A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability – An Overview

A Brief Introduction to this Work

In continuing my own engagement with Theology & Disability Studies, I came across this interesting and thought-provoking book, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability by Kathy Black, who has a disability.  It is a relatively affordable book that only takes about three or four hours to read, numbering under 200 pages.

An Overview of this Work

In A Healing Homiletic, Black begins with a very brief and quick introductionHealing Homiletic to the portrayal and treatment of people with disabilities in the Christian tradition. She talks about how, oftentimes, in sermons and doctrines, people in the Christian tradition have fallen into the pitfalls of presenting people with disabilities as either angels or devils, as either “holy innocents” or “sinners with a lack of faith.” These pitfalls are often set up through the homiletic/theological forms that Christians are quick to apply.

These forms include: disability as a punishment for sin, either for the person him-/herself or for his/her parents, disability as a test of faith, again either for the person or for his or her parents, disability as an opportunity for character development – either for the person with disabilities or for the people around him or her, disability as a chance for God to manifest the Power of God, disability as redemptive suffering analogous to the sufferings of Christ, or, in the event that none of the above work (which is likely), disability’s existence as beyond our comprehension because of the mysteriousness of God and God’s will.

Having presented all of these homiletic/theological forms and their various (and often glaring) weaknesses, Black presents her own homiletical/theological entry point – A Theology of Interdependence.

In order to build this Theology of Interdependence, Black begins by pointing out the differences between the cultural medical values of the first century and the ones of our own times. This section is very useful in its clarification and, in hindsight, feels very obvious, and so I won’t spoil it here.

One of the biggest realizations to emerge from this section, however, is the difference between “cure” and “healing.” Which one do we expect? Which one did the New Testament authors expect? What are the differences?

One difference, Black points out, is that “healing” involves social inclusion and acceptance. This is the main part of the bridge that she wants to erect from the first century to the twenty-first century.

Then, in what almost appears as an aside, she emphasizes the limits and hazards of metaphorical interpretations of New Testament healing texts.

A short quote will suffice:  “The main problem in using these terms metaphorically in this way is that blindness, deafness, and paralysis are always used in negative ways in religious vocabulary.  The metaphorical use of these terms is then identified with ‘refusal to understand’ or ‘disobedience to God’ or ‘refusal to act according to the will of God’ and are therefore labeled as willful, selfish behaviors…In short, using these terms metaphorically equates the sin of those who can see, hear, and move, with the physical reality of those who cannot” (Black, Kindle Edition, near Location 739).

This is a hard lesson from Black, especially seeing as how several of the New Testament authors use blindness, deafness, and paralysis in just this way.  For example, in the Gospel of Mark, the author frequently uses blindness as a metaphorical literary device through which to demonstrate the ignorance of the disciples who, in actuality, are not physically blind, and yet, presumably real blind people are used, as object lessons, in the making of the author’s point.  This is a very hard lesson.

Following this introductory material, Black then launches into demonstrations of her healing, interdependent homiletical/theological interpretation.  In doing this, she uses, for the preacher’s benefit, as a great boon for her or him, eight Lectionary Texts from the Gospels.  She ultimately wants this exercise to be practical.

Due to space limitations here, and in the interest of not presenting too much of Black’s book, I will only provide a brief overview of one of those texts and treatments here:  John 9:1-41, involving a man born blind.  For the convenience of our discussion, I am posting the text, from the New Revised Standard Version, below.

First, however, I should mention that Black creates her subsequent chapters by types of disability, with this one falling under the heading of Blindness.  Each one of these subsequent chapters begins, before giving the texts and their proceeding material, with a quick overview of the culture and experiences of the people with this particular disability.  It seems as though she tries, as best she can, to base her comments in this area on the experiences of people with disabilities whom she knows.  Obviously, the creation of any such section is difficult in that people’s experiences obviously do differ.  Yet, despite the inherent difficulties in creating such a section, there are a number of realizations in these sections that are helpful for preachers; there is some awareness to be gained here.

