Speaker: Mark Rupp
Text: Mark 10:46-51a
Judith Heumann was born in 1947, and yes, she is a real person even though her name sounds like the set-up to an allegorical parable about all humanity. In fact, she is so real that you can watch her tell her story in a TED Talk video. Over the course of her life, Heumann has served as a legislative assistant within the US senate, an Assistant Secretary within the US Department of Education during the Clinton administration, a special advisor to the State Department in the Obama administration, and an advisor to the World Bank. She has founded and led a number of organizations and been the recipient of many national awards including honorary doctorates from three different universities. She currently lives in Washington D.C. with her husband.
In her TED Talk, she recounts a story that was told to her by her father many years after it happened. According to her father, when Judith was two years old, a doctor suggested to her parents that they put Judith in an institution so that they would not have to deal with her.
You see, Judith had contracted polio when she was 18 months old; she spent 3 months in an iron lung and would spend the next 3 years in and out of the hospital. As a result, she required the use of a wheelchair to get around.
And that is why the doctor suggested to her parents that they put her in an institution so they could, as she tells it, “go ahead with their lives.”
They did not choose this option. Instead of “going ahead with their lives” without Judith, they decided to go ahead with their lives with her, struggling with her, fighting for her when she was young and alongside her as she grew and began to be able to advocate for herself. Judith tells of her struggles through the education system: about the injustice of accommodations available to her through elementary school, about the inaccessibility of all the high schools in her area, and about how she was initially not granted a teaching license even after completing all the necessary coursework because she was not able to pass the medical exam portion of the licensing. During that exam, which was administered in an inaccessible building where Judith had to be carried up the stairs by friends, one of the first questions the doctor asked was for her to show how she went to the bathroom.
In her talk, Judith points out that when you’re preparing for an interview most people try to think through all the question they might be asked, but that’s not one that she had prepared for.
She was failed on the medical exam and thus denied her teaching license. She took the case to court and won, which allowed her to go on to teach elementary school for a few years, the first person in a wheelchair to do so in the state of New York. But this court case is what really kicked off her lifelong work as a disability rights advocate.
For various reasons, disability and accessibility, especially issues around accessibility and inclusion with the Church, have been on my mind a lot lately, and when I saw the lectionary passage for today, I felt called to make a theology of disability a focus for the sermon. A scripture passage about a miraculous curing of blindness might sound like a strange one to tackle the topic of disability, but I think it is the interpretation of passages like these that we need to think hard about in light of those who live with disability. We need to ask ourselves questions like, “What are the messages we send about what it means to be human? To be whole, healthy people? What do our interpretations tell us about God? Do we, intentionally or unintentionally, equate having a disability with sin?”
But, let’s also be clear that this work is not just for the benefit of those who live with disability. I've heard plenty of people express angst over what to do with miracle stories like this, and I think allowing the experiences of people who are disabled to inform our interpretations of such passages can be a gift for all people not just those who live with a disability.
In the book, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities, Jennie Weiss Block suggest three ways that traditional interpretations of passages about disability -- like the story of Bartimaeus -- often become problematic. First, they create what she describes as a “fix-it mentality” where the elimination of disability becomes the ideal human existence. For many people, a disability is simply a part of who they are, and when we allow our interpretations of scripture to focus so heavily on the miraculous cures that take place, we can send the message that being disabled makes a person inherently broken or an incomplete person. Perhaps without even realizing it, we end up preaching a slightly modified version of “love the sinner, hate the sin” when we assume that the only way for disabled people to become whole, to be saved, is for their disability to be erased.
I intentionally asked for the scripture reading this morning to stop midway through verse 51, right after Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” As I studied the text this week, I was struck by the fact that Jesus asks this question, even though the answer may seem obvious to us. We think, “Certainly the only request that makes sense is to ask Jesus to cure his blindness.” Even though the answer he ultimately gives to Jesus might be the one we would expect, I asked for the reading to stop before his response so that we could dwell on that question and think about how our own values shape what we assume healing means for other people, especially those with a disability. If Bartimaeus had responded differently, would we have thought he was a fool?
If you were here last week, you may remember that the question Jesus asks Bartimaeus is the same question he asks of James and John a few verses earlier. “What do you want me to do for you?” Their response was to ask for Jesus to allow them to sit at his right and left hands; they wanted power, authority, prestige, and glory. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they’re asking for because that’s not how this thing he’s doing works.
