I presented this workshop to justice-minded members of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, some of whom had disabilities, this afternoon at St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church in North York, Ontario, Canada. I hope you like it!
A. Theological and Practical Avenues to Churchly Access
Hi! My name’s Mike Walker, and I’ll be your facilitator this afternoon. Can everyone hear me? Good! Then let’s go. J
This workshop will explore some of the theological and practical aspects of a sacramental ecclesiology of disability. That is, it’ll concern how baptism and Holy Communion can help Christians with and without disabilities to create accessible, just, and loving church-communities. I’ll focus that sacramental lens on the contours of physical, intellectual, affective, and spiritual access to divine justice for believers of diverse abilities, and explain how the transformed perception that makes that access possible lends itself to covenantal relationships. This workshop will be very dialogical, and thus quite participatory. That is, at specific points, I’m gonna make you all talk to each other, and tell me what access to God’s justice looks like
B. Every Body Matters: Defining Disability
The first and most important part of justice for believers with disabilities is that all people—everybody, irrespective of ability—is made in God’s Image. As I occasionally say, every body matters, and everyone reflects God’s desire to relate to God’s creation. Who are people with disabilities? People with disabilities are those who experience functional, physical and intellectual limitations in social contexts. Blindness, deafness, and cerebral palsy are all physical disabilities. At the same time, intellectual disabilities, such as autism-spectrum disorders and schizophrenia, are those that affect people’s capacity to perform cognitive and emotional processes. Furthermore, one could also call depression and anxiety emotional disabilities. For instance, I’m a person with spastic cerebral palsy. I experience constant tension in my muscles, my limbs shake all the time, and I have one fully-functional limb—this one (wave left arm).
So, everyone, including people with disabilities, is made in God’s Image. In Genesis, God creates human beings to relate to each other, to God, and to the earth where they live. The human beings’ encounter with the serpent complicates that relationship, because the snake introduces the two people to shame. The serpent claims that God doesn’t have human beings’ best interests at heart, and so casts doubt on the people’s relationship to God; that introduction of sin—the acting out of desires that do not spring from our relationship to our Creator—creates the conditions for the ableism that all people of varied abilities face, inside and outside the Church.
C. Ableism in the Church(?!): Different Forms of Ecclesial Ableism
I said that sin makes room for ableism. Simply defined, ableism is the systemic (and, distressingly, sometimes personal!) discrimination against, and oppression of, people with disabilities, by people of able body. Ableism is the confluence of different factors that allow some bodies—the beautiful, healthy, young, able ones—to take priority over those of us with mobility issues, like me; those of us with intellectual disabilities, like me and like others you know; and those of us who have other difficulties, like multiple sclerosis, arthritis, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. And so that I get to say it aloud, in your hearing: ableism is sin.
Within the church, ableism takes several forms. First, believers of able body often disconfirm the experiences of believers with disabilities: that is, they’ll deny people with disabilities the voice and agency to act for themselves, and/or refuse to affirm their existence. For example, Jennie Weiss Block, a noted Roman Catholic disability advocate, tells a poignant story. She writes, “I was once eating dinner in a very nice restaurant in Washington, D.C. with a well-known disability activist. He has a law degree, heads a large disability agency, is married with three children, and uses a wheelchair. The waiter looked directly at me and asked, ‘What will he have?’” (2002, 47-48). Or try this one: Cyndi Jones, a survivor of poliomyelitis, remembers that in the 1950s, when she was in elementary school, she felt put down by an advertisement of her—with her picture—that clearly told children that they didn’t want to look like her or other polio survivors (Shapiro 1993, 13). Honestly! Who would write that?
Disconfirmation also appears in the language that people use for each other. Jennie Block lists many names that people with disabilities encounter because of our unique modes of perception. We are called names like “idiots,” “retards,” “deaf and dumb,” “lame,” “spaz,” “differently-abled,” “physically challenged,” “mentally different,” “partially sighted,” “afflicted,” “crippled,” “victim,” and “deformed” (Block 2002, 48). I don’t like those names! In particular, I detest names like “lame,” “cripple,” and “retard,” all of which have been applied to me. These words have no place within a loving church-community. I am much more a fan of names like friend and brother; these are names that some in this room have often used for me.
