I did not get to see the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – we were on holiday at the time – but a common theme to the accounts I have heard was how the religious dimension was so unashamedly included in the celebration of British culture, with hymns that went beyond the tradition of singing at Cup tie matches and a moving remembrance of those who died in the London bombings the day after the Games were awarded to the capital city.
We watched the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics last night, and were struck by how very anti-religious the celebration was. The central theme was a Scientific approach to the universe. And while science and religion are not incompatible, the statement was defiantly humanistic and atheistic. Which has me asking, are the disabled as a constituency that can be gathered more irreligious than society as a whole? Or, is this the defiance of those who have been locked-out by those who do believe in God? What – if anything – does this moment tell us?
As someone who believes in God as God is revealed in and through the person of Jesus, disability is a complex issue.
It is unavoidable that Jesus, directly or indirectly, reverses the physical and social impact of disabilities: the blind see, the lame walk. Some see this (consciously or unconsciously) as affirming the able-body not only as normative but as being of a better class. But in his relating to disabled people, Jesus always treats them with dignity. He appears to recognise that the disabled have both had something taken from them – and it is denial to refuse to recognise this – and also have had something given to them, a determination and an ability to see and to respond to God’s active presence in their midst that the able-bodied are blind and lame to. Jesus’ impulse is to move to restore what has been taken and affirm what has been given. Both these moves seem to me to be fully in-line with the Paralympic vision. After all, what else are prosthetic limbs and (physical and emotional) rehabilitation, if not a restoration of what has been lost; coaching and training and promoting and supporting, if not an affirmation of what has been given?
However, as a Jesus-follower I must look not only to what Jesus did – how he responded to others; and how he confronts our marginalisation of the other – but also to who he was. In particular, his resurrection body, as a foretaste of the fullness of God’s intention for our bodies, has much to teach us about our attitude towards disability.
Firstly, Jesus’ resurrection body is not immediately recognisable. I have disabled friends who believe that they will not be disabled in heaven, and disabled friends who believe that they will be. My best guess is that all of us will be different from how we are now, in ways which we cannot imagine, and yet which are in continuity with who we have already begun to be. No human condition is the final word on being fully human.
Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection body is not subject to the same physical limitations our bodies are bound by. Pushing those limits – as Olympians and Paralympians do – would appear to be recognition that, while we experience constraints that contain us, they do not define us. Again, our present condition – whether able-bodied or differently-able – is not the final word on being fully human.
Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection body carried the scars inflicted on him by humans. This is, surely, not simply evidence for theological claims concerning Jesus, but for theological claims concerning humanity. Many (not all) Paralympians had their disability inflicted upon them by the actions of others: by improvised explosive device, machete, car crash, terrorist bomb, exposure to drugs (medical or otherwise) in the womb. In Jesus’ body, their scars are affirmed as something that can be transformed from the raw ugliness of wounds into something beautiful; that the disabled human form can be beautiful, though perhaps only for those – both disabled and able-bodied – with eyes to see. At any stage, the human body – our own, that of another – can be rejected as abhorrent or embraced as gift – to ourselves, to others.
I know many Christians who are delighted that these will be the most-watched Paralympic Games yet; who rejoice that attitudes towards disabled people have come a long way, and that – with a long way still to go – the United Kingdom is among those societies taking a lead. Watching the athletes from many nations parade into the stadium last night, it was clear that this is an occasion to celebrate where we have come to, in equality, rather than lament where we have come from or where we have still to go. It would be a shame if the humanistic and atheistic defiance of the artistic direction accurately reflects the general attitude of people with disabilities towards the Church, or the diversity of religious beliefs represented by the competing athletes.
On a national level, perhaps the anti-religious nature of this opening ceremony allows us to retreat from the heart-on-our-sleeve exposure of the Olympic opening ceremony; to move from self-conscious awkwardness after the event to face-saving restoration of business-as-usual. Except that there is no business-as-usual to such moments: carnival is, by definition, a throwing-off of the masks we wear in daily life. Prospero came to the conclusion that relating to others by godless means imprisoned not only them but himself; and pleaded with his audience to set him free by prayer and forgiveness, which move divine mercy. The godless Prospero who was our host last night only painted a vision in which nothing is of account in the face of a vast unknowable universe, where the breaking of our prisons is no more than spectacular illusion and pretty distraction. If that is the best vision we can put our imagination to, then these Games are not about humanity but about the desire to see freak-show gladiators fight for our entertainment.
How then, might we watch the Paralympic Games, as able-bodied and disabled, as people of growing faith in God and growing faith that no God exists? Surely by allowing what we see unfold to call into question the position from which we begin, finding ourselves moving to a different view-point.