Disability Justice in the Church
Geoffrey W. Sutton
Is anyone among you sick?
Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them
and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;
the Lord will raise them up.
(James 5: 14-15a, NIV)
“God told me to pray for you.” Amy begins her challenge to Christians who dehumanize her, and all people with disabilities, by telling the tale of a prayer predator. She interrupts the woman’s plan, “I don’t need prayer for healing. My body has already been sanctified and redeemed.”
Amy uses a cane and a wheelchair. Throughout My Body is Not a Prayer Request, we learn what Christians and medical people have said and done, which have had a cumulative effect of dehumanizing Amy. She has encountered many Christians who do not accept her as she is. Her work is an attack on the mentality of ableism.
Part of her attack focuses on the prayer predators who insist that it is not God’s will for her to have a disability and that God wants to heal her. Unlike hidden disabilities, Amy’s use of mobility devices draws attention to a physical difference. Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians believe God can perform healing miracles. In short, they believe people like Amy can walk again. I begin to glimpse the frustration and even anger with the people who constantly annoy her as if she is a problem in need of a fix instead of fixing the environment that is designed for the able-bodied.
Another part of her attack is on Christians who refuse to design spaces for people who need one or more accommodations to fit in. She takes on the excuses she has heard like limited funds despite churches finding money for other projects. She needs a ramp. Others need large print, sign language, or accommodations for hearing impairments.
Amy also takes on the dehumanization that occurs through the barrage of microaggressions. Mostly these take the form of words and phrases. Christians make jokes about people with disabilities and toss around words like “lame” as if she did not exist. In addition to pointing out the ways some Christians offend people with disabilities, she approaches a theology of disability noting scriptures that reveal compassion and inclusivity.
In closing this summary of the book, I would note she provides suggestions for activities at the end of each chapter that may be of special interest to people in Christian book-study groups.
Following are some quotes to give you a sense of her perspective on being a Christian with a disability. The number following each quote is the page number.
No place is safe from prayerful predators. 27
What we need to be freed from is ableism. 27
Constructing buildings and communities with disabled people in mind from the outset produces a culture of belonging that does not discriminate against bodily difference. 36
Perhaps instead of trying to pray away the cane, prayerful perpetrators should ensure that buildings are accessible to me. Perhaps instead of focusing on my body as the source of sin, prayerful perpetrators should repent of the ways the church perpetuates the sin of excluding disabled people. 36
“Crip” is a disability community word that reclaims the slur “cripple” in hopes of transforming the way the world interprets our bodies. 53
Doctors have drugs, churches have platitudes. They use platitudes like a drug they can dole out to make any ailment go away. 99
Crip tax is a term for the way society charges disabled people for being disabled. The cost of mobility devices, medical care, and assistive technology is weighty. 106
Folks routinely wear glasses or contacts without knowing how to manufacture them and without the threat of prayerful perpetrators trying to cure them. 132
I am not your metaphor. My body is not your symbol to use. My crippled body and lame leg do not give you permission to dismiss me as symbolic for whatever you find difficult. 146
Physical space reveals who the world is built for and who we expect to use it. 197
Accessibility is not just a checklist but an ethos. 197
In the charity model, we become objects of pity rather than subjects with our own gifts. 252
I recommend My Body is Not a Prayer Request to all those Christians who pray for healing. I get it that Christians can point to verses about healing like the James 5 text I placed at the beginning of this review; however, what aggressive, in-your-face-prayer warriors—I like Amy’s term prayer predators—seem to ignore is the millions of devout Christians who are not healed. The unhealed testify to the inadequacy of theologies of healing, which I have written about in a previous series (See Divine Healing).
I support Amy’s call for churches to be more accommodating. If the lack of accommodations is due to ignorance, then see Amy’s ideas and ask people in the church for suggestions. Meanwhile, Christians with disabilities are being excluded. As Amy points out, the number of people with a disability is large. According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 Americans have a disability (26%).
When it comes to Christians and ableism, there is a need to address the implications of people who were not good enough to serve in a special way. Consider the following quote from Leviticus 21.
16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’ ”
(Leviticus 21.16-24, NIV)
I will not attempt to create a theology of disability here. You can see what I wrote elsewhere and consult other books. However, I hope Christians can see how the Leviticus quote creates a tone of “not good enough.” Add in the many healing stories in the gospels and Acts and it is also easy to see how people can be “fixed” if only they have enough faith. Attitudes favoring the able-bodied place people with a disability in a lower class.
Ableism, the discrimination against people with disabilities, is a problem in society and in the church. I agree with Amy that this ablest theology dehumanizes large numbers of people. I would add to her rhetoric on dehumanization that some Christians are in the habit of demonizing people with mental disorders.
Kenny, A. (2022). My body is not a prayer request: Disability Justice in the church. Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress. AMAZON
The Bible, Disability, and the Church by Amos Yong
Theology and Down Syndrome by Amos Yong
A scale to measure attitudes toward disability
I am a retired psychologist. Before becoming a psychologist, I worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor. As a part of my work as a psychologist, I consulted with physicians, attorneys, and government agencies on the needs of people with disabilities. I recently published a book about Pentecostals and mental health.
Counseling and Psychotherapy with Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians:
Culture & Research | Assessment & Practice
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Throughout her book Amy Kenny provides some lists. Following is an example.