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Redefining Weakness: The Role of Pity as a Christian Response to the Disabled Community

From Hercules to Superman, figures exemplifying superhuman power have abounded unceasingly in popular culture. They capture the imagination like few other characters can, inspiring near-reverence and a constant stream of Marvel films. In these superheroes, many find a representation of the ideal person: one who overcomes struggles to stand up for what is good, vanquishing evil forces. Interestingly, those ideals are nearly always manifested through the physical strength of that hero.

The inclination to link worth to strength is, upon closer examination, an insidious one. While there may be no issue in the comic book realm with the physically stronger hero dominating the ultimately less-physically-capable villain, it is perhaps more problematic in the real world for physical strength to be the be-all, end-all determiner of status. How do those who do not conform to typical standards of strength exist in such a world – and how do those who do conform more closely to these ideals of strength approach those who do not?

These questions become particularly relevant in regard to one particular community: the disabled. While it can likely be assumed that those who wish to actively demean the disabled are in the minority of contemporary culture, there appears to be a disconnect for the rest of society between extending theoretical empathy for the disabled and actually applying that empathy constructively. Regardless of their religious views, people often respond to this community with pity in hopes of combatting prejudicial views of the disabled. But is pity enough, particularly for the Christian? Whether or not Christians should make pity their primary response to the disabled depends upon the meaning of “pity.” In its traditional context, pity is a response characterized by feelings of sorrow for another’s misfortunes or griefs. The question then becomes: is there a theological basis for viewing disabilities as afflictions that are innately a reason for mourning, or is a reworked understanding of disability necessary for the Christian? In exploring this question, I will examine the assumptions made in using the term “pity” in relation to disability and the consequences of such usage. Then, I will discuss the nuanced meanings of strength and weakness within a Christian framework. Finally, I will posit that a fuller understanding of weakness allows able-bodied persons to approach disabled persons by focusing on creating an inclusive community.

Although Christians who approach the disabled primarily with pity may be well-intentioned, the fundamental assumption behind this approach is that the disabled are weak and in need of pity. In a contemporary western society that defines heroes by their strength, particularly that which is physical, weakness becomes an unacceptable trait that at best is saddening and at worst is something to be eliminated. R.M. Hare asks whether it is good at all for an “abnormal” child even to be born; wouldn’t it be better if a healthier child with a higher capacity and chance for happiness could be born in its place?[1] Such questions are perfectly legitimate when one presumes that disability, its own particular brand of weakness, increases the probability of an unhappy life. Matt Edmonds critiques this assumption by citing Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer’s argument that the quality of one’s life determines its worth: “The inculcation of the broken language of disability is here not only an error but is also actively negative. Kuhse and Singer’s negative assumption about the quality of life of people with [a disability] actually serves to diminish it.”[2] The lack of potential value ascribed to anyone not fully able-bodied derives from accepting as fact that weakness, and thus disability, is inherently unfavorable. Prominent disabled theologian Nancy Eiesland argues that this premise stems from the fact that the disabled “have been named by medical and scientific professionals or by people who denied our full personhood.”[3] Disability is an idea constructed by the able-bodied. This allows for the typifying of disability as weakness in contrast to the perceived superiority of the physical, mental, and emotional strength of the able-bodied. Pitying the disabled stems from the view that the disabled are weak; it assumes that there is something about being disabled, and thus weak, that is worth being sorry about. Such an assumption runs the risk of ascribing less worth to the disabled precisely because of their physical weakness.

However, a negative view of weakness is not one endorsed by Christianity, which holds weakness up as akin to holiness. In his sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9, Dietrich Bonhoeffer considers how Christians view weakness, noting that “our whole attitude toward life, toward man and God depends on the answer to this problem.”[4] Bonhoeffer contradicts the typical assumptions regarding strength and weakness, stating that “the Christian relation between the strong and the weak is that the strong has to look up to the weak and never to look down. Weakness is holy.”[5] While a secular perspective might associate strength with increased merit and weakness with decreased worth, Christianity reverses this ordering and holds up weakness as greater than strength, to the extent that Bonhoeffer associates it with holiness.

But how can weakness itself be considered holiness? For Bonhoeffer, those who suffer and are weak are holy because “God has suffered on the cross. It is therefore that all human suffering and weakness is sharing God’s own suffering and weakness in the world.”[6] While some might object to equating suffering and weakness, Bonhoeffer tends to use these terms interchangeably, identifying both weakness and suffering with holiness. These states allow one to draw closer to God in a way that those who fend off weakness cannot; experiences of weakness allow people to share in some of what God has undergone on behalf of humanity, even if in a more limited form. Jean Vanier points out that Christ identifies himself with the poor: “Jesus tells us that he is hidden in the face of the poor, that he is in fact the poor. And so with the power of the Spirit, the smallest gesture of love towards the least significant person is a gesture of love towards him.”[7] Within a Christian context, weakness is holy because Christ made himself weak. The lessening of self through weakness allows for the glory of God to be present. As Bonhoeffer explains, “Wherever a man in physical or social or moral or religious weakness is aware of his existence and likeness with God, there he is sharing God’s life, there he feels God being with him, there he is open for God’s strength.”[8] Not only is weakness associated with holiness, weakness is actually thought of as strength precisely because it allows for the decreasing of human “strength” and the increasing of God’s strength, brought to glorification through human weakness. In the new ordering that Christianity offers, weakness is true strength because it allows for God’s strength to be more clearly revealed.

