This paper is about the liberating message of the gospel and makes some applications to the church in relation to people with disabilities. Rowan encourages us to adopt Jesus’ agenda as laid out by Luke who shows that the liberating message of the gospel is first preached in peripheral places, integrates the teaching of the whole Bible, and creates communities of transformation based in the church. Disabled people impacted by this gospel gain dignity, new life in Christ, participation in the gospel and church, advocacy as the church speaks up for them, and agency as channels of transformation and healing.

Peter Rowan is from Northern Ireland and has served with OMF International for over twenty years. An abridged and updated version of his book Proclaiming the Peacemaker (2012) has just been published: Seeking Reconciliation: The Peacemaking Witness of the Church in Malaysia (Oxford: Regnum, 2019).  Peter is currently National Director of OMF (UK), a role he shares with his wife, Christine.

The Gospel of Liberation and the Implications for the Church in Relation to People with Disabilities

Mission Round Table 14:2 (May-Aug 2019): 21-30

John Stott once said: “We may well feel ashamed that we were not in the vanguard of the liberation movement, and that we did not develop an evangelical liberation theology.”[1] But as one theologian remarked, “perhaps it is never too late”![2]

This paper is not about liberation theology per se. That is not because I think liberation theologies are dead, irrelevant, or unimportant for evangelicals to engage with. Quite the contrary, and I refer the reader to the contributions of John Corrie[3] and John Coffey[4] who have each sought to reclaim a biblical theology of liberation.[5]

What this paper is about is the liberating message of the gospel. I intend to ground my thoughts in Luke’s Gospel, to make some application to the church in relation to people with disabilities, and to say essentially three things:

  1. The gospel is a liberating message. As José Miguez-Bonino reminds us: in Jesus Christ “a new world has erupted, a new age is inaugurated under the sign of liberation, from the world, from sin, from death, from the law, a liberation that is to be consummated in the Parousia. The Christian is [thus] called to liberty (Gal. 5:1, 13), a liberty which is both an anticipation of the definitive freedom to come and a stimulus for a new life (Rom. 8:15–27), a liberation that the whole creation desires and awaits (v 22).”[6]
  2. The scope of that liberation is holistic. In surveying the various paradigms mission has been viewed through, John Corrie settles on liberation: “all these possibilities are in fact dimensions of an integral liberation which looks for the total transformation of people and contexts when the Kingdom of God comes in power.”[7]
  3. The Church is called to proclaim that liberating message in word and deed. The church is sent into the world to be salt and light, and to proclaim the good news in word, deed, and sign—that a new way of freedom, hope, and transformation is now possible under the reign and rule of God’s kingdom.

These three points are centered in the Lord Jesus Christ whose earthly ministry and redemptive work is essentially characterized by liberation. However, one of the obstacles to the church grasping the full extent of the Bible’s liberating message is the tendency in Western Christian circles to operate with an abstract Jesus—that is, a picture that is not necessarily wrong but incomplete due to inadequate attention to the life of Jesus.

Some forty years ago, the Latin American theologian Orlando E. Costas wrote that any authentic witness to the truthfulness of the gospel message must involve, first of all, “testifying to the reality of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Acts 10:39; Luke 1:2).”[8] Costas wrote against the back-drop of debates surrounding the Christ of faith and the historical Jesus. In today’s evangelical scene, we too often operate with an abstract notion of Jesus, notably when it comes to the atonement. We detach Jesus’ life from his death and effectively emphasize only the latter.

According to David Smith, African Christians complain that Western theology “moves too quickly from the cradle to the cross,” resulting in a truncated gospel in which the cross of Christ is extracted from its historical context.[9] In the early church, the message of the cross and resurrection was never divorced from the life of the incarnate Christ.

Indeed, where the tendency toward an abstract, context-less and purely spiritual form of salvation appears in the New Testament it is vigorously challenged by the insistence that the Christ whose death was a sacrifice for the sins of the world is “the Righteous One”, a title which reflects the memory of the life that Jesus lived in Galilee. Any claim to belong to him must be validated by a life that reflects the holiness, compassion and dedication to God’s will which we find recorded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). That apostolic injunction remains as necessary and urgent today as it was in the first century, and in a globalised world in which the ‘cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and his pride in possessions’ (1 John 2:15–17) is greater than ever before, it provides the key to the liberation of the gospel so urgently needed in the twenty first century.[10]

The need to keep a text such as 1 John 2:6 at the forefront of our thinking about mission is one of the ways liberation theology continues to challenge us. Scott Sunquist’s assessment of the emergence of liberation theology is helpful at this point. Describing it as “a new type of contextualization,” he says it was different from older liberal theology and from Marxism:

