Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies
Numbering more than a billion people, they are among the most marginalized and underchurched people on the planet. Yet persons with disabilities can be found in every ethno-linguistic people group and geographic region of the world. People with disabilities represent a huge missional opportunity, even in those countries considered highly evangelized. However, strategies to understand and engage people with disabilities in a cross-cultural context remain embarrassingly sparse. Benjamin Connor's book Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology through the Lens of Disability Studies is a welcome attempt to bring disability studies and missions into dialogue. Connor, with a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, is professor of practical theology as well as creator and director of the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
This book highlights a great divide between progressive/mainline church scholars and those who would be considered Evangelical or Reformed. Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness summarizes several decades of scholarship around disability that is largely unexplored and unknown in the Evangelical church. However, Connor does not engage the significant scholarship on missions that has been done in the Evangelical church over the past several decades. What results is much that is helpful for understanding disability among Evangelical pastors, church planters, and missionaries who are serious about reaching all peoples with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ despite Connor's lack of scholarship on missions.
Connor's summary of scholarship around and the current experience of disability is the strongest portion of his book. It is a helpful service for pastors and leaders who have little experience with the realities of living with a disability and who may not even realize how limited their perspective of disability is. That includes using outdated language with regards to disability. For example, Connor's discussion of the difference between impairment and disability notes that not all people with disabilities suffer because of their physical or sensory impairment, but because they are discriminated against in society.
In the context of the church this often takes the form of low expectations, even that a child or adult with a disability can only receive service from the church and not provide service or leadership to the church. For pastors and church leaders who have never considered how much the culture has shaped their view of people with disabilities, Connor provides a needed corrective, especially noting how people with disabilities are not included in missions:
I have found nothing that looks at the contributions from and perspectives of people with disabilities or that considers how their experiences, perspectives, and insights might inform missiology. (26)
Connor recognizes that disability covers a vast span of abilities which cannot be adequately explored in his work, so he concentrates on two groupings of people with disabilities: the Deaf and those with intellectual disabilities. Intellectual disabilities, in particular, are rarely considered in the context of the Bible and the church:
Concretely, in my preparation for this chapter, I did not find the issue of ID (intellectual disability) or disability in general addressed at any depth (and rarely at all!) in any of the works about the image of God or theological anthropology that I surveyed. (107)
This is a glaring oversight for the church given that more than six million people in the United States and as many as 200 million people in the world live with intellectual disabilities. Given Paul's statement to the Corinthians that "the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . . " (1 Corinthians 12:2 ESV), our churches should have special regard for people with intellectual disabilities as vessels of God's grace and power.
Connor's engagement with deafness and Deaf culture is one of his most interesting sections as he outlines that deafness is both a disability as socially understood and also a unique people group with its own culture and language. The history Connor unfolds includes both the heroic and the horrific, and how the best of motivations and intentions by hearing people can be laced with cultural assumptions that are harmful to people with disabilities. This is an important contribution that anyone engaged in Christian ministry should take seriously.
Yet these chapters also exemplify a weakness that pervades the book. Connor's engagement with God's word is limited and often perfunctory. New interpretations are allowed to stand without thoughtful engagement because the experience of disability is allowed to be of equal or higher credibility than historic understandings of Scripture. For example, in a brief discussion about Jesus engaging a Deaf man in Mark 7, Connor presents an interpretation by Fr. Thomas Coughlin, a Deaf Dominican, that Jesus is commissioning the formerly deaf man rather than healing him. Connor then notes a disagreement with that interpretation by two Deaf readers, but does not develop either explanation in relation to the other. Nor does Connor himself engage this novel reading of the Bible. One is left to wonder, if Connor is correct that "Coughlin's experience of deafness and participation in Deaf culture. . . has formed his hermeneutical framework and allowed him to see and hear something that is lost on hearing interpreters" (97), then why were his two Deaf readers' differing interpretations not more seriously engaged? What if all three are wrong?
