As Christians approach Good Friday and Easter where we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, I am reminded of the startling new insight that Nancy Eiesland gave me in her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon Press, 1994). In that book, Eiesland made me see the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus in a new way.
Reflecting on how the gospels describe Jesus’ resurrected body as carrying the scars on his hands and feet where the nails were driven into, and the scar on his side where the spear pierced, Eiesland asks, “What is the significance of the resurrected Christ’s display of impaired hands and feet and side? Are they the disfiguring vestiges of sin? Are they to be subsumed under the image of Christ, death conqueror? Or should the disability of Christ be understood as the truth of incarnation and the promise of resurrection?” (p. 101)
I confess that I had never thought about those questions before I read Eiesland, even though I knew for ages that Jesus’ resurrected body contained those marks of impairment. So blinded was I, as a so-called able bodied person, to disability issues that I failed to notice that these scars were impairments and signs of defect, humanly speaking. Yet, why were they preserved in the resurrected body of Jesus? If the resurrected body is the first-fruit of what the new heaven and new earth would be like – in short, a symbol of perfection – then, what is God telling us in preserving what seems like marks of imperfection in the resurrected Christ?
It is Eiesland’s symbol of the disabled God that is so powerful to me. If a disability is defined as an impairment or impairments that prevent you from doing what your peers can do, the crucifixion is in many ways, a disability for Jesus, the second person of the Trinity (in classical Christian theology). On the cross, the Son of God suffered death where the other two immortal persons of the Holy Trinity stayed immune to death. On the cross, the Son of God suffered brutal torture, flesh torn by whips, nailed hands and feet rendering him immobile, and his side pierced. On the cross, God in Jesus was God-with-us even in our disabilities and disfigurements. And, in what is an even more amazing turn of events, God is still a disabled God in the resurrection. When we would most expect all marks of suffering, pain, torture, injustice and death to disappear, the resurrected body of Christ kept the scars.
I will quote Eiesland at length here:
In the resurrected Jesus Christ, they [the disciples] saw not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin, but the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and the imago Dei [or image of God]. Paradoxically, in the very act commonly understood as the transcendence of physical life, God is revealed as tangible, bearing the representation of the body reshaped by injustice and sin into the fullness of the Godhead. (pp. 99-100)
In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation. In so doing, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability. (p. 100)
For Eiesland, herself a person with disabilities, this symbol of the disabled God opens up new possibilities for a liberatory theology of disability – a theology that would not equate disabilities with sin, a theology that would allow people with disabilities to be full persons, fully in the image of God, as any other able-bodied person. If the resurrected Jesus is the symbol of the ultimate or ideal image-bearer of God, and he bears the marks of impairment, then impairments and disabilities do not disqualify anyone from being full image-bearers.
Eiesland, a woman, is also sensitive to feminist criticism of the maleness of Christ. Eiesland writes:
The significance of the disabled God is not primarily maleness, but rather physicality. Jesus Christ the disabled God, is consonant with the image of Jesus Christ the stigmatized Jew, the person of color, and representative of the poor and hungry – those who have struggled to maintain the integrity and dignity of their bodies in the face of the physical mutilation of injustice and rituals of bodily degradation. (p, 102)
Such a re-conception of Jesus is not inherently oppressive for women but probably more relevant to women who suffer oppression from patriarchy.
What do you think of Eiesland’s symbol of the disabled God? Do you find it shocking or powerful? Do you think it’s blasphemous to call God disabled? Or do you relate to this image?