Pitying the disabled does not fall in line with the theological picture of weakness as the strength of God; moreover, it can lead to detrimental stereotypes of disabled persons. Bonhoeffer argues that the desire of an able-bodied ‘strong’ person to benevolently aid those considered weak is an attitude that “means condescension instead of humility.” [9] Rather than looking up to those who are weak, those considered traditionally strong may assume that the disabled are inherently in need of the aid of those ‘stronger’ them. Such a view characterizes the disabled as fundamentally inferior. Jonathan Glover quotes disabled author Clare Sainsbury as she posits that disabled persons “‘are viewed only in terms of what will make us more acceptable to [able-bodied persons]… Most of us have spent years being taught that who we are is fundamentally wrong and in need of cure.’”[10] By construing disability as inherently negative, society portrays the disabled as needing to be normalized to fit in with the able-bodied – the normative. While this viewpoint extends perhaps well-intentioned pity to the disabled, the pity in its execution is condescending and ultimately demeaning. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that people can – and will – use this attitude to justify the elimination of those with various disabilities. Stanley Hauerwas notes that, in order to believe that the handicapped are suffering so much that it would be better for them not to exist, one must assume that the handicapped are indeed suffering.[11] It is undeniable that some disabled persons suffer. Yet, because able-bodied society defines what it means to be disabled, it is questionable to always equate disability with suffering, as this is not necessarily the perspective of the disabled community itself. Pitying a disabled person on the basis of their disability alone is not only patronizing regardless of intention, but it also allows for the justification of attitudes that focus on attempting to either “normalize” the disabled or eliminate them entirely, out of pity for their supposed inferior quality of life.

Instead of pitying the disabled, Christians should view the disabled as entirely equal to the able-bodied in status and worth; however, while it is important to recognize that all lives are equally valuable in the sight of God, equality in and of itself is not enough to serve as a guide in approaching the disabled from a Christian perspective. Nancy Eiesland supports increased accessibility and equal opportunity for disabled persons, but also states that her position is focused on those with strictly physical disabilities.[12] Although her focus on liberating physically disabled persons from social constructs of disability allows for an understanding of God as one who shares in the weakness of humanity through His suffering and death, she speaks mainly to the physically disabled. Matt Edmonds analyzes her proposals, stating that “Eiesland neglects the fact that there is a real difference in the individual needs of different people and that not all of these needs can be explained away as the unnecessary obstructions that society places on independence.”[13] Although it seems only fair to view the disabled as entirely equal to able-bodied persons, this becomes much more difficult to put into practice when a disabled person has needs that simply do not apply to someone without that disability. Another problem with focusing mainly on equality is that it can lead to the previously discussed consequence of prioritizing normalization. Thomas Reynolds observes that “differences can become pressed to conform to standardized conventions and then assimilated.”[14] Such an approach only enforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with a disabled person that must be brought into line with the rest of society. Reynolds continues, stating, “In the name of equality a social power can be bandied that pressures minorities to accept the dominant culture’s definition of who they are.”[15] Those who speak to the value of equality speak of an approach that has merit. However, to prioritize equality above all else in a Christian response to disability is to open the door to potentially dangerous repercussions and perhaps do more harm than good to those whose needs cannot be met through equal status alone.

Rather than pitying the disabled or disregarding their real needs, incorporating the disabled into a theologically-based inclusive community upholds both a Christian understanding of weakness and the inherent worth of the disabled individual. Hauerwas points out that a major issue facing the disabled is exclusion from Christian community; even if there is a Scriptural mandate for supporting the weak, it is easier for many to respond to such a command with lip-service instead of tangible service.[16] While there are certainly many Christian individuals and organizations providing support to the disabled, that support often comes in the form of help provided from a place of strength which looks down on the disabled (even if unintentionally), instead of coming alongside and serving them. Edmonds advocates for a type of engagement with the disabled that focuses on being together in community: “We enact grace by being with another, before doing for another, for each act of undemanding fellowship in which the difference of the individual is not obstructed creates a context in which the presence of God’s grace is given the space to transform a situation.”[17] Being present is in and of itself a type of equality, for it acknowledges the humanity and worth of the other without feeling the need to simply do something for another out of a sense of guilt or pity. Furthermore, such a being-together requires commitment to the other person in exactly the place they are in, something that is often replaced by a well-intentioned but problematic desire to pray for the healing of the disabled. While the argument is often made that Jesus healed many, viewing healing as the ultimate solution for the disabled person is to strongly imply that they are valuable not because of their weakness, but in spite of it. Amos Yong provides a different perspective on this popular argument, stating, “From a disability perspective, it is crucial to underscore that these healings are representative of a more fundamental reality: the saving work of God in Christ.”[18] Salvation through Christ is not dependent upon, nor a guarantee of, the erasure of a particular disability. To imply that it is would be to underscore that the disabled are not truly welcome in the Christian community because they are still inferior to the able-bodied. An inclusive Christian community must instead focus on viewing the disabled as not simply equal in status, but as even greater than those considered strong by the world because the disabled through their physical weakness reveal the strength of God.

