1924 in Tabriz and Isfahan (Thüne 2007:31, 66). Although they were basically destitute, they began to proclaim their idea of an orphanage for visually impaired girls in eastern Anatolia in prayer and public presentation. They were able to build on their three years of educational experience in orphanage work in this area. Since several Christian development aid agencies had focused on this type of deaconry, the combination of education and care was basically nothing new, but the focus of Christoffels was on the education and training of people with visual impairments to sustain their independence by work and social participation. Therefor they constructed a picture the visually impaired girl orphan in East Anatolia to raise interest and pity in the West.

Historical Review - Christian Aid in the East

Christian aid was the work of the ABCFM (American Board of Christian Foreign Mission), the BFBS (British and Foreign Bible Society), the German Orient Mission (Johannes Lepsius, *1858-†1926; DOM from 1916 on LDOM), and the German Hülfsbund for Christian love work in the Orient (Ernst Lohmann, *1860-†1936) presented by Baumann (2007). They are preceded by the Syrian orphanage (Fam. Schneller) in Jerusalem with its offshoots from the sixties of the 19th century on. Striking in all these approaches is the focus on children who were in an emergency situation (loss of parents or nuclear family). Following a post-colonial perspective such approaches must be focused by deconstructivism from the point of the actors, the receiving party and from the unnamed environment. The latter are the national forces and the Armenians as the persecuted party that was dominantly in focus from 1914 to 1916, when they were forcefully driven to the Syrian Desert. A place that only very few reached, while hundreds of thousands lost their live during the death marches. Orphanages are a deeply political mission of the state (here the Ottoman Empire). The western side saw only the lack of governmental intervention, but it can be assumed that the Christian motivation was aimed at convincing the receivers towards the faith model of the development workers. At this point post-colonialist aspects come to the fore, since the military interventions of the German Reich were suitable not only to place financial but also personnel in different locations in the Ottoman Empire, mainly along the Orient Express (from Istanbul to Baghdad). But not just the German, also the Anglophone, American, and British Christian Aid since the beginning of the nineteenth century focused on the Ottoman Empire. The above-mentioned institutions and organizations had concentrated on the entire Ottoman Empire and met in the course of their activities on the major ethnic groups of the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia. From this period are many linguistic and ethnographic studies of the larger “Kurdish” ethnic groups. Today these are divided into Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), Sorani (Central or South Kurdish), Behdeni, and the Kermānshāh dialects. The area extends from Eastern Turkey, Western Iran to Northern Iraq. Christoffels perceived the ethnic groups of Eastern Anatolia, namely the Armenians, the Aramaeans, the Zaza and the Kurmanji speakers. However, they were only able to focus on Kurdish and Armenian orphans due to their specialization towards visually impaired orphans. They developed sign languages, which significantly contributed to the breakthrough in the perception and inclusion of this socially marginalized group. Despite many setbacks by the two World Wars, the work in East Anatolia ended immediately but the idea of education to the visually impaired was taken further. Also in Iran, the work took on until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The visually impaired got education and care to allow for participation at various social levels. For example, the film The Colors of Paradise (1999) by Majiid Majiidi shows this. Also in today's Turkey, a welfare apparatus has evolved, such as Seeing Is not Everything: Living Blind in Turkey at AlJazeera World [https://www.aljazeera.com­/programmes/aljazeeraworld/­2015/­10/turkey-blind-151021071833072.html] by Eylem Kaftan. It shows four different visually impaired people from Istanbul during their daily live. Such examples should deceive the fact that their social possibilities are far from being creatively exploited. Also people with physical or mental impairment are not understood as a full counterpart nor is society focusing on inclusion.

