Liturgy, Theology and Disability – Reshaping the Conversation and Ethos ~ Guest Post by Randolph Turner

Randolph Turner is Executive Secretary of Justice and Witness, Council for World Mission

The contents of this paper was delivered at a seminar which marks the beginning of a process within the Council for World Mission of engagement on the issues of people with disabilities (PWD) under its building an inclusive church program. 

I invite you to begin this process by reflecting on the following key pointers essential for this process.  

  1. We are here to start a conversation as a community called CWM about reframing focus, engagement and understanding of the issues of PWD in the church and society. We are about throwing stones in the pond, creating multiple ripple effects, disturbing and hopefully bringing change.
  2. We are here to participate in the beginnings of a revolution. I deliberately use that word even though I know its association with negative images. I contend that such associations are unfair as revolution implies radical transformative change in thought and action that invites different approaches to a given issue leading to transformative and renewing outcomes for all.
  3. In this regard then we are here to be challenged and encouraged regarding what we assumed we knew, about what we have accepted as the norm, about what we can begin to do differently so that those who are excluded/ marginalized become fully part of the new not just accommodated, fully part of.
  4. Further we are about creating of a paradigm shift within the church. A paradigm shift that invites a self-critique about the assumption that the church is an inclusive community. This assumption must be critiqued as often time’s inclusion comes with caveats. “We welcome you but stay there”; “you can’t be involved it would disrupt the flow it’s not normal”; “We welcome you and wish that you be healed”; “We would like to welcome you but we are going to have to make so many adjustments and we can’t afford them”.
  5. As we open this conversation we will begin to examine the issues of liturgy, theology, worship, the training of future leaders and the retooling of present church leaders.  Taking note of the realities in the socio political environment that are structured to exclude and make life difficult for PWD. Those realities are more extreme in some context than others and they vary in how they are experienced.
  6. Exploring these pointers should facilitate a commitment regarding how the church can become again a community that affirms it’s calling to stand for justice with those on the margins, enabling the attaining of fullness of life, wholeness of being that is not singularly salvific. I speak about justice in relation to the Hebrew word Tsedeq, it is relational, it is about ensuring that what brings balance and wholeness in relationships amongst human beings and between human beings and creation is achieved.

What then are the issues that drive the need to say the church must think talk and act differently now? What has changed? Or rather what has always been there, accepted as the norm, distorting the realization of the fullness of being but now can no longer be ignored? It is that over the last 40-50 years there has been an emerging consciousness that has been critiquing the defined norms of society? Consequently closer scrutiny of the issues raised in this critique reveals data that tells a story. This story creates a challenge about how we have defined the normal in society, which has distorted an understanding of the full range of what makes us human.

  • An average of 15-20 % of the citizens of every country are people affected by disability.
  •  Roughly 10% of the world’s population or approx. 650 million people live with disabilities.
  • Approximately 80% of people living with disabilities are citizens of countries of the two-thirds world.
  • The World Bank estimates that approximately 20% of the poorest people in the world have some kind of disability.
  • Disability and the connection to job security in an economic downturn remains a subtle but present reality. The reverse is also true regarding access to jobs in an improving economy.
  • Data in 2005 estimated 50,000 people each day dying from extreme poverty among them 10,000 disabled (Disability, Poverty and the new development agenda, Yeo, 2005, P. 4)
  • The connections between disabilities, poverty, job security, and access are well documented and are relevant in the Global North becoming more extreme in the Global South.
  • Emerging diseases, current causes of impairment such as HIV/AIDS, increased armed conflicts and increasing life spans means that the numbers of people living with disabilities will increase.
  • People living with disabilities are the world largest minority group.
  • Levels of marginalization increase when gender, race, caste etc. are added to the mix.

A clearly defined nexus between disability and poverty exists, leading to marginalization and exclusion making for untenable human experiences. “Poverty is both a cause and consequence of disability. Poverty and disability reinforce each other, contributing to increased vulnerability and exclusion……….“people with disabilities are usually among the poorest of the poor”.”[1] The connection between disabilities, poverty, stunted social upward mobility and legitimate access to resources takes on a sharper focus. To engage with this reality alternative theological lens are required to facilitate analysis and action.

Scot Danforth, in an article entitled liberation theology of disability and the option for the poor, proposes a use of the lens of liberation theology. After a brief overview of the work of Nancy Eiesland The Disabled God: Towards a liberation theology of Disability he pushes the conversation further and engages the liberation theological notion of preferential option for the poor. He delineates the nature of the option, the broad and narrow understanding of the poor contained in liberation theology. Danforth then says the following. “Concretely, to opt for the poor is to act against the social structures, ideologies, and cultural practices that create and sustain poverty. The option for the poor is a counter hegemonic, divine love active in real time; a solidarity with a dissenting God and his subjugated people”. [2]

 Drawing on the work of J. O’Brien (Theology and the option for the poor) Danforth lifts out four dimensions that would give the necessary theological and pragmatic depth in engagement of the option for PWD. These four dimensions are;

  • Evangelical simplicity i.e. a detachment from wealth and privilege and the embracing of radical solidarity.
  • Existential solidarity i.e. living in a space of profound relationship to all and learning to listen so that the voice of the other is heard.
  • Transformational analysis i.e. social analysis that seeks the root cause of pervasive injustice, which facilitates a dialogue between Liberation theology and secular disability studies.
  • Institutional challenge i.e. beginning with the assumption that one’s own institution is part of the structure and system of marginalization. [3]

The clear connection between disability and poverty in my view invites the analysis applicable in the option for the poor as a requirement of engagement. It is this analysis that invites a critique of systems and structure and will challenge the numbers based approach dominant in the churches work. Poverty, disability, exclusion, marginalization, injustice, oppression, it is clear that engagement cannot be avoided without a new and transformed way if what we say we are about is fullness of life for all creation.  In the text in John’s gospel (John 10: 1-10) the underlying essential theme surrounding this passage was the matter of security.  I wish to contend that security is not just about the afterlife it is about the now, the living with dignity in the now and the consequent challenging of norms, structures and systems that prevent such living for all creation.

 Key markers of this new conversation

 The theme for this process was inspired in part by an article published in the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health by Thomas Reynolds entitled Theology and Disability: Changing the Conversation. 

Reynolds speaks from the perspective of a parent whose son over time was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Tourette syndrome, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The personal journey of this family led to the recognition that

  • Disability unsettles easy assurances.
  • And invites a deep journey into critiquing the normative understanding of our humanity.

Reynolds recalls a personal moment of new awareness, while teaching a theology class on Theodicy. It occurred to him that the normative assumption that disability is an example of something gone wrong, a deficiency, was very wrong. His walk down this new offshoot in the journey of life led to him positing three markers of conversational change that are required and which I will use because of their value. 

 These markers are not in themselves new or unique but identify in part what underlines the nature of the task ahead in this CWM process. I also want to say that the ethos, the underlying spirit of what makes church in society should also change. We can change the conversation but the words should then lead to a change in attitude, action and engagement.

  • Moving beyond depicting disability as a bodily deprivation or a problem to be cured.
  • Moving beyond dualism or the binary construct of reality of able/disabled; normal/abnormal.
  • Moving beyond accommodation to full access and inclusion.  

 The challenges are immense but with joined up engagement with networks such as Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) and others the voices from the margins can become louder.  The tent can be extended to include all into a community that celebrates distinctive diversity (Isa. 54:2).

 Moving beyond depicting disability as a bodily deprivation or a problem to be cured.

 The theological idea that human disability is grounded in the presence of human sin is still a dominant view in many theological circles. Whether intentionally or subconsciously this held view continues to create prejudice and distorted perceptions of engagement with PWD.  History is replete with the association of words such as sick; pitiable; burden; incapable. Mary Jo Iozzio in an article entitled Thinking about Disabilities with Justice, Liberation, and Mercy says, “Each of these labels results in discriminatory behavior toward the person or persons with this or that disability. Each of these labels reinforces the power differentials and internalized assumptions of superiority held on the part of the non-disabled and inferiority held on the part of people with disabling conditions”[4]. These assumptions consciously or subconsciously held frame the basis for exclusion.

