Thursday, May 23, 2024

On disability and ableism


On disability and ableism.

The Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today is Mark 9.41-50. But in order to understand them, we need to look at the chapter as a whole. As always, much is lost in translation.

The chapter begins with Jesus going off with three of his disciples. When they return to the others, they find a father who has brought his son to be healed. His son has a spirit that causes him to be mute, and to experience seizures marked by foaming at the mouth, shaking, and rigid limbs. Mark does not record this as demonisation, but as a characteristic of the child’s own human spirit, and Jesus later confirms this to his disciples (who have assumed that it was a demonic issue and had failed to address it) saying that this condition runs in families, and cannot be addressed by any means, if not by prayer.

When Jesus asks the father for more information, he learns that the condition has often caused the boy to fall into fire or water. When Jesus speaks, with authority, to the condition, calling this part of the child’s breath out from him, the boy falls into another, severe, seizure, so much so that he appears to onlookers to have been left dead; but then he comes round. He will not fit again.

Following this episode, the disciples argue among themselves as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus slaps them down (technical term).

Then John seeks approval by informing Jesus that they had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but had told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of the Twelve. This is the immediate context of the verses set for today. Jesus again slaps them down.

Jesus states that it if anyone, by their actions, scandalises those seeking to follow him (are you listening, John?) it would be better (beautiful, honourable, praiseworthy: much lost in translation) for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea (to lose control of their limbs and fall into deep water, as had happened many times to the boy they had recently encountered).

Jesus then goes on to state three times that those who are disabled (with impairments to arms, legs, and sight) and who live lives that display their trust in the beauty and honour of God the King (so, not simply by virtue of having a disability) are beautiful and worthy of honour and praise; in marked contrast to those who are able-bodied, and who, by their scandalous way of life (so, not all able-bodied people) demonstrate that they deserve being thrown out into Jerusalem’s rubbish dump (Gehenna) where waste and dead animals and sometimes people were burned in fires that were kept alight continuously (again, note the connection to the boy with seizures).

This has little, directly, to do with a post-mortem hell, though Gehenna is also the sight of divine judgement of the unrighteous at the resurrection of the dead. It has more, directly, to say about our attitude towards disability and our internalised ableism.

There is not only room for disability within the vision of the kingdom of God, but a place of honour.

There is no room for the idea that being able-bodied is an indicator of divine approval. Indeed, those who are able-bodied (and here we might add all forms of body that are more enabled in our society than others, such as male bodies, white bodies, heterosexual bodies, young bodies) to be aware of their scandalous attitudes and behaviour, that cause others to fall away from following Jesus.


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