That same question is asked to Bartimaeus, and he responds that he wants to be able to see. To this request Jesus responds, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And once his sight has returned, the text tells us that he followed Jesus on the way. He began a journey of discipleship with Jesus perhaps because he recognized that the healing this man brought was a lot bigger than just himself.
The second point Block makes is that our interpretations of scriptures about disability can perpetuate stereotypes of marginalization. There is no doubt that people with disabilities in scripture are often portrayed as marginalized because they most often were, but it becomes easy to treat that marginalization as an inherent character trait rather than critiquing the social structures that lead to that marginalization. Without names, pushed to the margins, typically forced to beg for survival, these characters too easily become object lessons rather than real people, and our responses too easily go straight to pity and charity rather than solidarity and justice.
Bartimaeus is one of the few characters in scripture who is disabled who is also given a name and a history. Even though blindness has forced him to beg by the side of the road, he refuses to play the passive role in his own story. Commentator Kathy Black notes, “He does not sit back pitying himself, waiting for someone to approach him and offer help. He takes responsibility for his own life and takes the initiative in assertively seeking what he feels he needs.” I love that when the crowd tells him to be quiet, the text says he shouted even louder. He is insistent. He is disruptive. He won’t take no for an answer even though the world expects him to sit quietly by and accept whatever charity happens to be thrown his way. Perhaps some in the crowd even found themselves thinking that he was hurting his cause by being so abrasive.
And when he finally gets the attention of Jesus, it says he threw off his cloak and he sprang forward to get closer. He is no passive character in this story but an active agent fully participating in his own healing. The passage tells us that this story is happening just outside Jericho, and maybe like the Jericho of old, it takes some persistent shouting to tear down the walls that kept Bartimaeus from participating fully within his community. Bartimaeus’ blindness certainly impaired his daily life, but it was the responses of the community that pushed him to the margins and truly caused his disability.
And finally, Block suggests that some interpretations develop what she calls a “cult of healing” that grossly distorts the relationship between faith and healing. Many of you are probably familiar with the extremes of this approach and have seen televangelists and other so called faith healers convince people, often those who are most desperate and most vulnerable, that their illnesses and disabilities can be cured with just the right kind of faith, or just the right amount of donation.
This is an extreme that deserves plenty of scrutiny and condemnation for the ways it exploits vulnerable people, but Block points out that a deeper issue that many Christians wrestle with is an understanding of the difference between healing and curing. Our modern, Western society has a highly medicalized view of disability--and some might argue, of life in general-- that focuses on the autonomy of the individual. Our modern ideas of health and well-being are so often focused on achieving a level of independence that allows us to “do” things.
The society and culture of the first century, however, would have had a much more communal view, with prohibitions and restrictions placed around those with illnesses and disabilities meant to protect the community. I think it is hard for us modern people to even imagine a view that focuses so heavily on “being” in community more than an individual’s ability to “do” something. If we look at these two worldviews side by side, we can begin to see that health and healing would have very different definitions. When we impart our modern notion of health onto these first century texts, we can miss the cues about what healing means.
Block further clarifies this important distinction when she writes, “Cures, in the sense of recovery from disease, or restoration of physical health, do occur occasionally, but are not ordinary events, nor the central message of the gospel, nor the point of our faith in Jesus Christ. A central message of the gospel, however, is that we can be restored to spiritual wholeness. Much of Jesus’ active ministry on earth was aimed at the restoration of spiritual wholeness, which he offered to the entire community, not just to those who were sick or disabled.”
The good news is that the healing God brings is always about the restoration of relationships--relationships between humans and the divine, between humans and others (including all of creation), and between humans and the self--and as the Body of Christ, this kind of healing is what we in the Church are called to as well.
When we talk about the miracle stories as healing but focus only on the “cure,” we cheapen our understanding of what it means to be healed and downplay our own role as the body of Christ to do all within our own power to help bring healing to the world, to restore people to community, to remove barriers that keep people on the margins, and sometimes just to sit with people in their deepest moments of lament with nothing to offer but our presence and our shared pain.