Questions have to be asked, not just biblical and theological questions, but also questions about socio political realities, the construction of power and society via the use of language. Questions such as:

  • Are people with disabilities displaying a bodily flaw that must be corrected?
  • When a child is born unable to physically see or hear, with the biological and chemical makeup that leads to autism or ADHD are they not also made in the image of God?
  • If they are image of God no less or no more than anyone else what lessons about us as humanity are we being invited to learn and live out?
  • What does disability invite us to consider about the body? The body in relation to God who in the person of Jesus the Christ was disfigured on the cross?
  • Does disability intrinsically imply inability?
  • Does disability invite conversation about the full frame of what it means to be human? And do “human differences” constantly teach us lessons about us?
  • Given that religion with its assumptions about the supernatural, its propensity to articulate rules and norms governing the interaction of natural and supernatural, and given that in essence through practice and institution religion is about the management of power, framed, articulated and pushed by imperfect human beings. Is it not necessary to critique liturgy, litany and the interpretation of the text, asking questions about why they in function have pushed to the margins those who are PWD?
  • The above equally begs the question that Nancy Eiesland spoke to regarding a critique of the “the conflation of sin and disability” that exists with religious circles.

These questions are just starters; I’m sure many more could be asked.

Reynolds puts it this way “What is at stake, in this first change in the conversation, then, is moving beyond disability as a problem to be fixed or cured, and instead considering it as one of the features of fragile human life that requires accommodation through the removal of barriers and or providing the resources for participation. In this sense, disability invokes questions of accessibility and inclusion as a matter of justice and human dignity. And justice and dignity necessitate that personhood should neither be defined by nor reduced to disability.[5]

What is required is self-critique and critical discernment about litany and liturgy; songs and prayer; text and sermon allowing for an emerging community that truly celebrates diverse difference as the new norm.

Moving beyond dualism or the binary construct of reality – able/disabled, normal/abnormal

In a discourse about dependence, inadequacy and the denial of difference Franz Fanon makes the following comment about language, “one who possesses language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language…..mastery of language affords remarkable power”.[6] Douglas Sharp in his own discourse on race pushes this further and asserts that “language in and of itself may seem to be neutral or innocent, but the uses to which it can be put are hardly such”.[7]

What am I getting at in inserting these two reflections?  It is to make a point about language and how it defines our experiences. In their treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann write about the social construction of reality and the role of language in constructing that reality. Briefly everyday experiences are presented to us objectively, we interpret them subjectively. This combination of objective and subjective forms our consciousness; we use language to define, to express those experiences.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, Michel Foucault talks about binary divisions (mad/sane; normal; abnormal; in/out). According to Foucault through this way of using language the normal is defined.  This “power of normalization” ultimately leads to exclusion as a by-product. Identity is shaped and the normal is defined in everyday life. We use these dualisms, binary language, keeping alive the structures and systems that determine exclusion in community and confirming the complexities of power and dominance.[8]

It is against this backdrop that we can accept what Iozzio refers to as the social construction of disability.  “The world has been constructed by those who have never considered the impact of their structures, whether from an architectural or ideological advantage, for people who do not fit an able-bodied norm….. the social construction of disability, intentionally or not, precludes the participation of certain people by preventing them access to if not excluding them outright, from many socially and culturally significant activities…….This ideology tells Americans (as well as members of other nations) either explicitly or tacitly that people with conditions are inferior.”[9]

Reynolds adds to this point by contending that a “cult of normalcy”[10] gives a routine to systems of power and the maintenance of the status quo. He then concludes, “If we grant that the “normal” is a standard that is socially constructed, we are brought to recognize that it can also be critiqued and deconstructed. The basis of this lies in something all human beings share, which helps undercut the “us-them” binary: vulnerability”[11]We exist in a constant state of vulnerability, no more or no less it is our vulnerability that binds us. Reynolds summarizes this critique of binary language in this way “It could be said that the issue of disability, manifest variously in different bodies, call us (all of us) into acknowledging our common human weakness and thus opens us (all of us) more radically to God’s grace”.[12]

Jurgen Moltmann expands on the issue of our common vulnerability. A focus on our common vulnerability provides a conduit away from binary expressions. He contends that the acceptance of our wholeness comes through learning from and the acceptance of those whom language labels as disabled.  “I begin with the conviction that there are fundamentally no “persons with disabilities”, but rather only “people”; people with this or that difficulty on the basis of which the society of the strong and capable declares them to be “disabled” and consequently more or less excludes them from public life.” [13]

The acceptance of a common vulnerability with its potential to undercut binary expressions begins with what Moltmann’s calls “mutual Liberation” of both those labeled disabled and nondisabled. Mutual liberation in part is on one hand an invitation to face the fear about one’s vulnerability, which is often evident in encounters with PWD. And on the other a removal of excessive societal restraints on PWD which often creates its own burden of despondency and sadness. [14] Ultimately Moltmann contends that we work towards a healing community “we cannot get rid of disabilities, but we can overcome the disabling of those with disabilities. We can heal the dis-eased relationship between those with and those without disabilities. This will occur not through solicitous care and helping, but rather through solidarity and living together. [15] Such a community comes to life through the reshaping of reality in the way we use language.  In effect can we then say that the affirmation of our common vulnerability shapes the development of a new language that condemns binary division to the bin. 

Moving beyond accommodation to full access and inclusion.  

The full participation of people with disabilities is not an option for the church, but rather a defining feature, opening up interdependence and respect and friendship far beyond what is often taken for “inclusion”. [16] Attempts at inclusion can in themselves be difficult in part because they function with the subtext of binary language redefining and maintaining systems of management and control. Working for inclusion can be fraught with language of “them” and “us”, “inside” and “outside” in the best interest of caring and doing good. This is the view of Reynolds who goes further to argue that inclusion, which focuses on accommodation, can be “insidious”. Difference can be seen as “other”, binary language is again at play, and binary languages always lead to exclusion.  Additionally inclusion can project a sense of rightness without self-critique, it is the right thing to do.[17]

What is really needed goes beyond inclusion, which is the start, we may think inclusion but together we must talk and function around access.  Access implies authentic space within community where diverse difference, cloaked in a common vulnerability is celebrated and affirmed.

Indeed the body does not consist of one member, but many. There are many members

yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor can the

hand to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body

that seem to be weakest are indispensable. (1 Corinthians 12: 20-22)

Jennie Block articulates the need for a theology of access, which in her view acknowledges the following as a starting point.

  • That inclusion is integral to the gospel and not derived from a generosity of spirit.
  • That we accept that God is not accessible on our terms and space for those called the other is a basic requirement.
  • That we face and accepting the truth about the structural exclusion of others.

Block then proceeds to outline what she believes are foundational principles of a theology of access. These include a rereading of text, new liturgical and sacramental formulations, explorations of disability and spirituality and a response to the injustice of the oppression of people with disabilities.  As she contends “The identity and mission of the church are explicitly tied to who is present and who is absent”. [18]  

Clearly access over inclusion will require more engagement using our common vulnerability as a starting point and in so doing challenge presumptions about what is deemed important. Reynolds reflects on his relationship with his son and has this to say. “Being in relationship with Chris has taught me that caring for others as different is not a matter of “helping”, of giving from a position of strength, but recognizing my own vulnerability and becoming open to the ways I receive from others. Others – in ways that include their disabilities…..This opens up the power of giving through first receiving, receiving from Chris”. [19]

Access through the affirmation of vulnerability coupled with a willingness to listen should blur the mantra of binary language, us and them, inside and outside, center and margins will become at times fused. “the listener comes to confront the biases of false assumptions, and unequal power equations that obscure encountering the difference of another.……the listener responds, adjusting the way of another by entering their story”. [20]

Access implies that over time with a commitment to community and the celebrating of vulnerability and diverse difference the mission of God exercised through the church in its many forms holds a welcoming space and opportunity for engagement for the wheelchair bound, the person with MS, the child with downs syndrome engaged with their abilities offered at the table of grace. Impossible you say, then I ask how different is this from the vision crafted in Isaiah 11 of the lion and the wolf living with the child and the lamb or the dictate of Isa 56:3-8. The unimaginable becomes accepted as the language of domination, exclusion and control no longer has power.

