In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Stephanie Tait about the application of disability theology as they explore the following questions:
- What is disability theology?
- How does the cultural lens of ableism impact the way we read the healing stories of Jesus?
- What is inadvertent ableism?
- How is ableism expressed in churches?
- Why do churches and parachurch organizations have ADA exemptions?
- What can the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection teach us about the assumption that everyone with a disability must want to be healed?
- Why is disability theology for everyone?
- How can decisions about inclusion made by churches or individuals scale up for greater good or greater harm?
- What are the negative impacts of decentering disability theology?
- How can we learn to practice true solidarity?
- Why should we diversify the voices that we are listening to and taking in?
- How can our view on disability theology have a ripple effect on our own theology?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Stephanie Tait you can share.
- “I’m disabled. Everything that I do is filtered through that lens and that includes theology, my relationship with God, the way I read scripture – all of that is going to have that core piece of me brought to the table. Like, I can’t really separate the two.” @StephTaitWrites
- “When ‘this too does not pass’, you’re sort of left with your empty hands going, ‘so, is all of it crap?’ Is there a way to take pieces of this faith and hold onto it still?” @StephTaitWrites
- “We all read our own cultural experiences and biases and experiences into the text when we read it. If you don’t think you’re applying a lens, if you think you’re the true neutral, you’re definitely not.” @StephTaitWrites
- “Rampant ableism is contradictory to what I know of God and his character.” @StephTaitWrites
- “It was such a turning point for me to know that I serve a wounded Savior. There’s nothing broken or incomplete or anything less than the fullness of the image of God in an unhealed body like mine because he came back with an unhealed body.” @StephTaitWrites
- “If disability theology really was for everyone, if abled people really invested in listening to disabled voices, in being taught by disabled theologians – the changes that could be made would be structural and systemic.” @StephTaitWrites
Mentioned in This Episode
- Podcast: The Bible for Normal People
- Book: The View from Rock Bottom
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Our topic today is “Disability Theology is for Everyone,” and our guest is Stephanie Tait.
Jared: She is an author, a speaker, and an advocate for disability theology, and I think it’s a really important episode for everyone to listen to.
Pete: Yeah, and we say this a lot – we learn things from our guests. We learned things from this guest. So, just, we’ll just, let’s just go. Let’s get into this.
Jared: Absolutely.[Music begins]
Stephanie: To be brutally honest, this is an area where the church has really dropped the ball. A lot of what’s happening is not just insufficient, it’s outright harmful. A lot of the healing stories get taught as there’s something broken about this person and Jesus came in and fixed it. That is not a healthy or appropriate way to teach that story whether you know you have disabled people in your pews or not, you do.[Music ends]
Jared: Well, welcome Stephanie, to the podcast. It’s really great to have you.
Stephanie: Thanks for having me on!
Jared: You know, one of the things, well, the thing we really want to dive into is this idea of disability theology. You know, here on the podcast we’ve said before, all theology has an adjective. There’s a context for it. So, before we get to the meat of that, I think it would be helpful for you just to explain a little bit of your story. Why is this interesting to you? Why does it matter to you, you know, this context and history of disability and suffering in the midst of relationship with God?
Stephanie: So, for a lot of my life I was a relatively healthy little girl. Until I got to about 16 years old, in the middle of high school, I started having really strange, and at the time, completely unexplained health issues and they were very all over the map. One minute it was breathing related, the next it was like, joints, the fatigue became crushing. I started to have memory issues and processing issues. Like, none of these things seemed related at all and my parents, you know, were behind me in being very frustrated and wanting better for me and so they’d take me to doctor after doctor and say, “What is going on with her?” And pretty much every time we’d get something along the lines of, “well, she’s a 16-year-old girl. Of course, she doesn’t want to wake up and go to class,” or, “she’s 16, she’s probably just depressed.” Or in the worst cases, we’d get things like, “Well, she’s very dramatic. She does a lot of theatre and she’s very outgoing. You know, maybe she’s sort of exaggerating or playing it up for attention.” And so, we just didn’t get any useful answers. And this went on for years. And as it went on, symptoms kept popping up every few years to add to the list. In college, I started having seizures and at this point, it was like, doctors were throwing darts at a board, right? Like, okay, I guess you have epilepsy too. We’ll just tack that on the list.
