Theological Implications of
THe Disabled God

by Nancy Eiesland

The symbol of Jesus Christ, the disabled God, has transformative power. It is the experience of Christ from below as a corporeal experience. The power of the disabled God is the seemingly inherent contradiction this God embodies. This revelation of God disorders the social-symbolic order, and God appears in the most unexpected bodies. The disabled God does not engage in a battle for dominance or create a new normative power, God is in the present social-symbolic order at the margins with people with disabilities and instigates transformation from this de-centered position. 

The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin. Injustice against persons with disabilities is surely sin; our bodies, however, are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them. The conflation of sin and disability causes problems for the interpretation of the resurrected Jesus Christ. What is the significance of the resurrected Christ's display of impaired hands and feet and side? Are they the disfiguring vestiges of sin? Are they to be subsumed under the image of Christ, death conqueror? Or should the disability of Christ be understood as the truth of incarnation and the promise of resurrection? The latter interpretation fosters a reconception of wholeness. It suggests a human-God who not only knows injustice and experiences the contingency of human life, but also reconceives perfection as unself-pitying, painstaking survival. 

The resurrected Jesus Christ in presenting impaired hands and feet and side to be touched by frightened friends alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability and calls for followers to recognize their connection and equality at the point of Christ's physical impairment. Christ's disfigured side bears witness to the existence of "hidden" disabilities, as well. 

Historically, interpretations of the "pierced" side of Jesus have emphasized the tragedy of innocent suffering. But understanding the internal damage wrought by hacking swords as part of God's eternal existence necessitates a deromanticization of interpretations of Christ's impaired body and a recognition of the population of people who identify with Christ's experience of disabilities, hidden and displayed, as part of our hidden history. For many people whose hidden disabilities keep them from participating fully in the church or from feeling full-bodied acceptance by Christ, accepting the disabled God may enable reconciliation with their own bodies and Christ's body the church. Hence, disability not only does not contradict the human-divine integrity, it becomes a new model of wholeness and a symbol of solidarity.... 

Jesus Christ, the disabled God, is not a suffering servant or a conquering lord. Rather this contextualization of Jesus enables that "the Christ understood as the stranger, the outcast, the hungry, the weak, the poor, [and I would add person with disabilities] makes the traditional male Christ (Black and White) less significant." The significance of the disabled God is not primarily maleness, but rather physicality. Jesus Christ the disabled God, is consonant with the image of Jesus Christ the stigmatized Jew, person of color, and representative of the poor and hungry— those who have struggled to maintain the integrity and dignity of their bodies in the face of the physical mutilation of injustice and rituals of bodily degradation. 

Jesus Christ the disabled God, is not a romanticized notion of "overcomer" God. Instead here is God as survivor. Here language fails because the term "survivor" in our society is contaminated with notions of victimization, radical individualism, and alienation, as well as with an ethos of virtuous suffering. In contradistinction to that cultural icon, the image of survivor here evoked is that of a simple, unself-pitying, honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic. The disabled God embodies the ability to see clearly the complexity and the "mixed blessing" of life and bodies, without living in despair. This revelation is of a God for us who celebrates joy and experiences pain not separately in time or space, but simultaneously. 

The disabled God is God for whom interdependence is not a possibility to be willed from a position of power, but a necessary condition for life. This interdependence is the fact of both justice and survival. The disabled God embodies practical interdependence, not simply willing to be interrelated from a position of power, but depending on it from a position of need. For many people with disabilities, too, mutual care is a matter of survival. To posit a Jesus Christ who needs care and mutuality as essential to human-divine survival does not symbolize either humanity or divinity as powerless. Instead it debunks the myth of individualism and hierarchical orders, in which transcendence means breaking free of encumbrances and needing nobody and constitutes the divine as somebody in relation to other bodies. 

This disabled God makes possible a renewal of hope for people with disabilities and others who care. This symbol points not to a Utopian vision of hope as the erasure of all human contingency, historically or eternally, for that would be to erase our bodies, our lives. Rather it is a liberatory realism that maintains a clear recognition of the limits of our bodies and an acceptance of limits as the truth of being human. This liberatory realism also calls for a realization of the necessity of a social and interpersonal transformation that does not surrender to cynicism and defeatism any more than the limits of our bodies suggest that we should do nothing. It locates our hope injustice as access and mutuality, a justice that removes the barriers which constrain our bodies, keep us excluded, and intend to humiliate us. It also situates our hope in the reality of our existence as ones with dignity and integrity. Hope is the recollection and projection that even our nonconventional bodies, which oftentimes dissatisfy and fail us, are worth the living. It is knowing that the so-called curses sometimes feel like blessings. 

The image of the disabled God proceeds from Jesus Christ's embodied commitment to justice as rightly ordered interpersonal and structural relations. This is the God who indicts not only deliberate injustice, but unintended rituals of degradation that deny the full personhood of marginalized people. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the disabled God, disorders the social-symbolic orders of what it means to be incarnate—in flesh—and confirms that "normal" bodies, like impaired bodies, are subject to contingency. And it is a contingency born not of tragedy or sin but of ordinary women and embodied unexceptionably. This representation of God does not gloss over the suffering enacted against bodies as the consequence of injustice; rather it posits that our bodies cannot be subsumed into injustice or sin.... 

For people with disabilities who have grasped divine healing as the only liberators image the traditional church has offered, relinquishing belief in an all-powerful God who could heal, if He would, is painful. Yet who is this god whose attention we cannot get, whose inability to respond to our pain causes still more pain? This god is surely not Emmanuel—God for us...The challenge for the Christian is to engage one or more "names" of God and to follow these images into the worlds they open. 


For me and, I hope, other people with disabilities, as well as for some able-bodied people, the presence of the disabled God makes it possible to bear a nonconventional body. This God enables both a struggle for justice among people with disabilities and an end to estrangement from our own bodies.


The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability

by Nancy Eiesland, 1994.

p. 101-105

Nancy Eiesland

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