The exclusion of those who have often been placed on the margins of communities and societies is an issue of justice. The church called to be an inclusive community must contend with this social reality. Engagement and advocacy on the issues related to people living with disabling conditions is no longer an option but a requirement.


Block, Jennie W.  (2002). Copious Hosting: A theology of access for people with disabilities. New York,  

NY : Continuum.

Berger, Peter l., and Luckmann Thomas. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the

Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.

Danforth, Scot. (2005). Liberation theology of disability and the option for the poor. Disability Studies

Quarterly, Volume 25, No 3.

Department for International Development (2000). Disability, poverty and development. London:


Elwan, A. (1999). Poverty and Disability a survey of the literature. Washington DC. World Bank

Fanon, Franz.  (1967). Black Skin, White Masks, Charles Lam Markmann (Trans). New York: Grove

Foucault, Michel. (1979). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. A. Sheridan (Trans). New York ,

NY: Vintage.

Iozzio, Mary Jo. (2009). Thinking about disabilities with Justice, liberation, and mercy. Horizons,

Volume 36, no. 1.

Moltmann, Jurgen. (1998)  Liberate yourselves by accepting one another. In  Nancy Eiesland and Don

Saliers  (Eds), Human disability and the service of God (pp 105 – 122). Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Raiser, Konrad. ( 2013)  Religion Power Politics. Stephen Brown (Trans). WCC publications: Geneva 

Reynolds, Thomas E. (2012). Theology and Disability: changing the conversation. Journal of Religion,

Disability and Health, 16:1, 33-48

Reynolds, Thomas E. (2008).  Vulnerable communion: A theology of disability and hospitality. Grand

Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Sharp, Douglas. (2002).  No Partiality: The Idolatry of Race and A New Humanity, Downers Grove.

Illinois, Inter Varsity Press.

Yeo, Rebecca, (2005) Disability, poverty and the new development agenda, Disability, knowledge and

research program.

World Facts and Statistics on Disabilities and Disability Issues:

[1] Department for International Development, Disability, poverty and development, 2000, p.2 & 6. See also Rebecca Yeo. Disability, poverty and the new development agenda. 2005.


[2] Scot Danforth, Liberation Theology of Disability and the option for the poor, 2005. p. 5. See also Jennie Block. Copious Hosting: A theology of access for people with disabilities. pp 93-100.

[3] Ibid. p. 9-11

[4] Iozzio, Mary Jo, . Thinking about disabilities with Justice, liberation, and mercy. p. 39


[5] Thomas E. Reynolds, Theology and Disability: changing the conversation. P.37.

[6] Franz Fanon,  Black Skin, White Masks, p.17-18

[7] Douglas Sharp, No Partiality: The Idolatry of Race and A New Humanity, p. 31

[8] Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. pp 29 ,199

[9] Iozzio, Mary Jo, . Thinking about disabilities with Justice, liberation, and mercy. p. 42

[10] Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable communion: A theology of disability and hospitality. p59 ff.

[11] Thomas E. Reynolds, Theology and Disability: changing the conversation. P.38

[12] Reynolds. Op, cit, p. 42

[13] Jurgen Moltmann, Liberate yourselves by accepting one another, cited in Human disability and the service of God

[13]    p.105

[14] Jurgen Moltmann, Liberate yourselves by accepting one another, cited in Human disability and the service of God

[14]    p. 107-114

[15] Ibid. p. 121

[16] C. Thompson. Ableism: The face of oppression as experienced by people with disabilities , p. 221.

[17] Thomas E. Reynolds, Theology and Disability: changing the conversation. P.44

[18] Jennie Block. Copious Hosting: A theology of access for people with disabilities. pp 121.

[19] Thomas E. Reynolds, Theology and Disability: changing the conversation. P.46

[20] Ibid. p. 46

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Her Name is Edna ~ Guest Post by Jennifer Henry


Jennifer Henry is the Executive Director of KAIROS, an ecological justice and human rights organization of eleven Canadian churches and religious organizations.  She lives in Toronto, Canada, and works towards strengthening the integration of theological and biblical reflection and justice activism. This post has been reblogged from


Her Name is Edna

November 6, 2013 by 

edna and kenneth

Edna and Kenneth in 2011.

Her name is Edna. She came to Canada under the Live-In Caregiver program from the Philippines, dreaming of snow and a better life for her only son, Kenneth.  This was not the first foreign country she worked in as a migrant. She left the Philippines for the first time when Kenneth was only 5 years old.  Five countries later, she saw Canada as her final destination, a place where she could reunite with her son.  In the 15 years she worked as a migrant labourer, she and her son were never together more than 5 months. Throughout this time, she supported Kenneth, her extended family, and her country, through remittances.

Her name is Edna. In some ways she considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. She is finally in a country that, after 24 months of live-in employment as a Nanny, gives her the opportunity to become a permanent resident and to bring her family to Canada. For other migrants in Canada, such as seasonal agricultural workers, no such opportunity exists; so Edna worked and worked, satisfying the requirements of the program so that she and Kenneth could be reunited. Kenneth is a man now, 19 years of age. She has kept in constant touch with him through phone calls and online chats, but longs to have him near.

Her name is Edna.  She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but despite chemotherapy treatments she continued to work, to satisfy the program’s requirements and to support her family.  Ultimately, with a terminal diagnosis, nothing was left of the dream except to bring Kenneth to Canada to see her in person one last time.  Thanks to the kindness of strangers—charity really—he was able to come, and she lived a week in his presence before she died.

Her name was Edna.

In the settled churches of the Global North, if we think of them at all, we tend to think of migrants as “other.”  However, unless we are Indigenous peoples, there are few of us whose ancestry is not intertwined with migration.  My family came to North America in the early 1600s to work and to build a new life. The only difference between Edna and me is a few centuries.  Other members of my family who came later may well have been forced to do so by the Irish potato famine.  How different is that from the factors that force migration now—poverty, economic injustice, ecological devastation, disaster?

In the settled churches of the Global North, if we think of them at all, we tend to think of migrants as “other.”  A typical response is one of charity, consistent with the scriptural call for care of the poor, widow or orphan.  Perhaps we offer English classes, provide pastoral care, hold special services, or raise money to help bring a child to visit a dying mother. We are endeavouring to be “inclusive,” but I worry that this is still based on a notion that we own the church and are graciously including people into a community that we define. I fear that our welcome is conditional.  We are the host, with all the power this expresses.

If these underlying ideas are there, then we are acting in ways that are similar to our nations, nations that periodically extend the hand of welcome to “our” country to a precious few “deserving” migrants, including those within borders still rigorously defined.  Our nation’s welcome is conditional. We hold all the power to accept, and to turn away; to leave “undeserving” migrants to die at sea, to accept, even depend on, the labour of others, but not their dreams of settlement.  We are countries with borders, and we decide who comes in and who stays out.

It is my firm belief that the theological task, the prophetic task, is to turn this system upside down and inside out. We must work towards a vision of churches and countries without borders; churches and countries that seek not only to provide radical hospitality, but to be ourselves welcomed by those who image our God in our time.