Unlike older liberal theologies, liberation theology was strongly biblical (focusing on the person of Jesus), and it was “from below.” Liberal theology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not speak of Jesus the way liberation theology did, and liberal theology, which was more of an academic movement, tended to be more elitist. Unlike Marxist revolutionaries, however, liberation theologians were theologians; they understood human sin, and they did not sell out to a utopian vision. All utopias end in violence; they make promises they cannot keep and end up forcing their will on both people and structures. Liberation theologians were more realistic and more theological.[11]

One of the questions liberation theologies continue to pose to anyone concerned with world mission is this: “Is it valid to theologise about mission from a position of privilege and safety, or should greater identification with the Suffering Servant be a requirement for real theological reflection?”[12]

If we hear the challenge of 1 John 2:6 to “walk as Jesus did,” then the answer to that question is no, it is not valid. Rather, we need to reject abstract notions of Jesus, give greater attention than we have done to the counter-cultural shape of his ministry and life, and be prepared to enter the space of the “other”, costly though that will be. So when we speak of “theologizing” and “costliness” we are talking about theologizing in the context of the margins, not the comfort of an armchair—a theologizing that is done in the practical engagement of the real issues that face real communities.

In the opening chapter of his seminal book, Issues Facing Christians Today, John Stott argued that a proper biblical basis for a social concern required, among other things, a fuller doctrine of Christ. To get his point across, he noted the example of Bishop Proano in Chile:

Proano preached at a mass for Marxist students in Quito. He portrayed Jesus as the radical he was, the critic of the establishment, the champion of the downtrodden, the lover of the poor, who not only preached the gospel but also gave compassionate service to the needy. After the mass there was a question-time, during which some students said: “If we had known this Jesus, we would never have become Marxists”.[13]

With that preamble in place, we come to Luke 4:16–18, a passage that plays an important part in Luke’s two-volume work. This passage helps us in understanding the ministry of Jesus, as well as the themes of kingdom, gospel, reversal, and liberation.

Here is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible and the nearest we get to Jesus having a mission statement. The passage plays an important role in Luke’s Gospel because it sets the tone for his first volume in a similar way to how the quotation from Joel, quoted by Peter in Acts 2, sets the tone for his second. It is also one of several key texts in the Bible that has at different times shaped the church’s understanding about what it is called to be and do as a witnessing community of God’s people among the nations.

From this passage and others in Luke, and using a rather broad brush, I want to set out three parameters for understanding the gospel of liberation.

1. The liberating message begins in the peripheral places

“Jesus returned to Galilee … He went to Narberth …” (vv 14–16).

Galilee is a symbol of the periphery. Jesus focused his mission in the province of Galilee—the marginal sector of the Jewish nation at that time. Nathaniel’s question in John 1:46, “can anything good come out of Galilee?” reflected the view that people at the time—especially priests and Pharisees (John 7:52)—generally held about Galilee, that nothing good comes out of that place and among those people. Galilee was a mixed bag of peoples.

As René Padilla points out:

This attitude no doubt had much to do with the prejudice of the Jews from the south toward that province where the racial mixture of Jews and Gentiles had given rise to its name: Galilee, literally, “the circle”, with the connotation of a “circle of pagans”.[14]

It was no accident that Jesus started the core of his ministry in the despised region of Galilee. He “identified himself with the ‘non-persons’ of Galilee and, starting with them, he laid the foundations for a new humanity.”[15] So, for Padilla, “Jesus’ Galilean option has a profound theological meaning.” It was not simply a matter of circumstances but follows a trajectory set in the Old Testament for how the God of Israel chooses to work out his redemptive, liberating purposes for his people and his world. It is also echoed in the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29, NRSV).

Indeed, Costas asserts that:

If, as the various books of the New Testament teach, evangelization is addressed in the first place to the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed, and if they are the most able to understand the meaning of the gospel (cf. Matt. 11:25), then it follows that Galilee, as a symbol of the periphery, should be understood as a universal in relation to the theology of evangelization. Thus, the particularity of the periphery should inform all and each evangelizing context.[16]

If we follow Jesus to the peripheral places, that will mean going to the marginalized, to the least reached people in our societies—to the dispossessed, the disinherited, the nobodies, the oppressed, those people who are typically overlooked by society and pushed to the margins.[17]

One such group are people with disabilities. The World Health Organization estimates that one billion people live with a disability and that eighty percent of these persons live in developing countries.[18] According to official estimates, there are 17,150,000 disabled people in Southeast Asia (Timor Leste, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos). Paul Chaney of Cardiff University points out that

a demographic shift towards an ageing population means that over the next quarter century it is likely that Southeast Asian countries will experience the greatest international growth in the number of disabled people. Yet, as the United Nations notes, many are currently denied their human rights…: “common concerns include impunity for serious rights violations […and] the ill treatment and poor legal protection of… persons with disabilities”.[19]

