Sunday, September 09, 2012

Paralympics, Disability, Healing and the Church

Wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Summer Paral...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the opening ceremony of the Olympics was rooted (as I have argued) in a Christian Socialist worldview, is it too much of a generalization to see the closing event of the Paralympics as rooted in a pantheistic mindset?  Certainly, the structure of much of the event - with its overt summons to the elemental spirits of the earth to presence themselves - would not have been out of place in a new age or pagan ritual.  

This is an interesting development, since historically, and contemporarily, Christians have been at the forefront of progressive work among sick, incapacitated and disabled people. This is true whether we are talking about the origins of nursing (in the churches of the Roman Empire during its periodic great plagues), to the modern hospice movement, or to several of the breakthroughs in medical science that have been achieved by people who have integrated their faith into their scientific research.      
If, then, a pantheistic rather than Christian worldview is the default position for a global event that celebrates ability rather than disability (to quote Lord Coe's opening speech of the Paralympics), then is it worth Christians asking a number of questions in response to the amazing Paralympic phenomenon? Although a Festival of Flame is itself a pagan idea, my purpose in this article is not to criticise but to reflect and ask questions of myself and my own worldview, which is rooted in the Christian message.

1. To what extent have Christians focused on healing to the neglect of empowering?

If, as in my strand of the Christian faith, physical healing is regarded as an ongoing aspect of the life of the church through both medicine and prayer, have we embraced this exciting prospect to the neglect of thinking through God's purpose for those who do not receive full physical healing in this age? Does this thinking extend to such apparently mundane areas as building design, employment law, education and (inevitably) sport?

2. Have we neglected the economic dimensions to the gospel healing stories?

When we read the gospel healing stories, do we tend to read them as offering hope to the sick - or hope to the poor? The absence of a social security system in first century Palestine makes it imperative that we do not miss the economic and social meanings inherent in an event such as a blind man having his sight restored. Or a widow receiving her (economically productive) son back from death.

3.Does our theology of creation allow us to rejoice in disability?

The opening ceremony of the Paralympics closed with the song "I am what I am." I don't know whether when Jerry Herman penned the song in the 1980s, he was consciously drawing on the words of the apostle Paul or not:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain    (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Paul was talking here about his moral unsuitability to be an apostle (because of his prior persecution of the church) rather than any physical disability. Nonetheless, it appears that the same apostle may well have carried permanent disability in his body. The meaning of his "thorn in the flesh" is often discussed, and may have been a physical impairment. I am personally intrigued by the possibility that it may have been a visual disability of some kind.

How do we, furthermore, make sense of such striking Scriptures as Exodus 4:11? 

“Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?"

While the atheist may shake his fist in anger at the very notion of a God who crates people with what we might describe as physical impairments, do we as believers fail to recognise this as a necessary corollary of a doctrine of the sovereignty of God? Furthermore, in my strand of the church at least, we are so nervous of undermining "faith for healing" that we are missing out on an even deeper appreciation of what the Puritan John Flavel described as "The Mystery of Providence"?


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