Affirming the work of Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell[1], I would assert that our God is a migrant, our God is undocumented.  Early appearances of Yahweh in the scriptures portray God as a stranger in need of hospitality.  In Genesis 18, God appears to Abraham and Sarah in the guise of three mysterious guests in need of sustenance, which, when offered leads to the birth of a people.  As the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures unfolds, God is portrayed as “stateless,” a God of the tent who sojourns with the people, in contrast with the settled gods of the surrounding empires.  This Exodus God flees Egypt’s tyranny with the people and wanders in the wilderness.

Later attempts to capture and domesticate Yahweh, the one who has migrated with the people of Israel, to contain Yahweh within the borders of the Israelite monarchy, result in catastrophes from which the prophets continually call the people back.  Our God is a migrant.

Jesus, our Saviour, himself enters into the world as a child, in the midst of his parents’ journey—a journey to satisfy imperial demands.  At the youngest of ages, he is forced to flee his country to be safe from political violence.  “The adult Jesus not only characterizes himself as homeless (‘the Human One has no nowhere to lay his head,’ Lk 9:58), but stateless. ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’”[2](Jn 18:36).  He constantly appears, even within the resurrection narratives, as one needing hospitality at the same time as he offers it in true abundance.  As Christine Pohl asserts: “Jesus welcomes and needs welcome; Jesus requires that followers depend on and provide hospitality.” [3]

Our God is a migrant. Our Saviour is a refugee. It is not those of privilege in the established, settled churches of the Global North, but the migrants and refugees knocking at our door who more clearly image God in our time.  As true disciples, we are to extend, but also to receive hospitality, from those whose welcome images the profound love and justice of God, the radical reciprocity of God.[4]  We are called to transform structures that define centre and margin, that make welcome conditional, into communities of mutuality and interdependence.

Her name was Edna.  Economic policies that structurally impoverish the countries of the Global South forced her migration.  Nations that serve the god of the market commodified her labour, her very self.  Systems of structured inequity threatened to endanger the most sacred of bond–that between a mother and a child.  If we, from our charity, seek to help, to include, conditionally or partially,  we must know that the God of justice, the Holy parent, holds Edna fully and whollly in her very heart—a heart that broke as Edna’s own heart was breaking to be away from her child.

May we as churches, and as Christians, respond in justice to the migrant God who journeys with people, forced out by oppression and inequity. May we respond in mutuality to our refugee Saviour who knocks at our doors, seeking to receive but also to offer prophetic hospitality.  May we recognize common vulnerability and include each other in communities of radical reciprocity.[5]  And may we strive to be both guest and host in churches where doors swing open and borders fall away, where a new thing is created from the God who lives in between us.

Her name was Edna. May she rest in God’s peace.

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Reclaiming life as a new paradigm for religious coexistence ~ Guest Post by Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown, originally from the UK and now living in France, is a former managing editor of Ecumenical News International and currently works in Geneva as Programme Executive for the Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism ( Stephen is a member of the Board of Directors of the World Association for Christian CommunicationA french version of this post is scheduled to appear on the blog of the French delegates to the WCC assembly



“God of Life – Lead us to Justice and Peace” – the theme of the Busan assembly of the World Council of Churches echoes that of the WCC’s Vancouver assembly in 1983: “Jesus Christ – the Life of the World.” (Jesus-Christ, vie du monde) 

Yet with the passage of three decades the differences also become clearer. The Vancouver theme was an affirmation that Christ was the foundation of the life of the whole world – in Reformed theology the sovereignty of Christ over the whole of the world. In Busan, however, the idea of the power of life becomes, instead, an appeal to God to “lead us to justice and peace”.


The backdrop to the Vancouver assembly was the threat to life stemming from the arms race between East and West and the spectre of a nuclear conflagration, the worldwide structures of injustice, including the still unresolved struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the increasing awareness that the global ecosystem itself was threatened. The assembly theme – “Jesus Christ – the Life of the World” – was intended to affirm the power of life over that of death, seen in violence and destruction, the exploitation of nature, poverty and hunger, and the spiral of security, defence, destruction and death, as Konrad Raiser, the German theologian who would later become WCC general secretary, put it in advance of Vancouver. The assembly itself gave birth to the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Preservation of Creation:


To engage member churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of all creation should be a priority for World Council programmes.  The foundation of this emphasis should be confessing Christ as the life of the world and Christian resistance to demonic powers of death in racism, sexism, caste oppression, economic exploitation, militarism, violations of human rights, and the misuse of science and technology.


This was an “urgent call for authoritative witness by the churches” (Konrad Raiser) about war and violence, justice and injustice, hunger and poverty, and destruction of the environment. Central to this call was the close link between the confessional statement of Christ as the life of the world and the need resistance to unjust powers. Here there is a close parallel to what in the Protestant tradition is described as status confessionis, where fidelity to Jesus Christ requires confessing witness by the church.


Yet such “authoritative witness” assumes a context in which the church remains a moral and societal force, if not the context of Christendom itself. It is precisely such a context that would allow the church to put “a spoke in the wheel” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) by engaging in direct political action.


Three decades later, “life” is again the central theme of a WCC assembly. However, the context has changed markedly. 


As Ellen Ueberschär, general secretary of the German Protestant Kirchentag, recently noted, “If ecumenical dialogue was the great historical issue for churches in the 20th century, then inter-religious understanding is the issue of the 21st century”.


The choice of Busan for the 2013 highlights the geo-strategic and religious changes that have taken place over the past 30 years. The global balance of power is shifting away from Western Europe and North America, towards countries such as Brazil, India and China. Asia is also a symbol of the changing face of Christianity which is shifting to the global South, with the growth of Pentecostal and Evangelical forms of spirituality. Finally, Asia is a world region that has long been marked by the religious pluralism that is now seen as characterising the world as a whole.  The Busan assembly theme, “God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace”, testifies to the emergence of a new paradigm on religious coexistence.


The theme of the Vancouver assembly can be seen as an expression of what Konrad Raiser would describe as “christocentric universalism”, in his book, Ecumenism in Tradition, published in Germany in 1989 just as the Cold War confrontation began to crumble. While such “christocentric universalism” had been the dominant ecumenical paradigm in the decades following the Second World War, he argued, it was being increasingly called into question by religious pluralism, the logic of the “global system”, and threats to global survival. There was a need for a new paradigm, he wrote, with a fresh emphasis on a “theocentric” orientation within a Trinitarian perspective of the relationship between God, the world and humankind, where “life” is understood as a web of reciprocal relationships, of cultures in dialogue in a situation of religious and cultural pluralism.


In the theme for the Busan assembly, rather than Christocentric affirmation of Vancouver, it is the God of life who leads to justice and peace. As the Korean communications scholar Young Cheol Cheon notes in his dissertation “Communication for Life in Cyberspace”, life and communication play a central role in Eastern World views. Such a perspective can be seen in a statement that emerged from a meeting on the assembly theme held in Busan, South Korea, in May 2012, organized by World Association for Christian Communication,  the WCC and the Korea Host Committee for the WCC assembly. Entitled “Reclaiming communication for life, justice and peace”, makes clear reference to the insight of eastern worldviews and the role of communication in a religiously pluralistic world, where “The universe is understood to be an integrated whole an independent organism … communication is the essence of life and … human beings are in communication with all of creation.” Furthermore, “In a world that has enabled people of different backgrounds, religions and cultures to be more aware of each other and their inter-connectedness, communication has the potential to promote life together in faith, hope and love.”


In such a context, “Communication rights claim spaces and resources in the public sphere for everyone to be able to engage in transparent, informed and democratic debate. They claim unfettered access to the information and knowledge essential to democracy, empowerment, responsible citizenship and mutual accountability. They claim political, social and cultural environments that encourage the free exchange of a diversity of creative ideas, knowledge and cultural products. Finally, communication rights insist on the need to ensure a diversity of cultural identities that together enhance and enrich the common good.”