Stephanie: As my joints started to actually break down and it looked degenerative, they were like, okay, you have rheumatoid arthritis. Just add it to the list! When I got older, and my husband and I got married, I started having repeated miscarriages again and again. And once again, darts on a board. It was like, okay, well, these things happen so that’s gotta be unrelated. We’ll just add it to the list. And this went on for over 15 years –
Stephanie: Until I finally heard a similar story of similar health issues from somebody I knew through the grapevine whose issue had actually been Lyme Disease. And this is something I had never been tested for, so I figured what the heck, worth a try –
Stephanie: Fought tooth and nail to get the testing and sure enough, for 15 years, this bacteria had been allowed to run rampant through my system, destroying organs, causing all kinds of problems. And the thing is, if you let it go unchecked for that long, some of that damage is not reversible. You can kill that bacteria and get it out of your system, but I had permanent heart damage, I had permanent neurological damage, these things just don’t reverse. So, it was sort of that catch-22 where you think, if I can just get a diagnosis, that, you know, that’ll be the key! And then you get a diagnosis like that and you find out it’s not really the end all, be all. You’re gonna carry some of these symptoms for the rest of your life. And even then, I was still referring to myself with terms like chronically ill.
Disabled? It felt out of reach to me still. I spent a lot of time going, no, you know, I don’t use a wheelchair, or I have good days and I still do a lot of things. I’m not disabled. Took me a really long time to sort through how much of that was my own internalized ableism, how much of that was just a real misunderstanding of what disability means and what it is and isn’t, but it wasn’t really until adulthood that I recognized I’m disabled. I will always be disabled. That’s a part of my identity, it’s a part of who I am. And so, I can’t turn that off as I walk through the world. That’s, you know, it’s a permanent piece of me. And so, everything that I do is filtered through that lens and that includes theology. That includes my relationship with God, that includes the way I read scripture, all of that is going to have that core piece of me brought to the table. Like, I can’t really separate the two.
Jared: Well, with that, maybe, can you share through the lens of maybe the church and your relationship with God through 15 years of unanswered questions and medical hardships and those kinds of things – what was happening to your theology and view of God in that time?
Stephanie: Whew! That’s a loaded question. To be brutally honest, this is an area where the church has really dropped the ball and where a lot of what’s happening is not just insufficient, it’s outright harmful. So, I came up in a conservative section of the Baptist church. I was from the Conservative Baptists Association. We split off from the SBC because they weren’t conservative enough for us!
Pete: Gotcha, gotcha.
Stephanie: So, I didn’t come up in a church that would’ve ever used the words “prosperity gospel.” And in fact, if somebody had, I think we would’ve said, “oh, heck no, we don’t believe in that nonsense.” But if you really look at the core of the theology, it was all over the place. It was definitely this underlying belief that if you do what you’re supposed to do and if you follow God’s will, whatever that means, you may not, you know, it’s not God’s gonna make you rich or give you a private plane or something, but there was definitely a baseline minimum, right? You weren’t going to be homeless and living under a bridge somewhere. And so, initially I spent a lot of the process sort of swinging between two extremes. Either A, if I just have enough faith, look, God’s gonna show up and do something amazing. So I just have to be, you know, 24/7, positive, encouraging K-love all the time, like just tell everybody I know he’s going to do something amazing, just watch! And if I could keep that up for long enough, he’d have to deliver. He’d have to come through. And when that didn’t work out, I’d often swing to the other extreme, which was am I doing something wrong?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: Is there some secret sin in my life that I’m being punished for? Is there some lesson he’s trying to teach me that if I could just learn it, then this would finally end? We could move onto the next thing. And ultimately, when you swing on that kind of a pendulum for 15 years, neither of those answers was really fulfilling and neither of those answers really holds out long term. When it keeps going and going and going, when “this too does not pass” –
Stephanie: You’re sort of left with your empty hands going, so, is all of it crap?
Stephanie: Or did I misunderstand somewhere? Is there a way to take pieces of this faith and hold onto it still or does this mean that all of it is nonsense and I have to go back to the drawing board?
Pete: So, was that process, I mean, not to overuse the term, but was it spiritually traumatic for 15 years to be sort of on the swings one way or the other and neither end of the spectrum really worked and, you know, because people sometimes don’t recover from that, that’s my experience. When you have such a negative view of God, really, and of yourself, like, this transactional thing –
Pete: You know, people walk away from faith pretty quickly after a period like that. I guess you had your own crisis, then.
Stephanie: I mean, you’re not wrong. It felt like I was consistently left with two choices, right? Either God’s a real jerk or I’m just a horrible person to deserve this much extra punishment in my life. Right? And neither of those were things that we’re psychologically built to carry long term. They’re both really unhealthy, and you’re right, they’re both spiritually traumatizing.
