The “Charisma” of Disability: A church without the disabled is a disabled church

Pope Francis meets a disabled man during a meeting with the UNITALSI, the Italian Union responsible for the transportation of sick people to Lourdes and the International Shrines in PaulVI hall, at the Vatican, on November 9, 2013. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis meets a disabled man during a meeting with the UNITALSI, at the Vatican, on November 9, 2013. (Photo credit FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

“Congregations without any disabled members are disabled and disabling congregations.” (The Spirit of Life, 193)

A touching moment in the Emergent Village Theological Conversation with Moltmann occurs at the beginning of episode 6, when a participant at the event named Jean, who was born with a disability, thanked Jürgen Moltmann for his impact on her life (audio embedded below the transcript):

Jean: I read in 1975 The Crucified God. You gave me language to describe my reality as a person born with disability, and I claimed myself created in the image of God from your book. How do persons with disabilities, who are both gifts and burdens to the church, have access to full expression of church in the power of the Holy Spirit?

Jürgen Moltmann: A disability concerned me my lifelong, because my older brother was a severely disabled person and he died when euthanasia began in Germany, so I think the church must consist of the disabled and not-disabled persons. A congregations without disabled persons accepted is a disabled church. So, let’s bring our members of our families who have disabilities into our congregations as a part of our community because they all are images of Jesus Christ.

For Moltmann, the issue of disability is very personal: his older brother, Hartwig, was severely disabled and was among the 10,000 disabled people who fell victim to the Nazi euthanasia program. This makes him particularly sensitive to ways in which those in our world and in the church tend not to appropriately value the physically and mentally handicapped.

Below are quotations from The Source of Life and A Broad Place that go a bit deeper into Moltmann’s thinking on this subject. As I read these texts and reflect on the presence of the disabled among us in the church, at least three things strike me:

  1. The way non-disabled persons treat the disabled can be more of a burden for the disabled than their disability.
  2. The church is a community of the disabled and the non-disabled; without the disabled the church is not complete.
  3. Since every disability can become a charisma of the Spirit, the disabled among us are a special gift; the non-disabled must be prepared to receive ministry from the disabled (not just the other way around).

First, a reading from The Source of Life:

Accounts of the charismatic movement often sound like American success stories. But the religion of success makes no religious sense in the pains, the failures and the disabilities of life. The theology of the cross doesn’t fit this officially optimistic society or its civil religion. But the apostle Paul discovered ‘the power of God’, not just in the strong places of his life but in his weaknesses as well: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (II Cor. 12.9). That is why he boasts of his weaknesses to, the ill-treatment he had been forced to suffer, the persecutions and fears which he had to endure. For the apostle these meant participation in Christ’s sufferings and were a charisma: ‘For even if we are weak in him, we shall live with him by the power of God’ (II Cor. 13.4). So he expects that in the community of Christ there will be strong and weak, educated and uneducated, people who are good to look at and the plain. No one is useless and of no value. No one can be dispensed with. So the weak, uneducated and ugly have their own special charisma in the community of Christ’s people. Why? All will be made like in form to the crucified Christ, because the crucified Christ has assumed not just humanity but also the misery of humanity, in order to heal it.

‘What is not assumed will not be healed’, says one of the principles of the patristic church. But whatever has been assumed by the Son of God who became human and was crucified is then also whole, good and lovely in God’s sight. It is important to recognize this divine radiance in the people we call disabled, so that in the community of Christ’s people we can overcome the public conflict between the non-disabled and people with disabilities.

The disabled are not just handicapped by mental and physical difficulties. They are also handicapped socially by the strong and effective who put them down as ‘disabled’. The disabled can be robbed of their independence, not just when they are pushed out of public life, but also through the solicitude and protective care they are given in homes. If we want to change this we have to stop staring merely at the disablement and see the person who is disabled. Then we can also perceive that every disablement can become a charisma. God’s strength is also made perfect in disablements. Those of us who are not handicapped generally stare most at what another person lacks or has lost. But once we forget our own scale of values, we discover the value and dignity of a disabled person and notice its importance for our life together. Anyone who has experienced a disabled person in their own family – and my elder brother was severely disabled – knows how important they are for a family, and can discover what God is saying and doing through the charisma of that disabled person. If the splendour of God’s love falls on a life it begins to shine. There are handicapped people in whose faces we can see this light particularly clearly.