Here churches and religious organizations, as well as civil society, have their place, not by claiming absolute and universal authority, but in engaging in dialogue with each other and with the secular public sphere.



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Busan and Ecumenical Space ~ Guest Post by Anders Göranzon

Anders Göranzon is Honorary Lecturer at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

One of the students, in the module: Ecumenical Perspectives, asked:

“Why do you only focus on the World Council of Churches (WCC) in this course? Why not other ecumenical movements?”

I was happy for the question and the more I have come to know the students I have understood why it was asked. They come from Zambia, DRC, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and a few other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They are Anglicans, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Congregationalists, and Lutherans. Some belong to denominations I have never heard of – supposedly to be categorized as Evangelical or Pentecostal churches. If at all it is needed to label them. It became clear that the focus on the WCC was questionable.

The reason for spending so much time on the WCC is of course the fact that from 30 October until 8 November the WCC will meet for its 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea. The Assembly will gather up to 3000 Christians from all over the globe. Maybe that is not so many but they represent millions of believers all over the world. If one takes into account that also churches and denominations that are not members of the WCC will be there, the hope and expectation is that the Assembly will influence the lives of a majority of Christians worldwide.

In the preparations for this Assembly there have been discussions about expanding the space, so that more denominations can take part. There have also been talks about combining the WCC Assembly with the Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches This idea was dropped at an early stage, though. It would have created a situation with a protestant domination which had not been for the benefit of the ecumenical movement.

A concept like Ecumenical Space, which was introduced by Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the WCC 1994-2004, helps us to reflect on the physical reality that the WCC is. At Assemblies like the upcoming one in Busan, Christians from different traditions and contexts meet physically. In Busan the Korean concept Madang will be used to form an open space where people can interact. (Madang is the court yard in a traditional Korean house.) It is supposed to be a symbol of the whole movement as an open and yet inclusive space.

But the notion of being this space is also a challenge. When the WCC in the future wants to expand the space, the question can be asked: for whom? It goes without saying that the difference in theology and ethical standpoints between the different member churches is vast. Even within denominations there is disagreement over important and central issues.

I am not going to discuss this in depth. It is a reality from the evening when Jesus prayed “that all of them may be one”. But allow me to just say a few words on the relation between the WCC and other major ecumenical bodies in the world. And on this note I want to thank the students for helping me to see that other Christian traditions also have a contribution.

One interesting trend in the ecumenical movement on international level is the way Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal churches and even the Roman Catholic church in some respects get closer to another. Of course there are major disagreements on issues like human sexuality and gender equality. Some would claim the authority of the Bible in ways that others would not feel comfortable with. The question of the relation between Christian faith and other faiths is also a burning issue. But there are also other areas, where churches do agree. Let me take a few examples.

If one reads the new mission document from the WCC, by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME): Together towards life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes and compares it with for instance the Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Movement  there are some interesting similarities.  When the Cape Town Commitment says that “…scattered peoples can be both recipients and agents of Christ’s mission …” I hear an echo of the CWME document which says that “[p]eople on the margins have agency …”

And my reflection from the class is that the students from different African countries, belonging to unknown denominations, in that situation were marginalized or scattered. But they forced me to see, that they have agency.

Another similarity is this. The CWME document says: “Authentic evangelism is grounded in humility and respect for all, and flourishes in the context of dialogue.” The Cape Town Commitment responds: “As a legitimate part of our Christian mission, such dialogue combines confidence in the uniqueness of Christ and in the truth of the gospel with respectful listening to others.”

One reason is of course the work with the historic document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” which was released June 28 2011 by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) , the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) Together these three organizations represent over 90 percent of the world’s total Christian population represented.

I want to believe that something new and healthy can come out of the 10 Assembly of the WCC, where also other ecumenical bodies will be present. As we live in this world, there is still a long way to go, but it gives me hope that respect and dialogue are valued and that people on the margins are seen as agents. Let’s pray and hope that the Ecumenical Space becomes real and physical. Let’s hope that every person in the Christian family is respected and included. I will try to do my very best together with the students I have the privilege to teach.


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Sexuality in an Indonesian Perspective ~ Guest Post by Stephen Suleeman

Stephen Suleeman is a lecturer at Jakarta Theological Seminary.  For the last 15 years he has been organizing activities and training for JTS students on HIV/AIDS and LGBTIQ issues. This article is a modification of a paper that was presented at “Writing Workshop on HIV & AIDS”, organized by Mission 21, in Jakarta on October 8-10, 2013. 


A Case of AIDS and Homosexuality

Darma is a single man of 52 years old. He takes part in some of his church’s outreach community. However, in these past few years he seldom appears in his church. His friends said that he has moved to his mother’s home in Bekasi, east of Jakarta. And he has been very busy with his work. 

About five months ago, Darma appeared to join the prison ministry of his church. Nothing seemed strange about his condition. That is why, many of his friends were shocked to know that about two months ago he was admitted into the hospital and suffered a very serious illness. 

Darma stopped schooling after he finished his Junior High School because he wanted very much to help his family who was very poor. In spite of his lack of education, Darma was quite successful in his life. His lack of education was compensated by his taking up several book-keeping and accounting classes so that he could get quite a decent job that he was able to buy some homes and other properties. His mother lives in a very small home with only two-bedrooms, which Darma had bought with his own money for her. She makes her living by selling rice in the neighborhood. 

Last month some of his friends went to see Darma in his mother’s home, a widow of 72 years old. They found Darma lying in his bed in a very appalling condition. Darma had lost his appetite. And now he looked thin and very weak. He could not even go to the bathroom by himself. Two people are needed to carry him, and his mother could not do it because she has a small stature. 

When his friends came, they asked Darma, “What happened to you? What kind of illness are you suffering from?” But Darma didn’t say anything. He just said that he had been suffering from some kind of virus that attacked his brain. “I want to die. I am ready to die,” Darma said weakly to his friends. 

Some of his friends saw a piece of paper hanging on the wall in Darma’s room. It was a diagnosis of a CT Scan reading of his condition. It is confidential, but his friends were really curious about his condition as they truly wanted to help him. So, they were very shocked when they saw the report that says, “AIDS suspect”. 

His friends tried to pretend that they did not know what his illness was. They wanted Darma to open himself and tell them what his problem really was. How could they tell his mother about it? What had to be done to get his mother ready to receive this devastating news about her only son? 

A few days later, Darma’s pastor came to visit him. He also tried to find out from Darma what his problem was. But Darma kept silent, refusing to answer all questions about his illness. When the pastor left, Darma’s mother approached him at the gate. She asked him, “Pastor, I know that you must have many friends who are knowledgeable about health issues. Could you please help me to find the medicine for my son? I really want him to recover from his illness. I am willing to pay any amount of money, as long as my son could gain his health back.” 

The pastor replied, “How could I find the medicine because I know nothing about his illness? There are so many virus in the world, and we need to find out his real problem before we can find the cure.” 

“Pastor, I want to tell you a secret. But you must promise me that you would not tell this secret to anyone else. The doctors told me that Darma is suffering from ‘male’s illness,” she said. 

“What do you mean?” the pastor replied. 

“He is suffering from AIDS. But please pastor. This is a secret that only the doctor, you, Darma, and me know. No one else knows about this illness.” The pastor tried to inquire about Darma’s social life, which Darma had so far hidden from his church’s friends. 

Darma’s mother said that Darma had a “close friend”, a man who has been living with Darma in his apartment. He is the one who has been taking Darma to the doctor and the hospital. 

When Darma’s friends knew about his illness and his hidden life, they were very shocked. How should they handle it? About three years ago, the church held a seminar on HIV/AIDS. But when the illness hit home, they seemed to be lost, not knowing how to handle it. Moreover, now they are faced with another different issue – LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer). How should they understand it? What does Christianity say about it? Is HIV/AIDS “a gay disease”? What they had learnt in their Christian community is that God hates homosexuals. God condemns homosexuals. But about this friend, Darma, an activist in their church who seemed to have been living a double life? Is he really condemned by God for his sexual orientation? 