If I’m honest, there are times that I don’t fully understand how I’m still here, how I still am a Christian, how I still consider myself pretty in love with Jesus, like, that’s, I don’t know. And what I don’t ever want to come off sounding like is – I feel like I’ve seen this book 80 times – you know, Suzie blogger tells you every bad thing that ever happened to her in her life, but Jesus!! So, it was all okay, so what’s your problem? Because her stuff is definitely worse than yours, so buck up.
Stephanie: Like, that is not what this was. I definitely had some extremely rocky and extremely raw come to Jesus moments that involved many swear words and lots of things that I was raised to believe you should probably not say to God. This was not a sunshine and just hold onto Jesus and it’s all gonna be okay process.
Stephanie: If I’m honest, and this is gonna sound a little hokey, I think there were times where I completely let go and so something else must’ve been holding onto me.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: Because if it had just been up to me to keep choosing to stay, I would’ve been out of here a long time ago.
Pete: I don’t think that’s hokey at all. I think that’s how it works.
Jared: So, then connecting these dots, how did that experience shape what you would identify as disability theology? Like, in a lot of ways it seems like you needed to craft your own understanding of God in a new light given your new experiences and so how did your experiences shape what became, for you, disability theology?
Stephanie: So, I think you guys come from a similar place, it sounds like, of believing that we all read our own cultural experiences and biases and experiences into the text when we read it, like, there’s no way around that. If you don’t think you’re applying a lens, if you think you’re the true neutral, you’re definitely not.
Pete: Well, that’s your lens.
Stephanie: So, in a way, like, I don’t think there was ever a clear moment where I went, “I’m gonna set out to figure out what disability theology looks like!” It was sort of a recognition that I had, for a very long time, been reading the text as a disabled person whether I knew that yet or not. And the more I came to accept that that’s who I was in my identity, the more I was able to articulate more clearly and identify more clearly the ways that I approach certain stories differently or the ways that certain stories had been taught or applied that were extremely harmful to me. So, I don’t think there was like, a day that I set out that I was like, “what does disability theology look like?” I think it’s been a process of recognition that this was something I was already doing, I just hadn’t really given it a name or identified that I was doing it. Does that make sense?
Jared: Absolutely. Maybe you can share a few of those experiences of, you know, as you became aware of how you had been reading the Bible through your experiences or your theology, your views of God had been filtered through these experiences. What, you know, when you say this is what I was doing, what was it you were doing?
Stephanie: That’s a really great question. There are some glaring examples to me, like, the healing stories of Jesus, right? There are so many stories of Jesus coming across somebody who has some sort of ailment or illness or what we would call disability and healing them and taking that ailment away. And somewhere along the process of me finally identifying as disabled and getting uncomfortable with that identity and not being afraid of that word anymore or associating it with something negative, those stories started to really grate against me. I found myself being legitimately uncomfortable when one of them came up in a sermon because I knew that I was just gonna want to get up and walk out. And so, I had to circle back and really sit down with some of these texts and say I kind of feel like I have two choices here – either I have to just sort of cut holes, right, where these are and black them out and not do this anymore any say I just don’t like what I’m seeing here or I have to sit down and read it and say is there some other way to read this story that is not through the cultural lens of ableism that tells me something different about God, something that jives with not only my experience of God, but with what I see from him elsewhere in the text? Because, to me, rampant ableism, it doesn’t, it’s contradictory to what I know of God and his character.
So, I had to learn how to sit down with these stories and say in the same way that we read our own cultural lenses into this, is there something about the cultural lens of the day that might’ve been influencing the way that this story was written? Is there something about the cultural lens of today that’s influencing the way people are teaching this story to me? And both of those were a big fat yes for me on those. I think a lot of the healing stories get taught as there’s something broken about this person and Jesus came in and fixed it and that’s beyond harmful. Let me just say right up front – like, that is not a healthy or appropriate way to teach that story. Whether you know you have disabled people in your pews or not – you do – and they hear it and they internalize there is something wrong with you and there is something broken and you won’t be fully whole until someday in heaven when Jesus fixes you.
Pete: Well, what is another way of reading the healing stories?
Stephanie: I think it’s important to remember that none of these stories exist in a vacuum, right?