Finally, according to Paul the body of Christ – if it is to be the body of Christ – needs not just strong members but weak ones too, not just effective and successful performers, but disabled members as well; and God gives the weak and disabled ones the most ‘honour and glory’ (I Cor. 12.24). Why? Surely because ‘the body of Christ’ is the community of Christ who is risen and was crucified, who is exalted and was humiliated. The astonishing energies of the Spirit reveal God’s marvelous power to rise. The weaknesses and disabilities and the sufferings of the Spirit reveal the even more marvelous suffering power of God. For that reason there is no good charitable ministry by the non-disabled to the disabled unless this first of all recognizes and accepts the charitable ministry of the disabled to the non-disabled. Congregations without disabled members are – to put it bluntly – disabled congregations. In the Christian sense, every congregation is a diaconal congregation; for charisma always means diakonia, service or ministry. The great charitable works of the churches are necessary, but what we need is to bring to life diaconal congregations made up of non-disabled and disabled people; congregations which look after their own disabled members themselves as far as possible.

The Source of Life 66-68 (my emphasis). An almost identical passage also appears in The Spirit of Life, 192-193)

In his autobiography he expands on this subject a bit more:

What meaning does a disability have, and how can the segregation of the disabled from the society of the non-disabled, the capable, and the successful, be overcome. ‘It is not we who are your problem – it is you that are ours’: this cry of disabled people shows that there are not merely personal disabilities; there is the social disablement of the disabled in addition. The sight of disabled people easily upsets the mental equilibrium of the non-disabled, and they shrink back. They do not see the disabled person but only the disability. The result is the ‘leper syndrome’, to use the phrase of scientific studies. People who are ‘different’ are not welcome, but are generally merely put up with; and that destroys their self-confidence. The fear of the non-disabled has to be overcome, for this makes them strive after a human image of performance, enjoyment, beauty, and power and makes them apathetic towards the sufferings of others. Once this fear is overcome, the depressions of the disabled can also be surmounted. Jesus established ‘ the kingdom of the Son of man’ at the very place where that leper syndrome is dominant: he accepted the blind, the paralyzed, and the mentally disabled and ‘rehabilitated’ them with God and human beings. In fellowship with him, Christians will seek the fellowship of the disabled, for these are Jesus’ friends; and they will protest publicly against the social disablement of the disabled. The human rights of the disabled include the right to be listened to, the right to be adult, the right to love. It is only when the non-disabled cease to be a problem for the disabled that the problems of the disabled can also be solved.

[…] It is not easy to arrive at self-acceptance and self-love if one is disabled. But in the experience of God’s love one can also love what God loves: oneself. ‘What is not assumed cannot be healed,’ was a principle of patristic theology. In Jesus Christ, God has accepted the whole and true humanity and has made it part of his divine life – mortal humanity, too, and also disabled humanity. In this respect there is no reduced life and no disabled life either. Every life is in its own way part of the divine life and a reflection of God in the world. The moment we talk about ‘disabilities’ we are taking as our standard the perfect, the capable, and the beautiful. But that leads us astray. Isn’t every disability an endowment of its own kind too, and one which must be respected? In the community of Jesus, aren’t ‘disabilities’ also ‘charismata’ of the Holy Spirit? When Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit, he doesn’t just name capabilities but the lack of them as well. Not just powers but also weaknesses (2 Cor. 4.7). ‘Everyone as the Lord has called him’ (1 Cor. 7.17): that also applies to a condition which others call disabled. This perception must lead to the building of a new fellowship of mutual recognition and varying interests among the ‘disabled’ and the ‘non-disabled’ in the community of Jesus.

A Broad Place, 207-208 (my emphasis)

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