In a significant, though neglected, section of The Cape Town Commitment we read that

Disabled people form one of the largest minority groups in the world.… The majority of these live in the least developed countries, and are among the poorest of the poor. Although physical or mental impairment is a part of the daily experience of disabled people, most are also disabled by social attitudes, injustice and lack of access to resources.[20]

Specific disability-related implications will be addressed later in this paper, but for now we note how Jesus’ ministry—even its geography—reminds us of how God works from the periphery, and that “[t]he church’s existence in the margins is an intentional prophetic presence that calls attention to God’s purposes for the margins.”[21]

The periphery is the place where all of us should be leaving behind the dreams of greatness, self-importance and public recognition that many times are directly associated with the institutional churches and should not be part of a servant church, a prophetic and liberating church.[22]

Where is our Galilee? Who are our Galileans? Might the growing number of people with disabilities in Southeast Asia be one of the “peripheries” which God is calling OMF to engage with?

2. The liberating message is integral in its scope

Harvie Conn highlights a major challenge many churches still face regarding a gospel witness that engages those on the periphery: “Our pietist tradition segregates ‘spirituality’ from ‘the world’. And our fear of the ‘social gospel’ spectre haunts our ability to formulate theology for the marginalised, the people on periphery.”[23]

This is why it is important to ground our understanding of the gospel within the context of the whole Bible, rather than selected, isolated texts. Our text of Luke 4 has clear connections with the exodus, with the Jubilee institution, and with the book of Isaiah.

Two key aspects of the Jubilee institution are found in Leviticus 25:10—release/liberty and return/restoration. “Jubilee is about justice: redemption and restoration; liberation and renewal.”[24] These themes then echo throughout the rest of Scripture and take on a wider metaphorical application, for instance, in the later chapters of Isaiah and in the mission of the Servant of Yahweh. Jubilee themes are found in Isaiah 58, and earlier in chapter 35. But it is Isaiah 61:1–2 which Jesus reads in our Luke 4 passage and then claims to fulfil.

Chris Wright’s book, The Mission of God, sets out a comprehensive case for understanding the Jubilee as a model for restoration, combining ethical and missional implications for today’s church.[25] In a chapter addressing that topic, Wright incorporates the work of Paul Hertig and his four-fold, holistic understanding of the Jubilee as presented in Luke’s Gospel:

Luke will not allow us to interpret this Jubilee language as flowery metaphors or spiritual allegories… Jesus fulfilled the Jubilee that he proclaimed. His radical mission was the very mission of God found in the Old Testament proclamation of Jubilee. It is presented in Luke’s Gospel as holistic in four aspects:

  1. It is both proclaimed and enacted

  2. It is both spiritual and physical

  3. It is both for Israel and the nations

  4. It is both present and eschatological[26]

This passage is both spiritual and socio-political because the gospel deals with the totality of sin’s impact in our lives, in our societies, and across the whole of creation. So in the New Testament, we see an integral connection between the verbal proclamation of the apostles and the visible attraction of the church as it demonstrated social and economic equality (e.g. Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37).

Further, the Jubilee is connected to the biblical theme of justice. In the Bible, justice is about establishing harmony in the community through right relationships, and this is what lies behind the mechanisms of Jubilee in terms of restoration and release. “Thus,” says Andrew Kirk, “in a sense, justice is another word for liberation: the removal of the barriers which prevent human beings from participating fully in the benefits and responsibilities of the community.”[27] Therefore, an essential part of our proclaiming the liberating good news of Jesus Christ for people with disabilities must involve the removal of social barriers that prevent their full participation in society, a work that most often needs to begin within the church community itself.

As Amos Yong explains:

disability is to be understood not only in biological or medical terms, but also in social terms. In other words, people with disabilities are not only individuals who have physical or mental/intellectual challenges; they are people who confront challenges made worse by the attendant social stigmas and attitudes which subjugate them. Hence, people with disabilities not only suffer physically (although some really may not suffer in this sense at all, but non-disabled people impute suffering to them based on normal assumptions), but also are afflicted by the social prejudices that they have to deal with every day. Indeed, the tragedy and evils of disability have less to do with the biomedical conditions of human bodies than with the social repercussions of an ableist and normate bias.[28]

When we think about what it means to proclaim the good news in all its fullness to people on the periphery, such as those with disabilities, we must think holistically. The Cape Town Commitment expresses this clearly:

Serving people with disabilities does not stop with medical care or social provision; it involves fighting alongside them, those who care for them and their families, for inclusion and equality, both in society and in the Church. God calls us to mutual friendship, respect, love, and justice.[29]

When it comes to the Jubilee, there is scholarly consensus that it “points to the kind of society that will be manifest when God fully reigns among his people” and that “[t]he new community called into being by Jesus Christ was to be a ‘jubilee’ community not once every 49 years, but in its daily practice.”[30] Therefore, The Cape Town Commitment’s call to mutual friendship, respect, love, and justice towards people with disabilities calls forth characteristics and actions that must surely mark the radical kingdom community that the gospel creates.