Stephanie: So, when Jesus comes and he meets people where they are, he meets them in the culture of the day. And the culture of the day was if you had some kind of a disability, it wasn’t just that people looked at you differently, it was that you couldn’t fully participate in the community.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: And not only could you not participate in the community, you couldn’t participate in spiritual life. There were tons of rules about people that just weren’t even allowed to come to the temple, period, because there was something “wrong with them.” And I think that context matters because so much of what Jesus does is he’s trying to bring people in closer to himself and in better community with each other.
Stephanie: And so, to me, the healing stories are not about fixing the disability as if that’s something that’s broken. When you heal the blind man, it’s not it’s so much better to be sighted and you were broken when you were blind, it’s in the context of where we are in this society, right now, the only way that I can restore wholeness is to restore you to society and they won’t accept you any other way. So, given those limitations, I’m doing what I can do bring you back into belonging.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Right, yeah, there’s a social component to it so it’s not actually the physical disability. It’s given the constraints of this society, the only way to bring you back into the community, which is kind of incarnational in the sense of, we are invested in the way things are. We wish it were different, but we’re invested in this and Jesus brings us into it given the way things are.
Pete: I also think unlocking a, both a profound point, but then when you sit with it for a while, a rather obvious point, and that is what did this mean to the people back then rather than importing our own experience into it? And that’s really the foundation of critical biblical reading and critical scholarship, not criticizing the text, but saying how would this have been heard, why say this?
Pete: Right? And so yeah, I just think that’s such an important point that you’re bringing up there and a great insight. And I wish more people could carry that for a lot of different reasons too, just to, yeah, for good or for bad, you know, whichever way scripture is misunderstood. For harm or for just, you know, manipulating it for our own well-being, to take, to pay attention to what are those words doing back then as best as we can tell? And that’s about uncovering a little bit of history and a little bit of context and that sometimes can correct a lot of ills. I have so many students, Jared, that they feel liberated when they finally understand something about the historical context of any one of a number of stories and realizing that it doesn’t have the negative affect that it had for them when they were younger.
Jared: Well, and if I can, before we go forward, because I think one of the filters we bring to it that the ancient world maybe didn’t, you keep using this word ableism. Can you define what that means and maybe as a construct or as a filter that we use?
Stephanie: Yeah, so, I think the biggest thing to understand about ableism is that it’s easy for people to hear that word and think we’re talking about, you know, openly hating disabled people for being disabled, right? Like, I just, I don’t like people in wheelchairs, or making fun of them for their disability. And while those are very obvious sort of forms of ableism, that’s not really all that ableism is. Ableism is structural, and that’s really important to kind of take a step back and understand in that the world that we live in is built to serve certain kinds of bodies and certain kinds of people.
And if you’re not one of those certain kinds of bodies or people, it’s more difficult for you to move through the world and much like we talked about in those healing stories, it’s difficult for you to have a full sense of belonging in the community.
Pete: Right, yeah.
Stephanie: And so, those barriers to full belonging and inclusion for disabled people, all of those represent ableism. When we put barriers on access, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that’s ableism. When we assume that the experience of disability is somehow less than and people would obviously prefer to not be disabled anymore, that’s a form of ableism. So, it’s sort of, it’s difficult sometimes, for me to put it into words in a way that it is clear and concise, but I think it’s just really important to understand that it’s not just an intentional “I hate disabled people thing,” it’s understanding that anything that puts up barriers to our full inclusion and belonging in the community –
Pete: It’s almost like systemic racism in a sense, right?
Stephanie: In a way.
Pete: It’s not the same thing, but it’s so deeply part of the structure that it doesn’t have to be overt to still be harmful to people.
Stephanie: Well, and the other similarity that kind of resonates with me is that just because I am disabled, doesn’t mean I’m free from ableism, right? There’s a lot of internalized ableism that we as disabled people still have to work through because it’s just in the air we breathe. It’s all around us in society. We’re raised in it. You don’t just magically flip a switch and turn that off when you decide you’re disabled.
Stephanie: That’s not how that works.
Jared: You talk about this inadvertent ableism, and I think as churches, you know, within accessibility and how we maybe are unaware of how ableism is expressed in churches. And I’m thinking of churches being exempt from the ADA and some of the things you’ve written about that.
Jared: Can you maybe just speak to that a little bit? Because I found that really enlightening for myself.