Recognizing the weakness of another as the strength of God while viewing one’s own human strength as real weakness is a humbling process, one that forces supposedly strong individuals to confront their own weaknesses. Vanier acknowledges the difficulty of implementing such a mindset: “You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time you deny the poor person living inside you…You are called to welcome all this, not to deny its existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there.”[19] An able-bodied person who is not considered weak by the standards of the world can still be weak in the sight of God. Such weakness is not to be rejected, but accepted, for it is in such weakness that God’s grace and strength is found. Being with the disabled person is an opportunity to see one’s own weakness for what it truly is: a chance for the strength of God to be revealed. Doing so requires a rejection of what Hauerwas characterizes as the false reality of dominant autonomy, and it requires an acceptance of the fact that dependency upon others is a critical element of being a human and being a Christian.[20] Such an acceptance is dependent upon Bonhoeffer’s observation that “Christianity means a devaluation of all human values and the establishment of a new order of values in the sight of Christ.”[21] Despite the difficulty, understanding the theological reality that human strength is weakness and human weakness is strength is necessary in order to respond to the disabled not with pity, but with love.

The heroes of contemporary society may have their status epitomized by their strength, but such an association is damaging when applied to real, living human beings. While it may seem compassionate to pity the disabled, there is no theological basis justifying pity as the appropriate, predominant response to this community. Pity characterizes the disabled as weak, the able-bodied as strong, and weakness as something that should ultimately be looked down upon. However, Christianity views weakness as a state that is better equipped to lead a person to holiness, for weakness allows the strength of God to be revealed. Consequently, Christians are not to primarily pity the disabled, but to draw the disabled into the inclusive community of the church through the humble, honoring service of the able-bodied, which recognizes the reordering of strength as weakness and weakness as strength in the sight of God.

 

Notes:
[1] R.M. Hare, “The Abnormal Child: Moral Dilemmas of Doctors and Parents,” in Bioethics: An Anthology, ed. Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 331.
[2] Matthew Edmonds, A Theological Diagnosis: A New Direction of Genetic Therapy, ‘Disability’ 
and the Ethics of Healing (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011), 99.
[3] Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Towards a Liberation Theology of Disability (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1994), 25.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London 1933-1935, trans. Isabel Best, ed. Keith Clements.
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 401.
[5] Ibid., 403.
[6] Ibid., 403.
[7] Jean Vanier and H.S. Reiners, “Jean Vanier’s Theological Realism,” in Disability in the
Christian Tradition, ed. Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2012), 486.
[8] Bonhoeffer, London 1933-1935, 404.
[9] Ibid., 403.
[10] Jonathan Glover, Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2006), 14.
[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Suffering Presence (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 171.
[12] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 27-28.
[13] Edmonds, A Theological Diagnosis, 14.
[14] Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Ada:
Brazos Press, 2008), 81.
[15] Ibid., 81.
[16] Hauerwas, Suffering Presence, 181.
[17] Edmonds, A Theological Diagnosis, 39.
[18] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 66.
[19] Jean Vanier and H.S. Reiners, “Jean Vanier’s Theological Realism,” 505.
[20] Stanley Hauerwas and John Swinton, “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas
on Disability,” in Disability in the Christian Tradition, ed. Brian Brock and John
Swinton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 518.
[21] Bonhoeffer, London 1933-1935, 403.
References:
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. London 1933-1935. Translated by Isabel Best. Edited by Keith Clements.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Edmonds, Matthew. A Theological Diagnosis: A New Direction of Genetic Therapy, ‘Disability’ 
and the Ethics of Healing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011.
Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God: Towards a Liberation Theology of Disability. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1994.
Glover, Jonathan. Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2006.
Hare, R.M. “The Abnormal Child: Moral Dilemmas of Doctors and Parents.” In Bioethics: An                
Anthology, Edited by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing, 2006.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Suffering Presence. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.
Hauerwas, Stanley, and John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas
on Disability.” In Disability in the Christian Tradition, Edited by Brian Brock and John
Swinton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company,2012.
Reynolds, Thomas. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Ada:
Brazos Press, 2008.
Vanier, Jean, and H.S. Reinders. “Jean Vanier’s Theological Realism.” In Disability in the
Christian Tradition, Edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2012.
Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.