Lent 2024, Day 39: I’m not a prop.

Even though I’ve been going to churches that have annual Maundy Thursday services for well over a decade, I’ve always chosen to skip them. It’s the only part of the Easter Triduum I’ve never witnessed and I doubt that change in the near future.

Why? Is it the heavily emotional remembrance of Christ’s final meal? No. It’s the foot-washing. I mean, I’m not foot-phobic. It’s just I’m reminded of that awkward Super Bowl ad, how most of the people getting their feet washed have been othered by many American Christians over the years- immigrants, POC, Muslims. The “others” seem less like people and more like props.

Which brings me to my problem… the fact that as a disabled person, I’m an all-too excellent prop. To liturgical pastors, I can be seated up front, next to my walker, and be used to demonstrate their humility. To charismatic or Pentecostal prayer warriors, I can be the center of a circle, walker pushed away, complete with hands being laid on and all, potential evidence of their gift of healing. In both scenarios, I- Alisha- am not a full person. Reduced, silenced, flattened- into a prop.

In Amy Kenny’s excellent book My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church, she writes:

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Mark 9:43–47 ESV).

We get it, Jesus. It’s better to be lame, blind, and crippled than go to hell. It feels a little extreme to perform voluntary amputations to avoid sin. We’d have a lot more folks with amputations in our midst if we took this literally. Yet Jesus still claims that disability becomes a way to encounter God or a preventative remedy for sin, suggesting that being nondisabled might enhance temptation. I am not trying to initiate a #CutItOff movement, but I wish the church could interpret my disabled body in this way: as a mark of holy living, an antidote to sin, and a way to reveal God to the surrounding community.

Churchgoers have been too hasty to dismiss passages of Scripture where disability is celebrated as a blessing or a prophetic witness, because it doesn’t fit their neat cultural narrative of disability making people uncomfortable. Imagine if prayerful perpetrators #CutItOff instead of trying to pray me away.

This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about disability as a teacher and a way to reveal God to nondisabled people. When Jesus encountered a man born blind in Jerusalem, “his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9:2–3).

Just like the prayerful perpetrators who approach my wheelchair with head tilts and side-glances, the disciples interpret this man solely as his disability. They are so caught up in prescribing the cause of his disability that we don’t even learn his name. Do they even know it, I wonder? He’s known as the man formerly known as blind, which sounds like a dad joke about Prince. I hate that he is not given a name, as though he is unknown and forgotten, not important enough to name. I know what it’s like to be reduced to a diagnosis, and I want this man to be given more humanity and dignity than that. So let’s call him Zechariah, which means “God remembers.”

… [Y]ou should know that a 2018 poll found that 67 percent of people feel “uncomfortable” talking to a disabled person. Disabled people make up about 25 percent of the US population, and 15 percent of the global population, yet we still make the majority of our neighbors uncomfortable, simply by existing. Anybody who doesn’t fit in a tidy box of cured or “normal” makes other people feel out of place.

…Jesus inverts their idea of blindness by showing the disciples that disability becomes a place of encounter with the glory of God. Jesus interacts with Zach directly, talking not just about him, but to him and with him. According to Jesus, Zach’s blindness didn’t result from his or his parents’ sin, but instead his blindness displays God. What a powerful, subversive statement: disability helps reveal the Light of the World to people who think of themselves as holier than disabled people. Disability is no longer a symbol of sin but one of being open to revelation. Disability unveils God’s work to the community, if only people are willing to receive it.

Buy the book here.

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