Second, ableism appears—even in the Church!—through the low expectations that people of able body have of people with disabilities. People assume that a young Jewish man with multiple disabilities cannot study effectively for his bar mitzvah (Block 2002, 2002, 48-49), that a woman with no arms and no legs cannot effectively join the choir in a church (Eiesland 1994, 35), and so on. We who have disabilities are continually oppressed by low expectations. When I was born, in the fall of ’84, my parents were told that I would struggle to walk, to talk, and to have a normal life. You may be pleased to learn that I can dance, write a good English sonnet, play board-games, do chin-ups, and write highly-effective prayers. J
Ableism isn’t just about disconfirmation and the low expectations of people of able body, either. Third, ableism consists in people with able bodies “taking over,” deciding what’s best for people with disabilities without our consent. In Eugene Peterson’s Message, Romans 12:7—a crucial part of one of Paul’s discourses on the Body of Christ—reads thus: “If you help, just help; don’t take over.” All Christians, of all abilities, are part of Christ’s Body, so all its members have to work together. Problem is, many Christians of able body are friggin’ terrible at helping without taking over. Many people of able body assume that they know the perspectives of their siblings with disabilities, without actually knowing them. For instance, when a child with Down syndrome or autism is born, many parents hear, “Oh, it must be God’s will” (Black 1996, 47-51). How do believers know what God’s will is? And some people of able body speak to us thoughtlessly. I sometimes hear, “Oh! You have cerebral palsy? That must be so hard for you.” No, it isn’t really. The hard thing for me is listening to people who should know better project their fear and distaste onto my lived experience. Once, at my college of registration at UofT, a very impertinent older woman actually asked me outright, “Did you get it done for science?” What? Why would I do that? And if I wanted to, what business is it of yours?
Plus, some people with able body simply dominate people with disabilities: they tie us to our beds when we need to be dressed or changed; they refuse us access to our money, or forbid us to see a movie in a theatre because we happen to use a wheelchair (Shapiro 1993, 107-8, 138-39). Those actions are both irresponsible and unloving. People with disabilities need agency too! For instance, Jeff Gunderson had terrible experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Wisconsin nursing homes until he found a personal attendant who became a good friend, who would cook and watch TV with him (ibid, 238-49). That is the kind of agency Christians of varied abilities need, in order to flourish; that’s the power sacramental community gives to us!
By this point, you may have noticed that ableism is a failure of perception, whereas access, its opposite, is successful—by which I mean “open” and “generous”—perception. When I say access, I mean a point of entry—or, ideally, multiple points of entry—to God’s dignity and joy. Tanya Titchkosky, a sociologist with dyslexia at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, asserts that access is a radical and generous form of perception where people of different body types are asked to “wonder” about the way that society is set up, and to ponder how human beings can encounter each other generously (Titchkosky 2011, 3, 145-47).
That’s where we’re going to go next. The sacraments, rituals that make Christ present to church-communities, offer access to God’s promised wholeness and integrity for people of all abilities, and indeed for all creation. I’ll give you just a little more theory, I promise. First, we’re going to have a few minutes for small group discussion of your experiences of ableism within the Church. Then we’ll talk about what baptism and Communion are, and then we’ll discuss (again, in small groups) what they do for believers of varied abilities. Are there any questions?
D. Sacramental Solidarity: Two Rituals, and Four Modes of Access
Okay. So I’ve said that access is a series of entry-points into God’s dignity and joy. The sacraments provide that entry. Simply defined, a sacrament is a material sign of God’s grace for human beings: like a wedding-ring, a piece of poetry, or a bouquet of roses, the sacraments are signs that God has promised to give God’s abundance to God’s people.
When I say “sacrament,” I’m primarily referring to baptism and Holy Communion. Baptism is the initiatory ritual of Christ’s Church: this rite of water and the Word can represent Christ’s forgiveness of sin, unite people in Christ irrespective of essential characteristics, and give believers a foretaste of God’s abundance to come in the Last Days. Furthermore, Holy Communion—this ritual goes by many names—is a meal of bread and wine where people can experience some of God’s material sustenance, engage each other in fellowship, forgive each other, and partake both in Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of their embodied nature, both rituals enact God’s solidarity with people who are oppressed. I’ll come back to that.
The sacraments provide access to God’s equity because they free human beings’ creative and connective energies. That access occurs in four related but distinct modes: that access is physical, intellectual, affective (emotional), and spiritual. Let me explain each of those in turn.
Baptism and Holy Communion offer human beings physical access to God’s justice for several reasons. First, because they reunite us to our bodies, both of these rituals provide believers of all abilities with healing and strength. Both baptism and Holy Communion represent God’s solidarity with people who are oppressed; in an ideal sense, these rites allow people of diverse abilities to share power, and to offer each other intimate and deeply-embodied hospitality. They allow human beings to create the space for freedom of movement, for full and abundant nutrition, and for integrated, creative expression in our bodies. Notably, because it involves edible elements, Holy Communion also calls for an end to extreme material poverty.