Stephanie: So, a lot of people don’t even know that churches are exempt from the ADA. But back when the ADA was being written and advocated for, the head of the Association of Christian Schools was a big figure in this, churches and Christian schools sort of formed a lobbying coalition behind him to press the ADA to write an exemption for churches and Christian schools. And so, it’s interesting how much this mirrors some of the debates that we’ve seen around issues around gay marriage and healthcare contraception today. Essentially, they kept putting up this argument that tried to frame it like the rights of disabled people were in direct contradiction to the freedom of religion. It’s eerie how much it mirrors the same arguments. And so, they were successful, and they got an entire exemption carved out for them that says that they’re not forced to comply. And again, it’s not just churches, it’s parachurch organizations and any extension of that church. So, if that church runs a daycare on its campus, it’s exempt.
Stephanie: If that church runs a Christian school, it’s exempt.
Pete: What drove that?
Stephanie: Well, a lot of it was the idea that it would be expensive to overhaul things to make them accessible.
Don’t let our need to love people well get in the way of, you know, protecting our finances.
Stephanie: But even grosser, there were some that had this idea that, think of like, cathedrals and traditional architecture and blah blah blah. Like, if you had to rip that out and put in ramps and space apart your pews and like, it would destroy this heritage. But what’s even grosser is if you look at the kind of arguments that this head of Association of Christian Schools made, it was pretty ugly. They were saying things like, you know, if the ADA applies to us in areas of like, hiring, what if people say that, you know, being a drug addict is them having a disability and we’re forced to hire them? What if we’re forced to hire people with AIDS and we’re not allowed to fire them for their gay lifestyle choices? Like, it was ugly. It was really ugly. Essentially, they made it very clear in black and white that they wanted a legal exemption to discriminate freely as much as they wanted.
Jared: Well, I have to, I just have to express my frustration after reading that has just grown, because as you’re saying that perhaps the context for Jesus’s healing wasn’t just about, you know, Jesus will heal you of your physical disability, but it’s about belonging in the community of faith.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Jared: And that’s the trajectory of this. And now we’re using that same, those same passages to exclude people from belonging. It seems, it’s just so frustrating to me to see that the context might’ve been a context of how do we include people and instead of doing everything we can as a church to include as many people as we can to have full access and equality in our congregations and communities as outposts of the kingdom of God, we’re instead using these loopholes to exclude people. It’s just incredibly frustrating.
Stephanie: It goes back to the idea that ableism doesn’t have to be obvious hatred and like, seeking to exclude. Sometimes it feels unintentional because if you ask most churches about this, if they aren’t ADA compliant, many of them will say, “oh, we’d love to, we would, but it’s just so cost prohibitive.” Or you know, “well, we’ve never had a student in a wheelchair, so we’ve never needed to invest the money into…” My younger son, actually, went to preschool at a little church preschool that was like, at the time, the only place that we could afford and we went with it and I could tell stories for days, But the worst of it was they did a huge church and campus remodel the last year that we were there, and they were a two story campus with no elevator.
Pete: And they added a third story just to make it difficult?
Stephanie: And so, I thought they would put in an elevator as part of that big remodel, but no, they put in a coffee shop area and big picture windows and all kinds of stuff. And when I asked about it, I was told straight up that a) they’ve never had any students in a wheelchair so it’s not really a concern, b) you know, there is a way that you can go outside the building because it was a split level, in the rain, in Oregon here. You know, go up the driveway and come back in on the other thing. So, it’s technically accessible if you think about it. But the big thing that stuck with me was they tried to make it an issue of good stewardship.
Stephanie: They said it would take so much of the budget to put in this one elevator that would only serve such a small population, is that really good stewardship of these funds that people have donated?
Jared: So, they hadn’t read the parable of the 99 and the 1?
Stephanie: That was exactly the argument I made! I was like, oh, okay, we’ll just ignore Jesus going after that one sheep because it’s too small of a population.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Jared: Well, even the bigger, the bigger thing, and not to harbor on this, but it is very frustrating to me. Like, we ask disabled people to trust God to heal them, but we’re unwilling to trust God for the finances to make the programs and buildings accessible to everyone.
Stephanie: Well, I think that’s part of the reason that it’s so dangerous to teach the healing stories through some sort of prescriptive lens, right? Like, God wants everybody to get physically healed, that’s what I get out of this story. That’s dangerous partially because it really deflates the tires on any sense of urgency to make things more accessible. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, you can Google it sometime, but there are some atrocious pictures on the internet of churches that have handicap accessible parking signs that say things on them like “waiting to be healed.”
