13 Dec 2013 UK Disability History Month Blogs 2013: The History of Disability in Christian Thought - Brian Brock


brock_christiantradition rs.jpgLike gender, race and culture, disability is something that people take either to be a reality that impacts us all in some way, or which only really matters for “others”. What is true of western society in general is also largely true of the church. “The times that I have asked ministers and pastors about members of their congregations who are disabled,” writes the Dutch theologian Hans Reinders, “the most frequent response is ‘We don’t have them’” [1].

My colleague John Swinton and I recently edited a compilation of primary texts and introductory essays that dives deep into the question of how Christians have understood disability over the last two thousand years: Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader [2]. It is anachronistic, of course, to suggest that authors from the past commented directly on a concept, “disability,” that has emerged only in the last few decades. But like everyone else in history, Christians past and present have had no choice but think about how to understand and respond to deformed births, leprosy, insanity, dementia and a host of other disabling conditions.

Our research into the primary texts found that many of the stereotypes about Christians and disability deserve to be questioned. It turns out that there are many traces in the classic texts of Christian theology of a will to embrace and include those who today we might call disabled. This will was also often couched within a range of fresh conceptual formulations that promise to sharpen our thinking today as we come to terms with disability in the 21st century. Our hope was that by listening closely to the thoughts of Christians through the ages we might catalyze more acute perception and responsiveness in the Christian community to the physically and mentally marginalized in our societies. We also hoped, perhaps more importantly, to help all our readers think hard about the inability of those who consider themselves “normal” to take disabled people and their experiences seriously. In doing so we also hoped that we could make a contribution to academic discussions of disability.

The volume reaffirms the modern insight that the term “disability” serves an indispensable political role in allowing us a non-pejorative way of indicating those who deserve social support. At the same time, many of the readings remind us that it is equally important to find ways to talk about people with disabilities in a manner which understands them to be fully “beyond” or “other than” their disabilities—in the same way all people are not to be reduced to our stereotypes about them.

In many eras of the Christian tradition, Christians spoke about a reversal of perception associated with Christian faith that demands Christians go beyond seeing people as “disabled”.  As a friend who grew up with a brother with severe cerebral palsy once commented to me, “my brother disabled me”. What he meant was that his brother had drawn him from one world into another, teaching him to see and hear in a new way. His brother had thus become part of his very being; they had become what is called in the New Testament, “members of one another”.

It is an insight with a long history in Christianity, and one which has come deeply to shape our contemporary western culture. Consider this passage from the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus’ Oration 14, written and delivered in what is now Turkey. Gregory, who was an influential and honored senior cleric, strenuously resists the ancient practice of shunning lepers. At this time lepers were pushed to the extreme margins of society, denied access to public watercourses and entry into the city limits. In his encounter with Jesus Christ, Gregory has come to a different view of such practices and sets out to convince the believers of his time that their shunning of lepers goes against the teaching and example of Jesus.

There have been instances when people have allowed a murderer to live with them, have shared not only their roof but their table with an adulterer, have chosen a person guilty of sacrilege as their life’s companion, have made solemn covenants with those who have wished them harm; but in this person’s case [that of the leper] suffering, rather than any injury, is handed down as a criminal charge. So crime has become more profitable than sickness, and we accept inhumanity as fit behavior for a free society, while we look down on compassion as something to be ashamed of. [3]

The inversion of perception depicted in this oration was historically crucial in the history of the west. Christians were for the first time explicitly challenging the ancient sensibility that health care was only due those whose healing could be considered beneficial to the polis and so would be wasted on people like lepers who could never pay back to society what had been spent on their care. It was an insight integral to Gregory’s building the institutions of care that were the direct precursors of our modern hospitals, in which everyone is given care, not just rich people.

About 50 years later Augustine was to reiterate Gregory’s point, making more explicit the importance of a way of seeing people that defines value not by surfaces, but the heart. Can what is truly desirable about people,

…be seen with the eyes? Can it be touched? Is there some beauty which delights the eyes? Have not the martyrs been loved ardently? And when we commemorate them, do we not catch fire with love? What do we love in them, brothers? Their limbs mangled by wild beasts? What sight is fouler, if you should consult the eyes of the flesh? What is more beautiful if you should consult the eyes of the heart? How does a very handsome young man, but a thief, appear to you? How your eyes do stare in terror! Are the eyes of the flesh terrified? If you should consult them, there is nothing better structured than that body, nothing better arranged. The symmetry of the limbs and the loveliness of his complexion entice the eyes. And yet when you hear that he is a thief, you flee from the man because of your mind. On the other side you see a bent-over old man, leaning on a cane, scarcely able to move, ploughed all over with wrinkles. What do you see that delights the eyes? You hear that he is just; you love him, you embrace him. [4]

Both Augustine and Nazianzus are looking for a way reconfigure human perceptions of others by short-circuiting certain stereotyped pictures of physical beauty and health. They do so by attempting to teach us to appreciate more deeply the moral ugliness or developed virtues that individuals might display. The most striking conclusion reached right across the early Christian tradition is that to look down on people solely because of supposed physical or mental infirmity is a grave moral and religious fault.

Insights like this problematize the modern assumption that on disability issues authors from previous ages are by definition backward and primitive. It is true that many thinkers in the tradition who try to say things which we applaud today do so in terms which later come to be very problematic, such as charity. There is no doubt that dominant strands of the Christian tradition have worked to stigmatize and marginalize those it deems disabled, and when Christians throughout the ages have failed to transcend the prejudices of their ages, they demand the censure of contemporary Christians. But if past Christians were guilty of reproducing the prejudices of their ages, they create for us a problem of historical criticism that will not be solved by embracing the prejudices of modern secularity in which the Christian tradition as a whole is taken to be largely anti-progressive, especially on the topic of social marginalization.

Such dismissals are neither historically nor intellectually tenable. They evade the investigative task of asking how Christians of earlier ages actually lived and thought in the short-sighted assumption that the history of the west can simply be left behind. An important aim of the Disability Reader is to indicate the intellectual beliefs that have allowed or justified Christian condescension toward or outright rejection of people with disabilities. This self-critical task is crucial for a modern church that all too often is indistinguishable from or even lags behind its secular counterparts in the welcome it offers to disabled people.

At the same time, strands within the Christian tradition have also served to uphold, value and include people that today we might think of as disabled. It is not at all a stretch to say that the very reason why modern westerners think the way they do about disability has grown out of innovations in theory and practice that grew in the soil of Christian churches. We want, then, to counter the contemporary habit of thought in which nothing good ever came to people with disabilities from people of faith in the bad old days before modernity. We also aim to enable readers to undertake the more constructive task of exposing and commenting on theological insights and ideas that might enrich contemporary thinking about the issue of disability—all in the service of learning not only to see, but to appreciate the richness of human life in all its wonderful diversity.

For a detailed summary of Disability in the Christian Tradition see Benjamin S. Wall, “Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, Theological Contributions to Disability Discourse” [PDF]


[1] Hans Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 335.

[2] Brian Brock and John Swinton, Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

[3] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 14, transl. Brian E. Daley S.J., in: Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (London/ New York: Routledge, 2006), 81.

[4] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 1-10, trans. John Rettig (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), p. 91-92.


Brian Brock is a Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Co-Director of the Center for Spirituality, Health and Disability, and an editor for the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health.

Guest post for Disability and Industiral Society's UK Disability History Month Blogs 2013.