Darma’s silence is a serious problem. His friends never knew how he contracted HIV. How many people has he been in contact with? Who could he have possibly infected? Until 5-6 months ago Darma did not realize that he had HIV virus in his body.  He was still doing his activities as usual. Suddenly, two months ago Darma collapsed, unconscious, and was taken to a hospital. Only then the doctors suspected that he is suffering from AIDS. 

Why did Darma keep silent? Most probably he did not understand what HIV and AIDS are because he is not well educated. Most probably he felt safe because he did not feel anything – until five or six months ago. 

As a gay man, most probably Darma was worried that his church friends would distance themselves from him once they knew about his sexual orientation. It is possible that Darma felt that he would be condemned by his church and his church friends. So far his church has never addressed this LGBTIQ issue because it is a very touchy issue and not easy to handle. That is why people who have a different sexual orientation would feel insecure and do not feel confident to come out and tell others about their sexual orientation. 

If this is the case, then churches – and also other religions – need to open themselves to the correct information about HIV/AIDS and LGBTIQ issues. They need to be open and accept, and even embrace these people as their fellow human beings, as what they are. 


Many Christian churches and Christians believe that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment towards LGBTIQ people because they are involved in an “abnormal” or “deviant” sexual relationship. Bible verses like Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah); Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:2; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 1:7 have often been used to condemn homosexuals. 

Many people in Third World countries also believe that LGBTIQ is a western phenomenon and influence. People become lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender simply because they imitate a western “lifestyle”. 

Now, how about Darma who doesn’t have much education? Is he simply following a western lifestyle? 

To answer these questions I would like to refer to how gender and sexuality is understood by the people in Indonesia. The Bugis people recognize three sexes (female, male, and transvestites) and five genders (women, men, calabai, calalai, and bissu).[2]  Calabai refers to an anatomical male who takes the roles and function of females, while calalai refers to an anatomical female who takes the roles and function of males. Bissu is a priest who appears externally male and is internally female, and vice versa.[3] 

The people of Ponorogo, East Java, are familiar with reog, a traditional dance performed by a man who carries a tiger mask, attached to a large fan which is adorned with peacock feathers. The barong mask is very heavy and the dancer carries the 30-40 kg mask by supporting it by his teeth. People believe that the dancer, called warok, requires some magical power in order to perform his dance. [4]  In order that he can maintain his magical power, a warok needs to maintain a gemblak, a young boy of about 12-15 years old with whom the warok will have sex. 

These two examples I hope can serve as evidence that homosexuality is not a western lifestyle. People were born into it. It is heteronormativity that teaches us to believe that there are only two sexes and two genders.  In fact, heteronormativity seems to have been brought into Indonesia by Islam and Christianity and through their presence, other forms of sexual and gender expression and orientation are condemned and have slowly been changed into a binary one – man and woman, male and female.  

Now, the next question, did God condemn Darma with HIV/AIDS for his “deviant” sexual orientation? First of all we need to know that not every person who has HIV is condemned by God for his or her sexual orientation. According to WHO, in Indonesia HIV is transmitted mainly through the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes among injecting drug users (52.6%), followed by unsafe heterosexual intercourse (37.2%), homosexual intercourse (4.5%) and perinatal transmission (1.4%).[5] 

Thus, homosexual intercourse contributes very little towards the HIV/AIDS problems in Indonesia. But Darma seemed to be very much afraid of telling his friends and his pastor how he contacted the virus. 

Unfortunately President Ronald Reagan had labeled HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease”. And Reagan was strongly supported by some conservative religious groups and people. Reagan’s silence has caused the death of thousands of people. When Reagan finally spoke on the disease in 1987, at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 20,849 had died. The illness has spread to 113 countries, with 50,000 cases. [6] 

It is possible that HIV/AIDS spread through unsafe sexual relationship, but it doesn’t mean that only gays are exposed to it. How about lesbians? Their sexual orientation is also considered “deviant”, and yet HIV risk is very low among them. However, as I have mentioned above, in Indonesia, the spread of HIV/AIDS through homosexual intercourse in Indonesia is very low. 

HIV and AIDS do not discriminate their victims. Anyone can be exposed to HIV because of human failures, such as what happened to about 7,000 patients in Oklahoma, USA, who were  infected by a dentist who is suffering from HIV, and yet continued to handle his patients.[7] 

HIV/AIDS does not discriminate the occupation, the skin color, or even the religion of its victims. No one is immune to HIV. Therefore, as Christians we are called to deal with it seriously. We should not treat this illness and its patients as God’s condemnation. 

The Second Visit of Darma’s Pastor

On October 2, Darma’s pastor once again visited him to serve him holy communion in conjunction with the World Communion Sunday that fell on October 6. 

When the pastor met him, he first asked Darma if he would like to be served holy communion. Darma agreed. Then the pastor asked an elder who came with him to prepare the communion. When they were alone by themselves, the pastor asked Darma, “Darma, I think I know what your illness is. I saw your medicine when I came here last time. And when I went home, I checked what kind of medicine it is on the internet.” 

“That is a medication that my doctor prescribed for me to increase my appetite,” Darma said. 

“Yes, you are right. But the information on the internet also says that this medicine is meant for people who lost their appetite due to AIDS,” the pastor said. 

Darma was surprised. His face looked a little bit bewildered because he never thought that the pastor would search the internet – although actually he already knew from Darma’s mother about his illness. 

“Darma, I would like to tell you that many people contacted HIV through many different modes. They could get it through blood transfusion, through an operation, or through a doctor who lives with HIV. So you don’t have to worry if you are suffering from this illness. We should love you still, no matter what your condition is.” 

Darma was touched when he heard all these words. He almost broke into tears. 

“Darma,” the pastor further asked him. “I would like to ask you one question, and I hope you wouldn’t be offended by my question. Are you gay?” 

“A little, pastor,” Darma said, still trying to hide his sexual orientation. “No, I have left this world since the time I knew that I got this illness.” 

“Darma,” the pastor said, “God created each one of us as a unique person. Some may be created as straight, and some as gay or lesbian. It’s alright if you think you are gay. In fact, I believe that God created your people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer, as a test for us heterosexual, whether or not we could love you as you really are. It’s OK, Darma. In fact, I would like to apologize to you. Please forgive me Darma, for not having talked openly with you and the whole congregation about this issue. Perhaps that is why you have been trying to hide yourself and your sexual orientation. Please forgive us, Darma, the church, for failing to open ourselves to you and your people, that have made you feel insecure about your true selves.” 

Upon hearing it Darma was surpised. He broke into tears. “Oh, pastor, you are incredible. I can’t believe what I heard from you! If only I had known you and your position better, maybe I would not end up like what I am today. Pastor, you are only one among thousands of pastors who are willing to open yourself to me and my people.” 


In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples when they 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.’” (John 9:2-4) 

I believe that Jesus’ word is still applicable today. We are called not to treat a person with HIV/AIDS like lepers in the time of Jesus. We are called to do the work of the Father who had sent Jesus, “while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” 

Churches are called to talk openly about LGBTIQ, and treat the issue wisely by not easily linking HIV/AIDS with LGBTIQ, so that people will not look at HIV/AIDS as a gay disease, or treat LGBTIQ people as the cause of HIV/AIDS.  

When the pastor gathered Darma’s friends and discussed his suffering, they decided to help Darma to find the best treatment that he could get, and secondly, to start discussing and understanding LGBTIQ issue. Unfortunately, it has to take a victim for the church to start opening itself towards LGBTIQ issue. Hopefully it would not happen elsewhere. 


