Bible Engagement and Disability

Interview with David McLachlan (EEA)

(European Evangelical Alliance)

Über das theologische Verständnis von Behinderung hat David McLachlan aus dem Theologienetzwerk der Europäischen Evangelischen Allianz ein Buch herausgegeben, dass zur besseren Einordnung des Themas und Inklusion beitragen kann mit dem Titel: "Accessible Atonement: Disability, Theology, and the Cross of Christ (Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability)"

As part of our overarching communication theme of “Bible Engagement” in the first half of 2021, readers of the EEA Newsletter are being presented with a variety of perspectives on the topic in several issues of the EEA Newsletter. We are very pleased that David McLachlan has agreed to answer some of our questions. Rev Dr David McLachlan is a trained theologist and worked as a pastor of Dormansland Baptist Church in Surrey, where he was involved for many years as a governor of Young Epilepsy, an organisation providing education, accommodation and care for young people with complex neurological conditions.  More recently, David has been an associate lecturer at Spurgeons College in London, where he has also been researching the theology of disability since 2013, completing his PhD in 2018.  

How is the topic of “Bible engagement” reflected in your work and what is particularly important to you when engaging with the Bible? (Name 1-2 ideas, tools, learnings, values)

The work that I do is on our response as Christians to people with disabilities. In particular, my focus is on whether our response is not only compassionate, which it must be, but also theologically and biblically convincing. We don’t have to be Christians to want to see people with disabilities included in all aspects of our society. Lots of people want that. The question is: what do we contribute to the inclusion debate that is distinctively Christian? Whatever that is, it must be rooted in our faith in Jesus and in our understanding of God, who through the Holy Spirit is revealed in the Bible.
Humanity includes a vast range of variety, some of which we call disability. For us as Christians to be confident in what we believe about the existence of disability, we need to think deeply about God’s attitude to the whole of humanity. To do that, we must engage with the whole of the Bible. We cannot just choose the bits that seem to say what we like. We also have to bear in mind that the whole of the Bible ultimately points to Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith”.

How has your bible engagement changed after starting your research in the field of disability theology?

This is a very good question! One of the things I have had to face up to is that the Bible gives us mixed messages on disability. The understanding of disability in biblical times, and through much of the history of the church, has not been the same as it is today (and even our understanding today continues to change). Even so, if we are honest, the Bible is a challenge. For example, Leviticus 21:16-23 seems to give a negative message in barring people with various impairments from presenting offerings in worship. Yet Psalm 139 encourages every one of us to recognize that we are God’s handiwork and are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Looking at the New Testament, when a paralysed man is brought to Jesus in Luke 5, Jesus heals him as a sign that he has the power to forgive, giving at least an impression that the paralysis and sin are linked. Yet in John 9 Jesus says explicitly that the blindness of a man born blind had nothing to do with sin.
We have to get to grips with all of this and look deeper to find both God’s attitude to all of humanity and a better starting point for interpreting these sorts of passages.

In the EEA paper “Disability and the Church” you talk about how holistic inclusion also requires, among other things, an inclusion in the reading of Scripture. What do you consider important for an inclusive engagement with the Bible?

The thing I have learned most clearly in answer to this is that inclusive engagement with the Bible must involve the whole church. One of the strongest messages of the Disability Rights movement, certainly in the UK, has been that we cannot have discussions about disability unless those with disabilities are included. It is often captured in the expression “nothing about us without us.” That certainly applies to engagement with the Bible. To take an example, if we do not ask our sisters and brothers who have impaired vision how they respond to, say, the account of Jesus giving sight to Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52, then we are at risk. We risk missing the crucial insights that come from those who are “different” from “us”. We also risk failing to recognize our own presumptions about disability. These are sometimes called “normate” presumptions. We presume that a blind person would ask Jesus to make them see. They might well ask for something else. It is not for the rest of us to dictate.
The paper you referred to listed a number of reading strategies for Bible passages that include disabilities. The purpose of those strategies is to make us think about our own presumptions about disability, and about the presumptions we come across in the people in the Bible, all of which need to be challenged.

For a long time, the topic of the atoning death of Jesus Christ and its significance for people with disabilities and the way the church deals with disability remained unaddressed. You made a conscious decision to explore this topic. Why would you say the topic has been avoided until now and what profound insight have you come to in your extensive Bible study and research?

It seems to me that the reason this has remained unaddressed is because there is a history of linking disability with sin, and with the Fall in Genesis 3. We find this very uncomfortable. Part of it comes from passages in the Bible that appear to make this link. But as I said earlier, there are also passages that suggest there is no link. The mixture has made us wary of tackling the question.
Another part of that history has come from the more Charismatic healing prayer ministries. These have tended to say that all sickness and disability has its origins in the deeper sickness of sin. They have suggested that the power of the atonement is available to bring healing now, in this life as well as forgiveness. When healing has not occurred, it has left some people wondering about the strength of their faith.
The insight I have come to is to see the place of disability in creation and in the redemption that comes through the cross. Because creation is not God, it is not perfect as God is. It is full of potential, but it contains risk and variety. There is the risk of moral sin, but also a much wider risk, or contingency that gives rise to variety, accident and, in this case, disability. Recognizing this means recognizing that we must disentangle sin and disability. At the cross, God in Christ deals with sin and offers the forgiveness we all need. He also deals with those aspects of disability that cause pain, suffering, frustration and loss. But many aspects of living with a disability are positive. All that is positive is retained and fulfilled through the resurrection and into the new creation. What the Bible calls redemption is that process, for any person who turns to Jesus, of Jesus dealing with what is negative through his death, and fulfilling what is positive through his resurrection.

Seen in this way, every life is included at the cross. We are no longer afraid that God, or the Bible as a whole, has a negative view of disability. With that confidence, we can begin to ask what each Bible passage that includes disability reveals to us.

What concrete steps can be derived from this for the Church in Europe and the Evangelical Alliance in dealing with the topic of disability and inclusion, also taking into consideration the current threats and opportunities for Bible engagement of people with disabilities caused by Covid-19?

Progress will not come just from theological work like mine. It also requires concrete steps and a real willingness on the part of the whole church, as your question indicates. I would like to suggest three things:
First, the term “disability” covers a wide range of circumstances, from a person born with Down syndrome to someone injured in an accident or a person living with dementia. A great step for the church is to recognize that humanity includes this variety and to deliberately use language that identifies and includes that variety in its worship, its liturgy and its prayers.
Second, inclusion does not mean just finding ways for “them” to join in with what “we” are doing. Rather than ministry “to” or “for” people with disabilities, I would like to see the church engaged in ministry “with” people with disabilities. This includes encouraging those with disabilities to lead us all in prayer and worship, and ensuring ministry training and leadership is open to disabled people.
Third, although society claims to desire inclusion, it still often acts against people with disabilities. An example is the encouragement of women to terminate a foetus if it shows signs of Down syndrome. Do we really want to eliminate certain categories of disabled people from our future population? The Church can get involved in speaking out on these issues and supporting people who find themselves confronted by them.
You mention Covid-19. It has highlighted the isolation and danger that can very often accompany disability. People with disabilities have suffered more severely than the rest of society during the pandemic. Where there have been restrictions on movement and social distancing this has often left people without the support they need for daily life. For those living in care homes it has severely reduced their interaction with others, which has had a negative impact on their mental health. The opportunity for the Church is to go into the community and offer practical help and kindness to such people as a sign of the Kingdom of God.