3. The liberating message creates communities of transformation

It is striking that while Luke’s Gospel has eleven references to “the poor”, the word does not appear in Luke’s second volume at all. Why is this? Could it be that Luke is going out of his way to show us that in the Spirit-empowered community of the church, the new order of God’s reign prevails to such an extent that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 3:34)?

So the church, as the community of the kingdom, reverses the norms of society to reflect the new society of God’s reign. We cannot simply say, “Don’t look at the church, look at Jesus!,” because the church is God’s showcase of what happens when Jesus Christ reigns in his new community. In Jayakumar Christian’s words, “The local church’s presence in the margins is a redemptive-disruptive prophetic presence—a signpost to the kingdom of God.”[31]

In this section I want to explore more fully the implications of the liberating message of the gospel for people with disabilities.

What has the attitude of the church been towards persons with disabilities?

At the risk of generalizing, the church’s attitude towards people with disabilities has often been characterised by paternalism. That is, the church usually engages in a ministry for disabled people where the able (strong) give down to the disabled (weak) in an effort to meet a “perceived need”.

There is a need for the church to reflect theologically on this attitude and type of ministry, and to begin accessing the resources and perspectives developed through the academic and practitioner discipline of “disability theology” which is:

the attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experiences of people with disabilities … [resulting in] a variety of perspectives and methods designed to give voice to the rich and diverse theological meanings of the human experience of disability.[32]

At the recent Beyond the Boundaries conference which I attended in Oxford, England, OMF (UK), together with two other organizations—The Oxford Centre for Mission Studies[33] and Tiō[34]—sought to take the theological conversation forward by bringing together the two disciplines and use insights from both disability theology and missiology specifically to look at intellectual disability.

Yet, in general, few missiologists engage with disability theology. The two most prominent in this field are Amos Yong and Benjamin Conner, with Lesslie Newbigin having previously entered this sphere, very much ahead of his time in the 1970s. Ben Conner explains the relevance of missiology to disability studies, suggesting that:

contemporary missiologists, especially those who have attended to cross-cultural perspectives and those who were on the receiving end of paternalism, exclusion, and marginalization, have developed theological concepts and practices that can support disability advocates with the task of developing a contextualized disability theology and for reimagining the church’s witness.[35]

He adds that

At the heart of missiology, then, lies the openness to encounter, to risk change for the sake of enriching and amplifying the gospel, which is ripe for a dialogue with the insights from disability studies and the perspectives of people with disabilities.[36]

The Oxford conference was structured around three “conversations”:

  1. A Human Conversation: listening to the biblical voice on humanity in light of intellectual disability: drawing our values from the original source.
  2. A Gospel Conversation: exploring the biblical dynamic of the gospel in light of intellectual disability: extending our understanding of the shape and scope of gospel encounters.
  3. A Church Conversation: exploring the biblical vision of Christian community in light of intellectual disability: radicalizing our practices to extend our influence.[37]

So there is a theological engagement question that the church needs to grapple with, and we will come to some specific ecclesiological issues towards the conclusion of this paper. But there is also a hermeneutical question about how our reading of the Bible frames our engagement (or lack of it) with disability. This is an area to which Amos Yong has made a significant contribution. Yong’s book, The Bible, Disability and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, explores a “disability hermeneutic”. This is “an approach to the Bible that is informed by the experiences of disability.”[38] Three basic elements inform this hermeneutic:

  1. People with disabilities are created in the image of God that is measured according to the person of Christ, not by any Mr. Universe or Ms. America. As we know, God doesn’t make mistakes, and people with disabilities should be appreciated as being uniquely different, even differently-abled.
  2. People with disabilities are people first who shouldn’t be defined solely by their disabilities. More particularly, people with disabilities are agents in their own right. Of course, some are more capable of independent agency than others, but we now realize that our historical perspectives that pitied such people are misinformed. People with disabilities should be allowed to define their own needs and wants, to the extent that such is possible, and should be consulted rather than cared for paternalistically as if they were completely helpless creatures.
  3. Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated. Should we avoid losing a functional arm or leg if we can? Of course. But many who have lost the functionality of an arm or a leg lead very productive and satisfying lives—they don’t need to be healed.[39]

