Friday, July 04, 2014

Book Review: Disability in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Disability in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam collects eleven articles organized around two central questions:  First, how does disability fit into the meta-narrative of God among the peoples of the book, and second, how do sacred scriptures challenge discriminatory practices and encourage inclusion.  Editors Darla Schumm (associate professor, Hollins University) and Michael Stoltzfus (professor Valdosta State University) organize the articles into two thematic sections.  The first focuses on textual interpretations of sacred writings and the final section examines social and philosophical concerns which arise from hermeneutic tradition.  

This volume is a groundbreaking attempt at integrating disability studies with a world religions approach; the editors lament, however, various Christian perspectives remain dominant as little research has yet been on implications of disability in most world religions.  As these eleven chapters are quite diverse, the following analysis and review will only focus on several themes and chapters.

The first several chapters begin with Judaism’s reinterpretation of Levitical laws after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E.  Several rabbinical authorities removed the problem of blemish from the person with a disability and relocated it to the social community’s disabling gaze.  Rabbi’s were able to participate in ritual blessing, even with an impairing blemish, if they were familiar to the congregation.  Furthermore, Jewish tradition stood opposed to the cultural attitudes on disability and deafness. Despite antiquity’s practice of infanticide as response to disability, rabbinical tradition understood persons with disabilities as blessings from God.  While the dominant culture linked deafness to lack of intelligence, the Mishnah provided for alternative forms of communication for those with hearing loss and speech impediments.

Islamic tradition is the subject of two chapters (3, 7).  The first actually examines two passages from the Qur’an– both of which focus on Jesus as the only one with eschatological healing power over death, blindness, and leprosy. A further review of oral traditions (hadith) reveals Muhammed’s extremely varied interactions with people with skin diseases (leprosy), ranging from extreme exclusion to cautious meeting.  The second chapter looks at modern accommodations for ritual prayer (namez) in Turkish Muslim communities among those with later onset chronic disabilities, where the demarcation between ability and disability blurs, based on the person’s autonomous contribution to the socioeconomic community.

The primary editor’s co-authored article “Out of the Darkness” (chapter 5) on the use of metaphorical blindness in John asserts sweeping claims.  While metaphoric language does matter, each metaphor also has liminality.  The authors assert John’s use of the metaphor was not only ableist language which linked evil and disability but also proof of John’s anti-Semitism by asserting his language intrinsically viewed the Jews as intellectually disabled embodiments of cosmic evil.  One warrant for this interpretation is the occasion that John, when identifying groups of persons, only identifies the protagonist authorities as Jewish.  In the binary, the Jewish persons are marked, while the other people present are not (even though they were presumably Jewish as well).  This negates an alternative interpretation that sets the binary between the marked Jewish religious authorities and the unpresent, unmarked Roman civil authorities. While several warrants are also given to these claims, the warrants are only valid if a hermeneutic is assumed which isolates text outside the meta-narrative of the canon and denies the inherent Jewishness of the early Christian church.  While I disagree with her claims on John’s gospel, unfortunately, the way in which later generations of Christians interpret scripture incorrectly can lead to designations of people groups as sub-humans.

In “Religious Metaphors as a Justification for Eugenic Control: A Historical Analysis” (chapter 8), the authors explore the usage of Christian metaphors during the “eugenic alarm era”  (1900-1930). Writing from Kansas, his focus was on the development of eugenics in Kansas, even though the movement was also prevalent in most of the country.  Under the guise of religious charity, persons with intellectual disability were deemed sub-human and culled from the population.  Christian symbolism was used in eugenics propaganda. As part of ushering in God’s kingdom, ministers preached sermons advocating compassionate euthanasia.  The Kansas state fair hosted Fitter Family contests, looking for "godly"=“goodly” families (those without any obvious impairments or disabilities), while Kansas physician Landman performed hundreds of sterilizations on those deemed unfit.  The author reminds modern readers that the infrastructure of Hitler’s Nazi-Germany programs were given credence in our backyard through the misuse of religious metaphors.

Finally, in a practically oriented chapter on best practices (chapter 10) the authors review the history of missions as it relates to disability in the deaf culture.  Recognizing response must move from compassion to liberation, the authors suggest some modification to the disability limited three-self (self-governed, self-supported, self-propagating) missiological model.  They propose four areas central for establishing a permanent disability inclusion ministry: consultation, capacity-building, community mainstreaming, and commitment.  All four of these are useful for startup disability ministries in the local church context as well.

Other chapters explore church fathers, multiple theodicies, and possible future scenarios in disability theology, the philosophy of religion, and social praxis.

Overall, this volume succeeds in weaving together nearly a dozen perspectives across centuries, continents, and religions.  Agree or disagree, each chapter is challenging, provocative, and insightful. This volume is useful for those researching disability studies, but virtually useless for most local pastors.  For that reason, it will be relegated to the librarian’s stacks.  The exception and shining gem, however, is “Best Practices for Faith Based Organizations: Working with Deaf Communities in Developing Communities.” This article is a must read for all disability ministry organizations, local church planters, and missiologists.