Pete: Oh, gosh.[Laughter]
Stephanie: And we laugh because it’s such an extreme example –
Stephanie: But really, there’s a lot of that underlying thinking going on in a lot of churches. They may not be so blatant to stick it up on the sign like that, which is gross, but they think it.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: There’s this idea of don’t settle, like, acceptance is just a big no-no. Like, you shouldn’t accept being disabled, you should be constantly wanting to be healed and showing that you have enough faith to believe that it’s going to happen, and if you haven’t been healed it’s because you haven’t been healed yet. It’s coming, like, just keep waiting.
Pete: Well, you know, my guess, and I’m just speaking as an outsider here, my guess is that from their point of view, and this is part of the problem, but from their point of view they’re trying to support disabled people.
Pete: Maybe I’m just getting really weird here, but I think in their mind they’re saying, “we just believe that God can heal you.” And from their point of view, they’re trying to do something beneficial and supportive, when in fact, you know, the opposite is happening. And that’s part of it, there’s sort of like a tone-deafness, right? It’s not, they may not be malignant, but it’s just a tone-deafness –
Jared: Well, it’s what happens when you center yourself. My makeup, all the adjectives I can add to myself – white, male, hetero, able-bodied – like, once I normatize. Norm, normatize?
Jared: Once I sort of universalize that as though this is the standard that God wants for all of us, then everything else I do to make you like me –
Pete: That’s it, that’s it. That’s the tone-deafness. Yeah.
Jared: Right. And so, there’s a dis-centeredness, and that’s why I like the idea of disability theology is for everyone is to decenter some of these things and to say, maybe that’s not the standard for “helping someone” is to make them like me.
Pete: Mm hmm, right.
Stephanie: That’s why, for me, the hands down, the most powerful story in scripture for me as a disabled woman and that I feel like, if people could really sit with it, it would turn this idea of, you know, assuming everyone wants to be faith healed and you know, not being accessible because you want them to get healed, all of this would get turned on its head if people really sat with the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples and then again to Thomas after his resurrection. Because the way we teach that story, and especially, like, all the artwork around it we grew up with, it very much suggested like, Jesus comes back and he shows them his little scars, right? Like, these tiny little flecks of discolored skin on his hands. He’s fine, but they’re there sort of just to prove that it really happened, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: But when you read the text, it’s gruesomely clear that that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about, like, he literally says, like, take your thumb and just jam it into this gaping, open wound in my hand. Take your hand and literally just plunge it into my insides in this gaping hole in my side. We’re not talking about I’m all better and there’s these little freckles now, we’re talking about unhealed wounds.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: And that, I have to tell you, the first time I sat with that, it felt borderline blasphemous to me because I had been steeped in so much ableism culturally that reading that text and saying Jesus conquered death, came back in glorious perfection, and was wounded felt gross. Like, I thought, I’m not allowed to say this or think this, right? Like this, no! Obviously, he would get healed because he’s perfect! He’s glorious! He’s in glory, he can’t be bleeding and gross and be glorious. And it was such a turning point for me to know that I serve a wounded savior that he can be fully glory and also not healed, that there’s nothing broken or incomplete or anything less than the fullness of the image of God in an unhealed body like mine because he came back with an unhealed body. It was huge. Absolutely huge for me.
Jared: Well, and that’s why disability theology is for everyone. Because even you saying that, my mind is kind of blown of how many times have I read that and not given any gravitas or any weight to what you just pointed out. And I think that’s that beauty of having these different perspectives from different people on all these different scales and spectrums is it’s so vital to understanding kind of the fullness of God.
Pete: So, disability theology, one of the reasons why it’s for everyone, this is what I’m picking up, is that people who are not disabled, it will help them, maybe, decenter themselves and their own experience and really understand the experience of others.
Pete: Do you agree with that? Is that, I mean, am I channeling correctly?
Stephanie: It comes down a lot to, so, when I go to speak at places or get invited to speak at places, a lot of the time if it’s some sort of conference and they want me to speak on disability, it’s like a side panel, right? Like, either it’s this little side breakout session on disability or it’ll be some sort of diversity panel and I’m the disability person. It’s seen as like, a side niche issue.
Stephanie: And what you just hit on is just like when we talked about Jesus and the healing stories, in our society, the people that have the power to change the issues around accessibility, lack of belonging for disabled people, lack of inclusion, are not really disabled people.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Stephanie: It’s majority culture who holds the power to do that. And so, if disability theology is always relegated to “isn’t it nice that we can make, you know, these disabled people feel better about themselves because they’ll see more of the image of God in themselves, how sweet!” Nothing’s really gonna change.