Instead of reading Scripture to those with disabilities we must do all we can to read with and alongside them. By reading the Bible through the lens of disability, “we are enabled to see real people with real issues, move beyond our tendency to spiritualize references to disability, or to read a healing passage and solely extract a proof of the divinity of Christ.”[40]

The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years by James Tissot (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a twodimensional, public domain work of art and is thus in the public domain in its country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

For instance, if we take a couple of examples from Luke’s writings we can see how reading the Bible through the lens of disability can open up fresh readings of the text. Luke includes several encounters that Jesus has with particular individuals that we don’t find in the other Gospels. The bent-over woman in Luke 13:10–17 is one of them.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 17 As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.[41]

Mikeal C. Parsons has argued that Luke deliberately includes physiognomic accounts that are unique to his story in order “to subvert their usual moral and spiritual associations” and to point his readers to the liberating message of the gospel.[42]

Physiognomy is the study of outward, bodily characteristics to discover inner characteristics of temperament, or point to a person’s ethnic origin. In Greek and Roman times, this was a very popular area of study. Drawing on Parsons’s insights, Yong uses a “hermeneutic of physiognomy” to read this account of Luke 13.

The bent-over woman has been set free by Jesus and her salvation reflects the subversion of established conventions of power on at least three levels:

  • physiognomic: a bent-over figure triumphs over one who is standing straight (the synagogue leader).
  • gender: a woman’s rights trumps male authority, even when the latter is backed up by the entire synagogue and sabbatical tradition.
  • social acceptability: the woman praises God and goes home. However, the synagogue leader and his colleagues were put to shame and the crowd rejoices in all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.

In Lukan hands, the gospel subverts the physiognomic stereotypes and expectations of the first century Mediterranean world so that even ‘crippled’ and spiritually oppressed people like this woman are included among the new people of God. The disability perspective would rejoice not just because what was bent is now straight, but because God intervened to save and liberate this woman from the oppressive social forces in her world.[43]

The accounts of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) and especially of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) are similarly subversive. It is worth quoting Yong at length here because the points he makes illustrate the hermeneutical issues:

Parsons’ hermeneutic of subversive physiognomy, distilled from the Lukan narrative, suggests that the redemption of the people of God would include people like the eunuch and Zacchaeus, not “fixed” so that they can conform to our social standards of beauty and desirability, but just as they are, precisely as a testimony to the power of God to save all of us “normal” folk from our discriminatory attitudes, inhospitable actions, and exclusionary social and political forms of life. Just as Jesus accepted the socially despised and short-statured (physically defective) Zacchaeus, so the early church accepted the physically impaired eunuch, according to Luke’s record. It is true that in many other cases, Jesus and the apostles healed the sick and “disabled” by the power of the Spirit. However, in these two cases, Jesus pronounced the arrival of salvation to Zacchaeus’s household (Luke 19:9) and Philip baptised the eunuch (Acts 8:38) without any reversal of their physical conditions. In these liberating and subversive stories, we find another ironic Lukan reversal: the redemption of disability doesn’t necessarily consist in the healing of disabilities but involves the removal of those barriers – social, structural, economic, political, and religious/theological – which hinder those people with temporarily able bodies from welcoming and being hospitable to people with disabilities! Hence it is that Luke’s physiognomic hermeneutic results in an inclusive vision of the redemption of Israel and the reign of God.[44]

Conclusion: What does the gospel of liberation bring to people with disabilities?

a. Dignity: As created in the image of God

Donna Jennings’ reflections on identifying the image of God in the humanity of her autistic son’s complex needs are deeply challenging. In her article in Mission Round Table, Donna writes:

Pivotal in my own search for theological understanding was to seek out the shape of imago Dei integral to Micah. Arguably, orthodox Christian theology limits our understanding of the person, character, and capacity of God, which is formulated according to the criteria and experience of an able-bodied, able-minded humanity… Within this framework our systematic theology volumes generally locate the “image of God” in humanity under the categories of being logical/rational, having capacity and desire for relationship, and enjoying a level of creativity—none of which can be easily defined in my son! By limiting imago Dei to criteria experienced in a humanity exclusive of disability, the Christian church effectively implies that the image of God can be diminished in the presence of profound disability…. Could it be that Micah’s vulnerability points us to another aspect of the divine character and modus operandum, highlighting that God chose to make himself vulnerable, in creation, in the cross, and in the church? Can Micah’s high level of dependency point us to an understanding of the divine beyond independent, perfect, powerful transcendency, and towards his character of dependency outlined in the Triune community?[45]

We must be clear that people with disabilities are created in the image of God. Neither Zacchaeus nor the eunuch are “healed” of their physical “defectiveness”. As Yong says, “This is good news from a disability perspective as it reflects their inclusion among the people of God just as they are.[46]

b. New life: In Christ and in the church

In Luke 14:15–24 we find the “Parable of the Great Banquet”. In this account, we see that God’s kingdom is by nature inclusive; that the gospel is an inclusive gospel. Luke 14:15–24, in particular, points us to the inclusion of disabled persons in the community of the kingdom.