Moreover, baptism and Holy Communion offer people of diverse abilities intellectual access to divine justice. Through simple narrative and symbol, these rituals free our imaginations to grasp the risen Jesus’ life. Like Jesus’ parables, the sacraments tell simple stories that describe the appearance of God’s Reign when justice is done. Both rituals enjoin believers strongly to use simple language in worship and in sermons. Moreover, both mysteries empower believers of all abilities to “watch our language”: we are called not to create interlocking circles of “us” and “them,” but a series of spirals where we are all included, irrespective of body type. Baptism retells the story of Christ`s regeneration of individual believers, and of communal life, while Holy Communion recounts the links between Jesus’ liberating ministry and the ways that people with diverse abilities embody Christ’s life. Overall, in terms of divine equity, both rites engender disability’s imaginative episteme that makes way for the unexpected.
Significantly, baptism and Holy Communion also create the space for affective access to divine justice through their material resonance with God’s desire. That is, these rites give people of diverse abilities points of entry into the dance of friendship and intimacy, by showing us what the triune God’s love looks like. The water of baptism can lead believers of all abilities directly into Jesus’ embrace; thereafter, in Holy Communion (ideally, anyway!), we can find Jesus’ embrace replicated in the embrace of others. Again, our experiences of affection in the Eucharistic community in particular can help believers with diverse abilities to both resist and dismantle ableist structures within the Church. I have so much personal experience of intimacy in sacramental community that I made it a very big part of my doctoral research. Ideally, the next breakout session will help you describe your own experiences too.
Lastly, baptism and Holy Communion offer people of varied abilities spiritual access to God’s justice—that is, they testify to the truth and reality of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and coming again—in several ways. The rites remind us of our unity: baptism unites all believers in our love for Christ, and Holy Communion connects us to the Earth and each other. Baptism catalyzes our joyous solidarity: our baptismal vows allow people of all abilities to aid each other when we see each other suffering or in trouble, and Holy Communion helps us to remember and re-enact instances of past availability and solidarity. Moreover, baptism and Holy Communion both engender affective access to divine equity by reminding us tangibly of Christ’s love.
Now we take our second quick break, and we perform another small group activity, with slightly more complicated questions about your relationships to the sacraments. In a couple minutes, we come back to see how all this plays out in covenantal relationships.
E. Covenantal Relationships as an Aspect of Justice
Baptism and Holy Communion do one other thing in Christian communities that’s hugely significant: they create the space for mutual compassion within covenantal relationships. Human beings are interdependent; we—all of us, of all abilities!—need each other in order to be fully human. Hear me clearly, Diocese of Toronto: human existence does not centre on productivity. We’re not machines that break down and need fixing; rather, people are most ourselves in loving relationships. One Hebrew name for that relational love is chesed, covenant-love and faithfulness. Friends give to each other out of reciprocal fealty, and can mutually grow in love.
In the Jeremiah Community, my church in Toronto—an intentional community that used to worship in an Anglican parish—one of my good friends represents the import of chesed for me. This joyful older fellow with multiple disabilities knows Anglican liturgy and hymnody backwards; he responds to every prayer with a loud, “Amen,” but often struggles to understand our conversations, and to listen sometimes when people ask him to do something. That said, the rest of us help him with his cognitive processing, and he helps the rest of us by offering us passionate and unflagging affirmation. My friend truly lives out an aspect of chesed.
Similarly, Jennie Weiss Block retells the story of one Judith Snow, a Torontonian artist with disabilities. At one time, Judith was depleted physically and mentally because she could no longer care for herself, so five of her friends formed the “Joshua Committee” to care for all of Judith’s needs. These friends empowered Judith to live in Toronto, and to thrive as a person (Block 2002, 160-62). And here’s a personal favourite: Adam Clayton, bassist of U2, served as best man to Bono, the band’s singer, in May 1982; in spring 1987, Bono received a death threat before a concert in Arizona. During the show, he found Clayton shielding him with his bass guitar. Chesed allows people of all abilities to lay down their lives for each other (John 15:13).
Plus, I think I alluded to this next point a minute ago. In sacramental communities, God’s grace empowers people to be open to all other people. Baptism and Holy Communion can lead Christians to affective and spiritual openness, enabling us to become catholic personalities. I’ve borrowed that phrase, “catholic personalities,” from the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, student of Jürgen Moltmann. That phrase means that people reveal in themselves, and in their relationships to each other, God’s mutuality and generosity. Volf asserts repeatedly in his fascinating book After Our Likeness that the Trinity—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—exists in perichoresis, which is sort of like the dance of friendship I alluded to a few minutes ago. The Godhead’s three members dwell in each other mutually in perfect love; unfortunately, while human beings can aspire to that love, we can’t emulate it perfectly (Volf 1998, 194-209).