Connor also misses a prime opportunity to explicitly connect great missional need with better missional practice by neglecting to address existing opportunities to bring the gospel to Deaf peoples. According to the Joshua Project, there are thirty-nine unreached Deaf people groups in the world, including twenty-one Deaf people groups with an "unknown language." Connor does not mention these realities for Deaf peoples, specifically, or that cross-cultural missions in general would benefit greatly if it were engaged both to and by people with disabilities.
Neither does Connor's discussion of intellectual disabilities include significant study of the Bible, preferring to instead emphasize a new way of engaging people through "iconic witness." Connor rightly notes that people with intellectual disabilities "are sometimes theologized out of significance due their limited capacities for abstraction and rationality" (103). He addresses this offensive redefinition of the worth of people with ID through what he calls "appropriation of Orthodox theologies of evangelism and witness" (103–104):
I am convinced that the theology of the icon may inform our understanding of the image of God and rescue it from being dominated by notions of rationality. At the same time, icons can stimulate our attentiveness to mystery and create conceptual spaces where the church can appreciate some of the ways that people with ID participate in bearing the Spirit's witness. (124)
While interesting, we cannot really assess the worth of this proposal for iconic witness because it does not engage God's Word in a serious manner. History has taught us that imagination can take people into deeper levels of sin and depravity as much or more frequently than it has raised our theological understanding. And, as with his unscholarly critiques of capitalism early in the book, here he posits outdated and stereotypical evangelical practices in contrast to this approach. This occasional employment of strawman arguments is unfortunate as it detracts from much that is worthwhile in the book.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the book based on the limitations above. Missions conferences and mission agencies frequently emphasize Revelation 7:9 in their work: a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. People with disabilities are part of those nations, tribes, peoples and languages. Connor notes that the church is hurting itself by not including people with disabilities:
The absence of their concerns and presence in theological schools and congregations diminishes the church's capacity for ministry and the fitness of our witness. No one is impaired to the extent that they can't bear the witness of the Spirit, and no single person should be disabled from participating in the church's witness. (141)
Ultimately, though, without more seriously engaging God's Word, Connor leaves us with strong desires for people with disabilities participating as full members in our churches and in God's work in the world through missions without effective means for achieving it. This is where he would have been helped by expanding his engagement on missions to include evangelical scholars, pastors, and missionaries. For example, Ralph Winter, a Presbyterian American missionary and cofounder of the American Society of Missiology, was instrumental at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in guiding mission agencies toward thinking in terms of ethnolinguistic people groups rather than countries per se. He recognized that billions of people around the world had no access to the gospel message in their language, even in so-called "reached" countries. In line with Winter's legacy of strategic thinking, we ought to encourage the church to seriously consider what would be most effective in missional efforts to Deaf communities, including the equipping and sending of Deaf American Christians to serve Deaf peoples in many cross-cultural contexts.
At the 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, John Piper, co-founder of Desiring God and author of Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, made this plea to the international gathering of missionaries, mission agency leaders, pastors, and denominational leaders:
Could Lausanne say—could the evangelical church say—we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering? I hope we can say that. But if we feel resistant to saying "especially eternal suffering," or if we feel resistant to saying "we care about all suffering in this age," then either we have a defective view of hell or a defective heart. I pray that Lausanne would have neither.
Piper's call is even more expansive than Winter's; all the suffering of every kind that people with disabilities experience—physical, emotional, and social—should be addressed by the church, even as the greatest need of all humans is to be fully reconciled with their God through Christ and on the basis of his finished atoning work on the Cross. There is no reason that those living with disabilities cannot bring this good news of Jesus somehow to anyone in any cultural context.
The church needs examples of what including all peoples in the work of missions can look like. Lord willing, a new book about the impact of disability on missions and evangelism will be released in 2019. Co-edited by David Deuel, PhD, of the Christian Institute on Disability, and Professor Nathan G. John, a public health physician with extensive experience in various African and Asian countries, this book will include chapters that engage the Bible and the experiences of those living with disabilities who are already involved in missions. Hearts and minds must be transformed by God through his Word for the miracle of full engagement and full inclusion to happen in the church. Connor's work is a helpful introduction to current thinking on disability and an overdue challenge to the Evangelical church and its seminaries to take seriously the hundreds of references in the Bible to disability and debilitating disease.