We are not God and we cannot simply say to people, “Go, your faith has made you well” as Jesus does to Bartimaeus. This power is not available to us. But what would it mean for us to use all the power we do have to tear down the barriers that keep people with disabilities from being fully part of our communities? What would it mean to ask “What do you want me to do?” and then follow the lead of those who live with disability in bringing about their own healing and wholeness?
Long before the U.S. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, there was a law known as the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act stated, “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” At the time, this was a huge shift in the way society viewed those with disabilities, moving from a worldview that largely viewed disability as a personal problem toward a more social view of disability that recognized that the challenges of disability are more about the way society organizes itself.
The passage of Section 504 was a big victory for disabled people, but it soon became apparent that the implementation of the law required guidelines for how it should be enacted. The law was passed in 1973, but for the next four years, the recommended regulations concerning its implementation were stalled by various committees and other bureaucratic red-tape.
In 1977, an ultimatum was issued by Disability Rights Activists across the country: ratify the regulations by April 4, or significant action would be taken. On April 5th, the regulations had not been ratified, so people with disabilities of all kinds along with their caretakers and allies moved to occupy the local offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in ten different cities across the country. They were told no, so they decided to shout even louder. These became known as the 504 Sit-Ins.
Judith Heumann was one of the main organizers of a group of about 150 people, most of them people with disabilities themselves, who occupied the offices in San Francisco for more than three weeks. While the occupations in the other cities petered out, the San Francisco occupation was so successful in large part because Judith and her co-organizers had spent years leading up to it building relationships with other activist groups and educating the public about the importance of the law. In fact, a big part of their ability to last so long was due to the fact that members of the Black Panthers provided daily free food to the protesters, despite the FBI’s attempts to stop them.
One account quotes a member of the Black Panthers as saying, “”We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong. We always support people fighting for their rights."
A short documentary about the sit-ins describes life inside the offices with the 150 people: When phone lines were cut off to try to dissuade the protesters, people who were deaf used sign language to communicate with translators outside. Protesters who were blind would assist those who were quadriplegic, and they, in turn, would read things for the people who were blind. Protesters used their access to the media to educate the public about the many challenges faced by people with disabilities.
Toward the end of the occupation, Judith and a few other protesters loaded up their wheelchairs into the back of a U-Haul and drove across the country to Washington D.C. to meet with the head of the department that needed to approve the regulations. After more conversations, protests, and vigils, on April 28th, twenty-three days after the occupation began, the regulations were finally signed.
This victory was a hugely important step for people with disabilities and helped pave the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act, but Judith is clear in saying that we still have far to go. Toward the end of her TED Talk she names some of the challenges that people with disabilities continue to face and describes how her advocacy work has begun to spread beyond the U.S. She closes by saying, “Together we can make a difference. Together we can speak up for justice. Together we can help change the world.”
There are many important things that the experiences of people with disabilities have to teach the Church, but I want to close with one view I read this week that feels especially pertinent. Kathy Black writes that a theology of disability is, in many ways, a theology of interdependence. The experiences of people with disabilities teach us about the value of interdependence, of relying on one another. In a culture that values autonomy and independence so highly, a theology of disability helps us to affirm that our interdependence on one another is a good thing that should be nurtured and cherished.
Black writes, “A theology of interdependence honors the value of all individuals, not by what they do, but by who they are, recognizing that each and every person contributes to the community by being, not by doing.”
All people are valuable just by being who they are, and we need more theologies like this to help us name as evil any ideology that attempts to dehumanize or devalue the other. When a man enters a synagogue and kills 11 people because he has been stoked by a rhetoric of fear and hatred, let us shout even louder that we need one another, no exceptions. When our leaders insist that we need more guns to keep us safe, let us shout even louder that real power comes from restoring relationships. When the negative stereotypes of black and brown people perpetuated by the highest levels of leadership inspire men commit acts of domestic terrorism, let us shout even louder that we refuse to be motivated by fear. When an exodus of people fleeing violence moves toward us, let us shout even louder that these people are beloved and that we need them just as much as they need us.
“Together we can make a difference. Together we can speak up for justice. Together we can help change the world.”
And so, my wish for us, my friends, is
- That we would value the ways we all depend on one another, and see this not as weakness but as strength.
- That we would use our voices to shout even louder whenever and wherever those among us are pushed to the margins and told to be quiet.
- And finally, that whatever healing is within our power, we would use it to help all people follow the way of love together.