Pete: As long as we’re still in control of that conversation and that process.
Pete: Yeah, right.
Stephanie: And so, if it’s not for everybody, if it’s just a side issue, it’s just gonna continue the cycle of harming whole new waves of disabled people again and again and again. And I don’t subscribe to that sort of theology, right? Like, I don’t, I don’t like the, well, man, I grew up in the kind of church that was really big on we don’t want to have a government program that can actually fix poverty or housing and equality or accessibility or anything because then people wouldn’t get to see the church come in and like, give donations and stuff. And I think that’s so backwards, right? The idea that we need to keep people marginalized so that we can show off God to them. Like, that’s, this is one of those areas where if disability theology really was for everyone, if abled people really invested in listening to disabled voices, in being taught by disabled theologians, the changes that could be made would be structural and systemic.
Stephanie: So, that the stories like mine of going 15 years without help or thinking that, you know, God hated me and was punishing me, these stories would stop happening and we would truly find belonging in the pews.
Jared: Well, it also seems like there’s a crossroads, almost, economically. Because we dance around this a little bit, but when a church is wondering whether it’s economically feasible to make things accessible for everyone, they’re weighing this cost/benefit analysis, right? So, there’s 90% of the people that we interact with, who, they don’t need a ramp or a this or a that, and there’s 10% who do. And I think that is a decision point of does our theology, does what we, are we walking the talk? Are we saying that the one does matter? Are we saying that we have a minority position on this thing where we’re going to center the minority and not just go with the majority? That has political and economic impact into the decisions we make.
Stephanie: I think right now is an excellent example of how decisions like that are not as isolated as we’d like to think, that when you make a decision like that, you’ve made a decision about what your personal belief system is, what’s important to you, and what your theology is, and if you don’t think that scales up, you just look at the pandemic.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: Because the same people that used to tell me “we honestly don’t want to exclude disabled people, if we had the money we would love to make these changes, but it’s just not feasible, you need to be reasonable and not ask so much of us” are the same people that a year ago were saying, “well, the good news is COVID only kills high risk people, so we should all be able to go back to work and get this economy rolling again.”
Jared: Right, right.
Stephanie: And if you don’t think those are connected, they’re absolutely connected because every one of these seemingly little decisions that you make, you’ve chosen what your theology is and what you value and it will scale up and it will generalize and it will translate to bigger issues down the line.
Jared: Right. Right, that’s, even in our conversation, that’s becoming clearer and clearer these connections, you know, economically, politically, around some of these challenges.
Pete: Yeah, and I think, what I’m sort of, the way I’m putting some pieces together here is, I mean, disability theology is theology.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know, and all theology has an adjective, you know, that we say around here. All those theologies are doing theology and when we exclude, when we decenter disability theology, right, if we keep that on the margins and you know, side talks at conferences and “there, there, we’ll give you a voice but no decision power” and things like that, that’s something other than doing theology. That’s more control and manipulation and yeah, because, you know, there’s no theology that doesn’t have an adjective. You know, just the “normal, white people theology.”
Pete: That you know, people like me, right? And like Jared. That’s not the case and, yeah, it’s just, it’s really powerful to be reminded of how everybody has a voice and a theological process and the theological discussion. Everyone does.
Jared: Yeah, and can maybe, just as we’re wrapping up our conversation here, I think there’s a lot of people who maybe sympathize/empathize with the conversation we’re having. What are some practical steps for someone, maybe, who is able-bodied, who is maybe guilty of ableism on a subconscious level, what steps can they take so that it’s not just this feeling of guilt, but there’s some practical things for being able to make a difference in their communities and congregations and their life. What are some ways that people can make steps?
Stephanie: So, the first thing is learning how to practice true solidarity, right? And so that means I as a disabled person should not be solely responsible for having to call around to churches or conferences or events and say, “hey, what’s the accessibility situation here?” There’s no reason why able-bodied allies are not capable of asking those same questions. So, that means like somebody like Pete, if you get hired to speak at an event, it takes, you know, one extra line in your rider or one extra sentence in the phone call to arrange that to say, hey, is this event accessible and how?
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Stephanie: To make sure that they know that’s important to you, and not just to people like me.
Stephanie: Another thing that’s really simply and that anybody can do is simply diversifying the voices that you’re listening to and taking in. There are some really amazing disabled advocates who are giving this information away for free on places like Twitter, on places like Facebook, on places like TikTok, which I know nothing about and I’m not on because I’m not hip enough for that. But so I’ve been told that they’re on there making videos or whatever they’re called!