[2] Sharyn Graham, “Sulawesi’s fifth gender” in Inside Indonesia, March 19, 2013, downloaded from, October 19, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ian Douglas Wilson, “Reog Ponorogo: Spirituality, Sexuality, and Power in a Javanese Performance Tradition”, in  Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 2, May 1999, downloaded from, October 19, 2013.  

[5]  Directorate General Communicable Disease Control & Environmental Health. (2009). “Statistic of HIV-AIDS cases in Indonesia: Reported up to December 2009. “

[6] Ibid.

[7] “How an Oklahoma dentist may have exposed 7,000 patients to HIV, hepatitis”, CTV News,, downloaded on September 26, 2013. 


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Vigilance as an act to subvert the ‘powerful’: Juxtaposing Draupadi and Rizpah

Ch. Sweety Helen is Executive Secretary, Commission on Youth, National Council of Churches in India. A feminist and a Biblical Scholar, here she reflects on the story of Rizpah from the perspectives of Life, Justice and Peace.


“I won’t rest until the blood of the sinning Duchashanans and Duriyodhanan have caressed my hair. Until that day comes, my hair shall remain the way it does today, unbraided, uncared for just like I am today.” says Draupadi according to the Tamil poet Bharathiyar in his Paanchali Sabadam.[1]

“Unless my dear ones are rendered proper burial I will neither slumber nor will I allow King David to slumber”

Draupadi and Rizpah together sing a song together for Justice and peace, they sing in solidarity, sing in agony for the injustice that is happened and they sing in love, they both sing together , We are women, women of courage, united in love, sisters in determination, sisters of conviction.    

Draupadi’s Oath

Draupadi was the daughter of the king Drupada of Panchaal. She was allegedly born out of a sacrificial fire and her birth was accompanied by an oracle which declared her “the greatest among all women”.[2] Draupadi is one of the outstanding women, the Hindu mythology has offered to the world. The epic presents Draupadi as displaying her individuality, strength, and unyielding determination both for justice and vengeance. Through these characteristics Draupadi has become a symbol of empowerment of women and has gained the worship of followers. The Mahabharata is where Draupadi’s history begins. As a prominent female character and heroine of the epic, Draupadi is presented as the wife of five pandava princes in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi and her five husbands Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva are wed after Arjuna impressively wins Draupadi’s swayamvara.[3]  She is a heroine who is unpredictable, unwavering and who possess the austerity of a traditional Hindu wife. Many see Draupadi as an early feminist because of her fearlessness in admonishing those who harmed her and her family. Draupadi existed in a time when a woman’s role was to serve her husband.[4]

Draupadi cheerharan /Vasthrapaharanam remain as the most vivid of Mahabharata, basically because vasthrapaharanam is one of the main reasons for the Mahabharata war and it is also a breaking point for Draupadi. In the great assembly hall where dice was being played, all the Kuru elders, Bhishma, teachers like Drona and Kripa and Vidura, all were sitting without speaking. When Yudhishthira lost in the game, Duryodhana said that the Pandavas were now slaves. He sent one maid to bring Draupadi into the hall as she was now a slave. The maid went to Draupadi’ chamber and told her about the Pandavas doings. They were all slaves and so was she. Draupadi was very angry. She sent the maid away saying that Yudhisthira had no right to stake her in gambling. It was not allowed in the dharma. The maid came back to the assembly hall and told Duryodhana about Draupadi’s response. Duryodhana, became very angry and he asked his younger brother Duchsashan to fetch Draupadi, forcefully into the hall. Duchsashan went to Draupadi’s chamber and catching hold of Draupadi by her hair, dragged her to the assembly hall. Raging with anger, Draupadi appealed the assembly to raise their voice against such gross injustice. None had a word to say. The Pandavas were also sitting dumb, with their heads downcast. Draupadi asked, “What right Yudhisthira had to put her at stake in the gambling?” No one spoke again. Duryodhana became even more angry at Draupadi. He ordered younger brother to remove the clothes of Draupadi in the assembly, forcibly. Even then no one protested. Draupadi in desperation, appealed to Krishna.[5] Krishna works a miracle to prevent her sari from running out of layers. Draupadi is humiliated and is angered by the Pandavas inability or reluctance to help her. It is Draupadi’s reaction to situations like these that set her apart from her husbands; she is often the first one to react to the injustices and is visibly a powerful woman. [6]

Rizpah’s revenge II Samuel 21:10-14

Rizpah is the heroine who is buried in the pages of the Hebrew Bible in 2 Samuel 21. Rizpah the woman of courage is deliberately avoided even by feminist theologians. Though very little space is dedicated to discuss about the personhood of Rizpah, but the fact is that very little that is dedicated to her speaks volumes.

Rizpah is a daughter of Aiah and she is a mother of two sons whom she bore to Saul. She is a woman of courage, a woman who fulfills her responsibility to her family and a woman who can move the “powerful” from their comfort zones.


God told the Hebrew people that as they travelled through the land of Canaan they were to make treaties with no group of people who lived there. They were to conquer the land completely. The people in the city of Gibeon, however, deceived the Hebrews into making a treaty with them by making them think they had come a great distance, rather than just a few miles. That treaty had been honored and protected for centuries, until Saul became king in Israel. In his zeal for Israel, Saul began to exterminate the foreign people from his kingdom, and in so doing, broke the time-honored treaty with the Gibeonites.[7]

After the unification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, David is on the throne and the land is struck with drought. It is a national disaster. This national disaster was thought to be a punishment from God. In times of national crisis when the people suffer, the leadership must take responsibility. And so David, pious king that he is, “inquires of the LORD”, which means he goes to the prophets of the Court, he consults the priests and theologians, and he asks them: “tell me what this is all about”. They come to the conclusion: yes it is a punishment of the LORD, but it is a punishment for what Saul had done. So David goes to the Gibeonites and says: I know that Saul has done a great injustice to you.[8] David handed over the sons of Saul into the hands of the Gibeonites and we are not informed in what way they were handed over. But we do have information that Gibeonites impaled seven of them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together.

Rizpah knowing what has happened to her sons and the nephews gathered the bodies of the dead and spread a sack cloth to a rock and guarded over the bodies by day and night from the birds and the wild animals. David learnt of what Rizpah has done and has taken the bones of Saul and his sons and buried them.           



Juxtposing Draupadi and Rizpah:


Draupadi and Rizpah sisters in solidarity:

Draupadi and Rizpah are women of different places, different characters, different families and are from different genres altogether. They were women who lived in different periods but they are sisters who live in solidarity with each other. They are sisters by virtue of their qualities, by virtue of their courage, by virtue of their determination and by virtue of their yearning for Justice; Justice not only to themselves but to their families as well. These women are women of courage, united in their qualities. They never to seem to give up in any circumstances never want to compromise with situations, the first to respond to the injustice that is happened, the first to take oaths to restore justice. In both their cases Justice cannot be achieved, basically because for one it is a life that is taken away and for the other it is the prestige. Their acts of courage could not bring them back what they have lost, for Draupadi it was utter humiliation in a public hall and for Rizpah it is lives of the children of Saul.  But their initiatives were to shame the so-called powerful, in Draupadi’ case it was the Kauravas and Pandavas as well and in Rizpah’s case it is David the King and the Gibeonites who are responsible for the death of her dear ones. War has always been seen in terms of violence, bloodshed, swords, metal weapons etc. The war vaged by Daupadi did not need a metal weapon, the war vaged by Rizpah did not need bloodshed, they both used ‘refutation’. Refutation was a weapon used by both of them to combat the injustice that is happened to both of them.

