Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disability and Eschatology: Resources in the Hebrew Prophets

One of the ways that communities can challenge ableism is to self-critically reflect on how disability fits into our conceptions of Utopia.  In our idealized visions of the world, are there persons with disabilities?  How we answer this question can reveal a lot about our attitudes towards disability, and can shape the way we engage related issues in our world.  Recently I have been giving some attention to the issue of disability and eschatology, looking in particular at Judeo-Christian visions of idealized or restored futures from a disability justice perspective.  There are of course plenty of eschatological imaginings, both ancient and modern, which leave no room for disability, but rather envision the elimination of persons with disability or their transformation so that they conform to ableist assumptions about ideal bodies/minds.  From a constructive perspective, I personally think it is important for both secular and religious communities to develop eschatological visions which continue to include persons with disabilities, but have social orders in which all are granted equal access and dignity.  So, one of the things I have been doing is looking for examples, particularly in ancient texts, that can be interacted with in constructing these kinds of eschatologies in western worldviews.  Here are a few interesting examples from the Hebrew prophets:
"Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who is in travail, together; a great company, they shall return here.  With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born" (Jeremiah 31:8-9).     
"In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore" (Micah 4:6-7).

"Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD" (Zephaniah 3:19-20).

 Amos Yong points to these three passages in his treatment of disability and eschatology, arguing that they can be valuable resources in constructing an eschatology that includes persons with disabilities: "Observe that these eschatological images declare the flourishing of all people not because the blind are given sight or the lame are physically cured, but because YHWH has removed the barriers that segregate temporarily able-bodied people from those with disabilities and has eliminated the social stigma attached to disabilities" (The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, 134-135).   

We can also consider Second Isaiah's vision about eunuchs:

"Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, 'The LORD will surely separate me from his people'; and let not the eunuch say, 'Behold, I am a dry tree.'  For thus says the LORD: 'To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off' (Isaiah 56:3-5).
From a modern perspective we might categorize eunuchs as persons with a disability.  Within Israelite literature having children is highly valued, and is the primary way that one's name is carried on.  Since hope for individual post-mortem existence is virtually absent from most of the Hebrew Bible, having descendants becomes a primary way of attaining a form of immortality.  The eunuch does not have access to this.  Interestingly, Isaiah's vision does not promise the transformation of the eunuch into a "normal" body so that he sires physical descendants, but rather promises access to immortality ("an everlasting name which shall not be cut off") as he is -- a disabled person.

All of these prophetic passages provide us with some interesting resources for understanding different conceptions of disability in the ancient world (the historical task), but also offer contemporary communities some helpful images they can use in imagining ideal futures that don't involve the elimination of the disabled/physical difference, but rather the development of societies in which different bodies and minds have equal access to physical, social, symbolic, and spiritual space.

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