Pete: They’re called TikToks.[Laughter]
Stephanie: There are books, you know, that you can buy that are written by disabled theologians. There are conference talks that you can Google and download and TikToks and there are ways to diversify the voices that you’re listening to and whether or not they’re specifically talking about theology, they’re still bringing a lived experience to the table that is different from yours and so it’s really worth trying to diversify that stuff.
Jared: Well, I just would kind of offer a challenge and I saw Pete writing this down, so I think I can speak for him, but you know, making this commitment where for us who are able-bodied, where it might cost us something. Like, well, like it just connects with the, you know, with the churches conversation we were having earlier. Like, “we can’t do that because it would cost us too much.” Well, maybe we put kind of our money where our mouth is and say, yeah, we need to, as The Bible for Normal People, put accessibility in our speaking riders. Like, we speak at places that have ADA, you know, compatibility and we don’t speak at places that don’t. And you know, and in some ways, it’s like oh, that’s scary because that costs us, but that’s kind of, I think, the point is that, for me, solidarity, and you can correct me, but solidarity is where, yeah, like, it may cost us as well.
Stephanie: That’s exactly the difference.
Jared: Mm hmm, right.
Stephanie: Like, it’s so nice when people empathize and say that’s gotta be really hard, but that doesn’t actually help my situation at all because, you know, it’s a choice for you guys whether or not to do those things, but the reality is I’m in the body that I’m in, so it’s not a choice for me.
Stephanie: And if an event doesn’t care about its accessibility, I just can’t go. That’s it! Like, it’s just the end for me. So, I can’t take speaking gigs at places that are wholly inaccessible because I physically can’t do it. Like, that’s it! The decision is made for me. And so, you’re right. Solidarity is saying, okay, it’s not enough to just say, oh, you know, conferences should diversity more and look for disabled speakers. And okay, but if you’re not willing to back that up and be fully accessible, it’s not really a surprise that you can’t find any disabled speakers. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Stephanie: The other thing is that you can actually, if you’re a church or a conference or a place like that, you can hire people, I actually offer this service regularly, what’s called a disability consultant. And that’s a person who can actually walk you through sort of a list of recommendations and offer feedback on areas that you just may not know you’re not accessible and might have blind spots. Churches, especially, like, it’s interesting to see how many churches are like, we did it! We have, you know, sensory needs met, we have large print bulletins, and we have ramps and we’re so proud! And it’s not until somebody like me comes in that they ever register that the church itself is accessible, but the platform or the pulpit is not.
Stephanie: Right? What does that say to somebody like me? I can tell you that I absolutely notice it in every single church or conference that I’m in. If you made the building accessible but not the stage, you’ve communicated something very clearly to me. That you think I’m only capable of receiving and definitely not of leading or teaching you anything because it never even dawned on you that I might need to get up there.
Pete: Right, right.
Jared: Well, so good. Stephanie, thank you so much for taking some time and I mean, honestly just educating me. I’ll just speak for myself, on a lot of things about disability theology. I absolutely endorse this idea that it’s for everyone. I think it’s something that we need to take to heart and think about because it’s not like you said, it has these repercussions. It has a ripple effect on our theology and what we think about God and Jesus and these stories that we hear about and are we gonna take them seriously, so I appreciate you bringing that to us.
Pete: Yeah, I think it was sort of like a prophetic word to make people think.
Stephanie: Well, I just appreciate you making space and doing exactly what you’re preaching, right? Decentering yourselves and saying how can we learn from a perspective that’s different than ours. We don’t get that a lot, so I’m always appreciative when we do.
Pete: Yes. Well, thank you.
Pete: Thank you again, Stephanie, for being with us this past hour.
Jared: Thank you so much.[Music begins]
Megan: Alright everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show. A big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.[Music ends] [Outtakes] [Beep]
Pete: Were we gonna start with a story?
Jared: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Pete: I have a better idea, Stephanie. Here, how about this?
He just threw you right under the bus.
Pete: You know what? This is how we roll. We just do this and half the time it’s going the other way.[Beep]
Pete: Okay, yeah.
Jared: So, we get there –
Pete: Fine, Jared. Fine, fine, fine. If that’s how you want –
If you guys can just keep kneecapping each other so you sound like crap and I sound amazing and I just win by default, that would be great. Thank you.
Pete: This isn’t a conversation.[End of recorded material]