Inclusion - Diversity and Unity in Diversity

At this point, it is helpful to think about the direction of Inclusion. Inclusion, according to today's perception, replaces or absorbs the thoughts of participation and integration. The paradigm shift of Inclusion is that society does not “attract” or “absorb” people, so to speak, but that society eliminates all spatial, social or ideological barriers to allow all members all options. So, it is not an exclusively-centralist approach but an inclusive-petal one that opens entry to the already existing social structures. From a missiological point of view, there is a theological-petal approach that takes social diversity and the diversity of church members as a basis for implementing the creative physical and ideological capabilities of the Kingdom of God in time and space. The motto of this inclusion is based on the clerical vision “unity in diversity”. At the global level, we must emphasize the creative side of God, who created people with physical and mental challenges of all kinds as well as models or athletes. Sexual orientation, gender or even race, geographical home and physical manifestation are due to the diversity of creation. In this regard, self- or foreign mutilation, changes by external factors such as environmental toxins, birth restrictions or gene defects are part of human being. In particular, since a direct intervention by the transcendence into the creation processes, like healing or shortening of life-span, is the absolute exception. But even a reorientation of the creation in the direction of lifting the thermodynamic principles is not provided on the Biblical basis, but is exceptionally referred to the eschatologically prophesized new order of creation (Mt 24-25 and Rev 21-22). Inclusion, in this sense brings the diversity of creation and thus of potential church members to fruition. Newbigin summed this up for people with physical and mental challenges to the Church in which he concluded: Without the handicapped, the Church is not complete (1979).


Inclusive Hermeneutics - Weakness, Unity, Strength

An inclusive hermeneutics of disability missiology should not succumb to paternalistic thinking. So far we find following Hermeneutic Approaches of Disability Theology by

  • Newbigin (1979), the Church is nothing without Disabled People (participatory-oriented).
  • Eiesland (1994), she describes the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth as a condescension of weakness in the image of man with physical or mental challenges, God challenged himself in the incarnation and thus becomes the disabled God (participatory-oriented).
  • Bach (2006), theology after Hadamar (national-socialist euthanasia Aktion T4), emphasizes the church's responsibility to address all strata of society and warns not follow paternalism on people with physical and mental challenges, but to be open to life encounters that include deviations from physical or aesthetic beliefs (solidarity approach).
  • Reynolds (2008), a hermeneutics of creation that reflects the likeness of all people and emphasizes the diversity of social life forms (solidarity and participatory-approach).
  • Creamer (2009), a theology of liminality in solidarity, while retaining the peculiarities of disabilities and people with physical and mental challenges (solidarity and participatory-approach).
  • Yong (2011), a hermeneutics of spiritual guidance that indicates the diversity and creative possibilities of the Church led by the Holy Spirit.

In Disability Missiology it is

  • Conner (2018), who has recently presented a draft that closes the gap of theology as the dominant domain over missiology.

Nonetheless, all attempts so far reduce the divine omnipotence to weakness on the cross or in the incarnation of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. “Weakness” is understood as strength and expresses the inversion of secular values and ideas, based on the example of Christ to be a servant. The suspicion remains, however, that “disability” and people with physical or mental limitations are reduced to their “weakness” as a social construct. There is also a suspicion that pre-fabricated social prejudices are being adopted within the framework of the above-mentioned medical, social and cultural models, even by researchers who themselves have a physical challenge or are parents of children with an impairment. The dilemma thereby is that these approaches are addressed by the non-disabled and design an anthropocentric image of God.

Including Hermeneutics - Divine Relationships

A proposal to bridge the divide between the lives of people with and without physical and mental challenges, while retaining the specific characteristics and needs in these environments, requires the intervention of those who are able to create the ground that by mutual encounter takes place. On the one hand, there are issues of constructing community as well as the design of the community life, in such a way that as many different life-worlds as possible are invited to participate. This includes sexual or gender diversity, as this is also part of the life-forms of people with physical and mental challenges. In the center of an inclusive hermeneutics are

  • the critical examination of the biblical-inherent discriminating ideas about people with physical and mental challenges,
  • the aesthetic ideals of physical perfection (e.g. happiness, beauty, life fulfillment) and
  • the salvation and healing expectations of messianic and eschatological concepts.

The creative-natural (Germ. kreatürlich) conception of “disability” as desired in creation by the Creator is fundamental to such contemplation. It is part of the space of relationship to the Creator that allows all human beings to take part in the kingdom of God. Exegetical and hermeneutical aspects have to be weighed against each other and worked out with regard to a holistic perspective on “disability”.




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