With that being said, let us proceed with John 9:1-41:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 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. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  (John 9:1-41)

For each one of the biblical texts in her book, Black goes into a brief section-by-section analysis of the text.  For instance, in this particular analysis, she points out complications of the text, such as Jesus saying, “[H]e was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” which can lead a preacher into the one of the unhelpful homiletic/theological forms mentioned above, and such as blindness being metaphorically applied to the Pharisees by Jesus himself.  Unfortunately, the number of potential pitfalls and unmindful things that can be said in relation to people with disabilities within even this text, which does give and support the notion that people are not born into disabilities because of sin, can be astounding.  The challenges of preaching become very stark here, and, hopefully, one can avoid despair and begin to constructively work through such challenges…

Using her concept of a Theology of Interdependence, Black focuses upon God’s action in relation the man who was born blind as he experiences various stages of community.  For example, it is probably a given, with the attitude of the Pharisees and the disciples as presented in the text, that prior to his being cured the man born blind did not experience a healthy amount or type of community, instead facing oppression because of his being blind.  Jesus cures the man (although his model for doing so, with his not asking the man and touching the man all of a sudden, is probably not a good idea to follow literally) and treats him with dignity (with the material in parentheses being an “obvious” and probably unintentional exception).  Jesus seeks the man out multiple times within the text; perhaps this communicates something of the man’s value as a child of God.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, treat the man with continual contempt, whether he is blind or cured.  His being cured does not, in and through the Pharisees’ action, lead to his being healed in a communal sense.  Jesus, on the other hand, makes this man a part of his community and thus does what the Pharisees and the disciples were not able to do.  Jesus is inclusive, caring, and compassionate, even though, as mentioned before, his beginning this process by touching the man born blind without warning is just simply not good practice.

In order to now briefly sample Black’s work directly, we will do well to notice how, in the text, the man born blind develops, by stages, theology in the form of Christology, an understanding of the identity of Jesus.  First, the man born blind just refers to Jesus as a man.  Later, he calls Jesus a prophet.  Next, he argues that Jesus is from God.  Finally, in an encounter with Jesus himself, the man calls him Lord and worships him.  This develops over time.  In relation to this development, Black notices and writes:

“Here it is clear that the man did not have faith at the time of the cure.  His faith developed as he began to articulate his experience to those who challenged him.  Can we be about bringing healing to those who do not exemplify any faith?  How would the church be different if did not require confessions before we became actively involved in healing our world?” (Black, Kindle Edition, near Location 1060).  [One must remember the differences between “cure” and “healing” presented earlier in order for this quote to have its full impact]

Throughout this work, Black sticks closely to the action of searching for an interdependent and communal homiletical/theological form.  In her effort to do this, she usually takes account of other scholarship in brief form and also makes the reader aware of ableist interpretations and pitfalls, which are quite plentiful.

The Gifts of this Work

Black’s work is helpful in thinking about the challenges involved between Christian Theology & Disability Studies.  Her choosing to examine Lectionary Texts is very practical and thoughtful; it allows the preacher to both learn about Disabilities Studies in brief form and prepare for future preaching opportunities.  Her prefacing each chapter, subsequent to the introductory ones, with the experiences of people with various disabilities is helpful in giving the reader some grounding for her subsequent analyses.  The challenges inherent in preaching and theology in relation to disability studies are not toned down here; they are presented rather clearly.

The Remaining Challenges – & – A Conclusion

Though one may read and gain a good deal from this book, the challenges between preaching/theology and disabilities studies are not solved, though it is doubtful that such a lofty goal would be Black’s intent.  Rather, there is still much work to be done, both by individual preachers and by Christians theologians as a whole.  The problem of the Bible’s containing several concrete and potential ableist readings, which I believe is presented clearly and summarily by Black, makes such work hard for anyone.  Black’s contribution is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in this topic, and her beginnings of a Theology of Interdependence might be a good place to continue doing theology.

Leave a Reply