What does it mean for the local church to be a community of the kingdom in such a way that it embraces those who are so often on the periphery of society and recognizes people with disabilities as an integral part of the body of Christ?[47] The time-lapse video of a painting by Hyatt Moore powerfully illustrates the ecclesiological message of the Great Banquet for today’s churches.[48]

In the 1970s, Lesslie Newbigin said that people with disabilities are “utterly indispensable to the Church’s authentic life” and he characterized people with disabilities not as “a problem to be solved” but as “trustees of a blessing without which the Church cannot bless the world.”[49]

Indispensable to this discussion of inclusion are Paul’s reflections on the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. Paul challenges us about not holding a “them and us” attitude which leads to division and exclusion, and to embrace the counter-cultural way of the kingdom by recognizing that “those who seem to be weak, are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:12–27) and require special honour, dignity, and respect. However, it is too often the case that even where churches and organizations do include those with disabilities,

the ministry is generally directed from the strong and able to the weak and disabled, based on the one-sided premise that people with disabilities need the church. Engagement with the world of disability has been one strongly shaped by paternalism, denying the individual any contributory role in the body of Christ, any responsibility as an image bearer, defining them merely as the recipient of others’ strength.[50]

Luke 14 Banquet, 195cm x 510cm, by Hyatt Moore, 2015, www. hyattmoore.com, Courtesy Joni and Friends, Agora Hills, California.

c. Participation: By the Spirit in the church’s witness to the gospel

In our churches and mission agencies, there is a valid place for ministries to and for people with disabilities. But our witness will be deficient if we fail to recognize the immense importance of developing ministries with and from people with disabilities. The slogan of the American disability rights movement is highly pertinent to the church and mission scene: “nothing about us without us.”

In the working out of God’s transforming mission, God’s Spirit gifts all his people in different ways, including people with intellectual disabilities in our church communities. What does this perspective mean for our understanding of witness? Consider this story about Megan, told by Ben Conner.

Megan, who has a significant intellectual impairment, has been coming to church with our family. She can’t read the hymnal so she makes “musical noises” while we sing. She can’t remember the Apostles Creed, so she makes appropriate sounds in rhythm with the congregation’s recitation. She sits through sermons but can’t follow the logic of them even when they are reduced to three simple points. Nonetheless, she is a part of the community and evokes peace, love, and goodwill from others in the congregations. She has an intuitive sense that she belongs to this community and that this community belongs to Jesus. So connected is she, that she invited a friend of hers, who happens to have Down’s syndrome, to come be a part of the community. Seth has been coming ever since and was baptized last month. As it turns out, Megan is a more effective evangelist than I, and she lacks all of the capacities (rational capacity, reasoning skills, social skills, etc.) that one would expect from an effective evangelist … Within the limits of her capacities, Megan exercised her agency and bore the witness of the Spirit.[51]

For the church to have a credible witness in society, it is not more separate programs for people with disabilities that are needed, but for society to see that people with disabilities are playing a full and integrated part in the life and witness of the church community. For societies across East Asia, that would be a truly counter-cultural and prophetic witness.

d. Advocacy: The church “speaking out for those who cannot speak”[52]

The gospel of liberation is good news for people with disability because the people of God, who are called to freedom (Gal 5:1, 13–14), are called to exercise that freedom for others—loving their neighbor as themselves which includes advocating for those in need, speaking out for those who cannot speak, giving voice to those silenced by society.

As Paul Chaney’s research highlights, many of the persons with disabilities in Southeast Asia, “are currently denied their human rights… ‘common concerns include impunity for serious rights violations … [and] the ill treatment and poor legal protection of … persons with disabilities’.”[53]

The message of the Bible is clear about how the church must reflect the love and justice of God in exercising practical love and justice to those in need.[54] That includes doing justice in terms of exposing and resisting that which oppresses and exploits the weak and the vulnerable, and seeking transformation of the structural imbalances and maladjustments in society that result in many of those with disabilities across many parts of East Asia being hidden from society’s view and their voices being silenced.