Human beings can only yearn for the Trinity’s love because we’re limited. In order to embody God’s boundless love, people of all abilities need clear but permeable affective boundaries. Just as the members of the Trinity interact peaceably with each other, so God calls God’s friends to dwell mutually with each other, and to welcome each other in our varied needs (Volf 1998, 172, 192ff). Significantly, Volf claims that, whenever people live out these mutual relationships with each other, using our Spirit-filled gifts to benefit each other in the covenantal and sacramental ways I’ve described, Christ dwells among us (ibid, 227-44, esp. 228-30).
When we live into these covenantal and mutual relationships, our relations to physical and social space can change. So, for instance, during one phase of the worshipping-life of the Jeremiah Community, we used to constantly reshape our worship-space. On Sundays, we would bring out extra chairs; we’d strive to make the music audible and sing-able; and we’d involve the children in the service as much as possible, singing simple songs and making them sacristans. Our liturgical commitment to our baptismal vows and our solidarity with our neighbourhood, cemented in our sharing Communion with our friends from the street, empowered us to create safe and welcoming communal space for our vulnerable friends, and, really, for everyone.
Having said that, hospitality by and for believers with disabilities and others in community necessitates clear boundaries. The practice of the Peace of Christ in the Jeremiah Community demonstrates that bounded clarity. For a couple years after we moved to Parkdale, we were unsure of tactile boundaries, but our leadership team eventually asked all of us to shake hands, rather than offering each other more comprehensive forms of embrace, during the Peace of Christ. Handshakes allowed us to offer each other real intimacy and trust in sacramental community, while also still creating a basic level of emotional security. At our best, without giving ourselves away, we recognized the limits of our energies, and gave each other God’s love.
The Peace shows us something else, too. In sacramental communities that contain covenantal relationships, Christians of all abilities can learn humility. When people of able body and people with disabilities welcome each other, we begin to empathize, and we know what practical theologian Peter C. Hodgson calls “intersubjectivity” (Hodgson 1988, 66; see also Moltmann 1993, 349). In the humble empathy emerging from sacramental community, as Christian poet Bono claims, we can become one, though we’re not the same (U2 1991, 17-18).
Volf argues that this humble, empathetic person is decentred from him- or herself, and centred on Christ. That is, the cross and baptism reorient the person who chooses Christ. This ideal person, filled with the sacraments’ embodied joy, can feel and know Christ’s gifts to humankind, because her baptism reorients her to Christ’s earthly presence in creation and community. This means two things in terms of the Church. First, baptism and Holy Communion can ground the openness that Christians of all abilities display towards each other, because they testify to our mutual connections in our bodies. Second, these rites can allow Christians of varied abilities to “walk through walls.” They can empower us to incarnate God’s full love and justice just as the risen Jesus does in Luke 24:36-37 and John 20:19-31. Humility and empathy can form Christians of diverse abilities into more whole human beings who can act out divine equity.
Furthermore, God makes us into what I call “faithful community” in the sacraments. Baptism and Holy Communion mark our loyalty to each other and to God, and empower us to accept each other in our uniqueness. In an ideal sense, Christians of all stripes don’t just love because we feel like it. We love because we’ve made a covenantal promise, and we intend to keep it! Love expresses covenant, and covenant binds people together in sorrow and in joy.
In light of all that, I have a few more questions for you about covenantal relationships. They’re a bit simpler than the second session; when they’re done, that ends our time together.
Here are all the workshop questions:
Part One: Questions on Ableism:
- How have you, or your loved ones, experienced people’s disconfirmation, low expectations, or assumptions this week?
- Think about your week. Name one experience that helped you to perceive people with disabilities positively. Alternatively, tell us about an experience where you befriended someone with a disability.
- We mentioned names that are often applied to people with disabilities, even in the Church, like “idiot,” “retard,” “lame,” “spaz,” and “physically challenged.” Choose one of these names and write a gentler expression of it to share with the larger group.
Part Two: How Do You See the Sacraments?
- In a couple sentences, talk about your relationship to other people within your church community. How could a sacramental orientation towards justice change your view of your community?
- Have you experienced the connection we’ve described between Holy Communion and material justice? If you have, tell us about it briefly.
- How do you experience your connection to the earth as a Christian?
Part Three: People in Covenantal Relationships
- Name an instance of covenantal relationship in your own life; you can share it if you’d like.
- How can people of higher cognitive ability befriend people with intellectual disabilities?
- Has your congregation ever experienced a moment of shalom, where you did something really good and important as a group? Describe that moment for us.