Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ableism as Trinitarian Heresy | How Assuming Jesus was a Healthy White Guy Breaks Theology

A decade back I was at Le Chateau Montebello near Montreal for a theological conference, listening to Hans Reinders, professor of Ethics at Vrije Universities (Amsterdam) talk about faith and disability (

Hans woke me up. He had raised his profoundly disabled child to adulthood. Living long-term with his child while teaching ethics, he had come to ask a very important question, "Does what we are capable of doing define our humanity?"

One of the greatest sins of Christians is to simply not question our presuppositions enough. There's a lot of closed-minded bigotry disguising itself as faith. So I was thankful for this challenge to my own assumptions. I started in some limited ways to listen more to those in communities of the differently abled to learn from them how they thought about their own gifts and situation.

Around that same time, I became more aware of our own denomination's Differently-Abled Youth Leader Event. Together we learn to accept the abilities and gifts people bring to community rather than assuming that different abilities count as "dis"-abilities.

Later, I remember reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree ( a few years back, and learned that many in the deaf community do not believe that deafness is something that needs "fixing." In a sense they are "defiantly deaf," lifting up the gifts and abilities that come with being deaf rather than hearing.

One might radically propose: is being able to hear actually a disability?

Theologically, what gets wrapped up in all of this are notions and assumptions of "what God wills." What parts of creation are fallen? Which parts are good? Who gets to decide?

I think at the root of so much of this are assumptions about what counts as the "perfect" human being. On average, I think Western culture has assumed that the healthy white male is the epitome of what God wants. So we depict The Human One, the Son of Man, in this way, Jesus as the virile, healthy white male.

If this is the definition of humanity, then everything else that diverges from that model is a threat. All kinds of systems kick into play: disgust, fear, othering.

Any depiction of Jesus that brings him into proximity with human divergence from the norm is a threat, because Jesus is supposed to be our salvation, and salvation is becoming "perfected humanity."

Somehow in this way of constructing things, we overlook so much of who Jesus actually was, not to mention so much of Christian Scripture, which celebrates and lifts up weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), injury (Galatians 6:7), Paul's thorn in his side (2 Cor. 12:7), the marks in Christ's resurrected palms (John 20:27), and celebrates not just one way of being abled, but the many, storied abilities that the Spirit brings (Romans 12:6).

This is why ableism and white supremacy and patriarchy are theological issues, because in the end they are a denial of Christ and his benefits as well as the Spirit and her gifts. Our increasing awareness of the problems of defining abilities incorrectly is not just some contemporary spirit of the age: it is a discovery in the present moment of the implications of Trinitarian theology.


  1. I've noted the same problem in The small catechusm's explanation to the thebcreed's first article: what if God hasn't preserved body and senses, eyes and ears, etc?

  2. We might be believers but our valuation of others comes from the cultural milieu. Only the pretty and successful are presented to us. We have no grasp of how God in Jesus entered our world and identified with us: "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being.... yet we considered him punished by God". If we hang out with "other" long enough they become "us".

  3. There are many in the autism community who are strongly opposed to organizations whose mission includes finding a cure for, and prevention of, autism. Living with difference should be appreciated. Thanks for the post.

  4. At the end of the month, Hans Reinders will be among the amazing people leading the 2016 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. There still may be time to register. Visit