The church has an important part to play in demonstrating solidarity with the disabled; in advocating in such ways that “involves fighting alongside them, those who care for them and their families, for inclusion and equality, both in society and in the Church.”[55]

e. Agency: As channels of transformation and healing

Authentic fellowship with sisters and brothers in Christ becomes transformative when we recognize that we ourselves have something to receive and learn from those who seem weak but who are actually agents of the Spirit’s transformation in our lives.

When we open up our lives and our churches and our mission agencies to the vulnerable, to those who seem weak—to the disabled—our paradigms of self-sufficiency and success are challenged, and we become transformed in having a renewed compassion for people both within and outside of the church. As the late Jean Vanier put it:

If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else: that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal becomes your healer.[56]

Whatever our ministry context or OMF responsibilities, we can surely affirm this call to action from The Cape Town Commitment and in so doing proclaim the gospel of liberation for people with disabilities:

  • Let us rise up as Christians worldwide to reject cultural stereotypes, for as the Apostle Paul commented, “we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Made in the image of God, we all have gifts God can use in his service. We commit both to minister to people with disabilities, and to receive the ministry they have to give.
  • We encourage church and mission leaders to think not only of mission among those with a disability, but to recognize, affirm, and facilitate the missional calling of believers with disabilities themselves as part of the Body of Christ.
  • We are grieved that so many people with disabilities are told that their impairment is due to personal sin, lack of faith, or unwillingness to be healed. We deny that the Bible teaches this as a universal truth (John 9:1–3). Such false teaching is pastorally insensitive and spiritually disabling; it adds the burden of guilt and frustrated hopes to the other barriers that people with disabilities face.
  • We commit ourselves to make our churches places of inclusion and equality for people with disabilities and to stand alongside them in resisting prejudice and in advocating for their needs in wider society.[57]

[1] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Leicester: IVP, 2001), 108.

[2] John Corrie makes this comment in Mission in Context: Explorations Inspired by J. Andrew Kirk, eds. John Corrie and Cathy Ross (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 67.

[3] John Corrie, “Evangelicals and Liberation Theology,” in Mission in Context, 61–76.

[4] John Coffey, “To Release the Oppressed: Reclaiming a Biblical Theology of Liberation,” Jubilee Centre Cambridge Papers 18 (December 2009), http://www.jubilee-centre.org/to-release-the-oppressed-reclaiming-a-biblical-theology-of-liberation-by-john-coffey/ (accessed 24 May 2019).

[5] In this paper I refer to liberation “theologies” rather than “theology” because there are various expressions of liberation theology. For instance, liberation theologies constructed from a Catholic context are different from those that have arisen in a Protestant one. As Corrie points out, “they have different historical trajectories, different approaches to scripture, and different experiences of political engagement.” Corrie, Mission in Context, 63.

[6] José Miguez-Bonino, “Theology and Liberation,” International Review of Mission 61, no. 241 (1972): 68, quoted in Orlando E. Costas, “Evangelism and The Gospel of Salvation,” International Review of Mission 63, no. 249 (1974): 27.

[7] Corrie and Ross, Mission in Context, 66.

[8] Costas “Evangelism and the Gospel of Salvation,” 28.

[9] David Smith, Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus in a Globalised World (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2017), 28.

[10] Smith, Liberating the Gospel, 54.

[11] Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 147.

[12] Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission, 148.

[13] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1984), 22.

[14] C. René Padilla, “Jesus’ Galilean Option and the Mission of the Church”, 1, https://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/library/rene_padilla_galilean_option.pdf (accessed 24 May 2019).

[15] Padilla, “Jesus’ Galilean Option,” 2.

[16] Orlando E. Costas, Liberating News: A Theology of Contextual Evangelisation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 61, quoted in Padilla, “Jesus’ Galilean Option,” 3.

[17] The orientation towards the periphery is a dynamic and changing space. A sustained focus on those on the margins may well result in those communities and ministries moving towards the centre, benefiting from the increased influence and socio-economic transformations that can come from “redemptive lift”. But in those shifts and transformations an attentiveness to Scripture will keep on orientating us to those who, in whatever situation, are on the periphery, and those on the periphery will have a kingdom impact on those at the centre. This is what Costas means when he talks about the particularity of the periphery informing all and each evangelizing context, wherever and among whomever that might be.

[18] The World Health Organization defines disability in these terms: “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

“Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.” https://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en/ (accessed 28 May 2019).

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” Preamble, point (e), https://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf (accessed 28 May 2019).

The WHO elaborates further that, “Defining disability as an interaction means that ‘disability’ is not an attribute of the person. Progress on improving social participation can be made by addressing the barriers which hinder persons with disabilities in their day to day lives.” World Health Organization, World Report on Disability (Geneva: World Health Organization Press, 2011), 4, https://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/chapter1.pdf (accessed 28 May 2019).

[19] Paul Chaney, “Comparative Analysis of Civil Society and State Discourse on Disabled People’s Rights and Welfare in Southeast Asia 2010–2016,” Asian Studies Review 41, no. 3 (2017): 405–423. My italics.

[20] The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action, The Lausanne Movement (Peabody, MA: Henrdickson, 2011): 44, https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment (accessed 24 May 2019).

[21] Jayakumar Christian, “A Prophetic Presence in the Margins,” Transformation 36, no. 2 (2019): 53.

[22] Manuel Aguilar, The History and Politics of Latin American Theology, vol. 3 (London: SCM, 2008), 11, quoted in Corrie and Ross, Mission in Context, 65, fn 18.

[23] Harvie M. Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 253–54.

[24] Tearfund, Theology of Jubilee (2018), https://www.tearfund.org/~/media/files/wewontstop/theologyofjubilee (accessed 24 May 2019).

[25] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 289–323.

[26] Paul Hertig, “The Jubilee Mission of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Reversals of Fortunes,” Missiology 26 (1998): 176–7, quoted in Wright, The Mission of God, 301.

[27] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission? Theological Explorations (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1999), 106.

[28] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 12. Yong writes of how we must overcome our “normate biases” when reading the Bible. This is about “unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into our consciousness.”

[29] The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment, 44.

[30] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?, 106.

[31] Christian, “A Prophetic Presence in the Margins,” 54.

[32] John Swinton, “Disability Theology,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, Ian McFarland, David Ferguson, Karen Kilby, and Iain Torrance, eds. (London: CUP, 2010): 140–1.

[33] http://www.ocms.ac.uk.

[34] https://www.tioassociates.org. As explained on their webside: “Tiō is a Classical Greek word meaning ‘to honour’, ‘respect’, ‘lift up’ or ‘advance’. Used within the biblical imagery of ‘body’ (1 Cor 12) it conveys the importance of the weakest and most vulnerable people within church life, faith communities and wider society. The weaker parts of the ‘body’ are indispensable. At the heart of Tiō is a passion to ‘honour the indispensable’.”

[35] Benjamin Conner, Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018), 38.

[36] Conner, Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness, 45.

[37] Conference details and resources can be found here: https://www.beyondtheboundaries.net.

[38] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 13.

[39] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 13.

[40] Donna Jennings, “Those Who Seem to Be Weak: The Role of Disability within a Missional Framework” in Mission Round Table 12, no. 3 (September–December 2017): 30, https://omf.org/blog/2019/03/26/those-who-seem-to-be-weak-the-role-of-disability-within-a-missional-framework/ (accessed 8 July 2019).

[41] NIV (2011).

[42] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 64. Yong borrows from Mikeal C. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).

[43] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 66. My italics.

[44] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 69.

[45] Jennings, “Those Who Seem to Be Weak,” 31–2.

[46] Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church, 67. Italics in the original.

[47] A taste of what this can look like in terms of corporate worship was beautifully and powerfully demonstrated by the London branch of the L’Arche community who were invited to join the Beyond the Boundaries conference to facilitate a time of participatory worship. This included Bible readings, liturgy, music, and dance and was for many the highlight of the conference, incorporating the themes of our discussions into a time of joyful and deeply authentic worship.

[48] https://www.hyattmoore.com/videos/luke-14-banquet-time-lapse.

[49] J. E. Lesslie Newbigin, “Not Whole Without the Handicapped,” in Partners in Life: The Handicapped and the Church, ed. Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1979), 24–5, quoted in Conner, Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness, 57. As Conner says in his footnote: “Newbigin obviously uses the language of the time to speak about intellectual disability. Years from now, I imagine the language I am using in this text will be dated.”

[50] Donna Jennings, “Those Who Seem to Be Weak,” 32.

[51] Benjamin Conner, “Don’t Disable Your Youth Ministry,” Princeton Theological Seminary: The Institute for Youth Ministry, http://iym.ptsem.edu/disability1/ (accessed 24 May 2019).

[52] Proverbs 31:8.

[53] Paul Chaney, “Comparative Analysis,” 405.

[54] Exodus 22:21–27; Leviticus 19:33–34 (see Leviticus 19:14 on social compassion for the disabled); Deuteronomy 10:18–19; Isaiah 58:6–9; Amos 5:11–15, 21–24; Psalm 112; Job 31:13–23; Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 29:7; Matthew 25:31–46; Luke 14:12–14; Galatians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 8–9; Romans 15:25–27; 1 Timothy 6:17–19; James 1:27; 2 :14–17; 1 John 3:16–18.

[55] The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment, 44.

[56] Jean Vanier, The Broken Body: Journey to Wholeness (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1988), 74.

[57] The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment, 44.

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