Refutation a weapon to combat injustice:

As it is today, burial in Biblical times was an occasion for showing love and respect, for the loved ones who died. As we do it today, in the biblical times too the dead ones bodies are anointed with herbs and spices, and wrapped in    cloth. There would be an official time for mourning. As we see in Jeremiah 9:17, professional mourners often accompanied the families to the grave site and staying with the family and joining them in the customary tears, wailing and crying. In the context where burial is a ritual which gives expression for their love, now the dear ones of Rizpah are denied burial. How would we feel if we were in the situation of Rizpah, may be if I were in her situation I would seize the collar of the persons involved in it and would ask them to do the necessary. But for such an act I definitely would have to reap the consequences. Rizpah was very intelligent and hence has thoughtfully strategized a plan through which she thought she would not go to the space of the ‘powerful’ but she would bring the culprits to her space, a space of her own, and moving them to action.  Rizpah maintained a constant vigil over the seven bodies, fighting off the birds of the air by day and the wild animals by night.

Women are expected to braid their hair in the public, when the Pandavas have lost in the game of dice, according to the Kauravas, the pandavas and Draupadi became their slaves. When Draupadi was called for, she rejected to come into the public. She felt that she doesn’t have to oblige to the command of Duryodhana. She perhaps would have yelled who the hell is Yudhistira to bet me in the game. She refused to come into the public place, which reminds us of Vasthi who was very bold enough to say that she does not want to accept the command of the King. Draupadi’s rejection resulted in being dragged by her hair into the assembly and was unclothed by Dhushasana. She might have shouted Dhushasana, is it not because you are ‘Duh (tough)’ and your shasanas (ruler) are dusht (bad), that you are named ‘Dushasana’ (tough ruler)? And then she cries to Lord Krishna and she was rescued but she does not stop there. She would have definitely yelled aloud, questioned the credibility of her husbands and would have instigated them to take an oath against those who have caused injustice to her. She doesn’t lose her voice, doesn’t lose her command over herself and lashes out at the men of the assembly. “I won’t rest until the blood of the sinning Duchashanans and Duriyodhanan have caressed my hair. Until that day comes, my hair shall remain the way it does today, unbraided, uncared for just like I am today.”  Her refusal to braid her hair is the weapon that she has used to destroy the “powerful”. The powerful who are arrogant due to their power, powerful who are proud due to their status and the powerful who forget human values.

Intercession and confrontation:  

These two women have used two different mode of communication and ensured that justice is restored, peace is rebuilt, and life is celebrated. Rizpah used intercession as a mode of communication through which she communicated to God, and to the people around. Rizpah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself to the rock.” Some Bible scholars believe that Rizpah fashioned a sort of tent for herself, perhaps large enough to cover those seven decaying bodies as well.  The Hebrew rendered “she stretched a sack cloth to a rock” This expression is also found in Isaiah 30: 29 and 51:1. In Isaiah 30:29, Rock is God and in Isaiah51:1, Rock refers to ancestors, the parents of Israel. I would like to go along with Monica Melanchthon who concludes from these two passages that Rizpah the mother and Rizpah the aunt has stretched out her sackcloth and is interceding and praying to the rock meaning God and the ancestors. Rizpah’s spirituality has gained justice for her, peace for the dead ones. Non-burial and improper burial is shameful and as it brings divine judgment, her determination to remove the shame from the family has put the king to shame, who was forced to move from his place and entered into the space of Rizpah and offered proper burial to the dead ones.

Draupadi refuses to braid her hair, she confronts with those who are gathered in the assembly. She confronts with those who are seated in the assembly and says to yudhistira since you were no longer a free man, how could you stake anything at all?” With great determination and power in her words she said “If you have loved and revered the mothers who bore you and gave you suck, if the honor of wife or sister or daughter has been dear to you, if you believe in God and dharma, forsake me not in this horror more cruel than death” “Even abandoned professional gamblers would not stake the harlots who live with them, and you, worse than they, have left the daughter of Drupada to the mercy of these ruffians. I cannot bear this injustice. You are the cause of this great crime.[9] Draupadi’s voice would have trembled those who are gathered in the assembly. Her words would have put both her husbands Pandavas and the Kauravas the perpetrators of violence to shame. Her loud voice in the assembly filled her husbands with a metanonia experience and hence Bhima takes an oath to drink the blood of Duchasana as an act of repentance and break the thighs of Duryodana and the rest of the pandavas also take oaths and these oaths would have probably calm the angry Draupadi, these oaths would probably sing aloud in her ears ‘Shanti shanti shantihi’


Rizpah and Draupadi are sisters in determination, conviction, faith, strength and love. They felt their refusal to bury the bodies of her sons and nephews and to be braided should be a reminder of the shameful act that is being done to them. Draupadi’s vigilance to be braided and Rizpah’s vigilance to offer the dead bodies a proper burial are one and the same. Their fight was to combat injustice, their determination was to force their enemies to move to action, their conviction was to challenge the injustice then and there, finally their commitment was to offer a life for justice, in justice and with justice. They believed that their gods are gods of life, Justice and peace and would accompany them in their journey with public shame, humiliation and abandonment.       


[1] accessed on October 25, 2012, 3:46 pm.- An interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

[5] accessed on October 28, 2012, 9:37 pm.

[7] Daughter of Rizpah accessed on October 29, 2012, 08: 30 pm.

[9] accessed on October 29, 12:45 pm.

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A Story of ‘Outsiders’ and ‘Inn-siders’ – The ‘Good Samaritan’ within the parable of the Good Samaritan:


Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar is Programme Executive Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation, World Council of Churches. An Indian Theologian with expertise in Dalit Theology, he was previously Associate Professor of Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore.



The 21st century has only too well reminded us that when ‘peace-building’ is considered the monopoly of the powerful the greatest casualty is peace itself. ‘Peace’ today has become a project for self-aggrandizement of the powerful. In the name of peace the powerful have resorted to elision and demonization of critical voices which challenge power in both overt and covert ways.  In his profound, powerful and provocative reflection on the theme of the forthcoming WCC Assembly in Busan (God of life, lead us to justice and peace) my friend Joseph Prabhakar Dayam reminded us of this phenomenon when he said: “Often the liberation movements and critical voices are demonized as violent insurgencies and trouble makers.” In such a context, the way towards peace and justice is possible only when those with power are willing to engage with those people who have been rendered the ‘other’ by their policies and politics of exclusion and elision.  ‘Engaging with the other’, though attractive in rhetoric can be hard in terms of practice. One particular area in which this hardship has been experienced concerns opening oneself to the gift of the other and receiving the gifts the other brings. In such a context ‘dialogue’ or ‘engagement’  are rendered nothing more than an apology for condescending patronising if those in power shield ourselves from receiving fully the gift the other offers.  


As I was looking at biblical passages which would help me to deal with this question of ‘engaging with the other’, my attention was drawn to a familiar parable found in the bible the parable of the Good Samaritan. It needs no elaboration that Jesus’ attempt in this parable was to dispel prejudice and to help his hearers to recognise in the most-unlikely Samaritan a paradigm of virtue.  The challenge that this parable would have posed to Jesus’ hearers was both to recognise and accept the Samaritan as the ideal neighbour. Reframing this parable for our context would mean asking ourselves whether we can acknowledge, accept and support acts of transformation and restoration when they are done by the unexpected other? Can we really accept the others as people who are capable of making a contribution to restoration of a broken created order?


In my opinion Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan does not leave us stranded with regard to answers to these questions. The parable helps us in our quest for answers, however in an indirect and voiceless way! And only if we open ourselves to the possibility that the  Parable of the Good Samaritan is not the parable of the Samaritan alone.


My attention was drawn towards another risk-taker in the parable, one who goes largely unnoticed and unrecognised in the narrative, but is nevertheless important for the logical understanding of the parable – the inn-keeper in the parable. I would invite you to reflect with me on the role of the inn-keeper, the one who doesn’t discriminate against the Samaritan and cooperates with him  in the task of restoration of wholeness.


If the force of the parable of the Good Samaritan rests on the shock and repulsion of recognising a Samaritan as an unlikely or even undesired ‘do-gooder’ it was shocking to Jesus’ hearer’s only in their imagination … but to the innkeeper this was a challenge in flesh and blood.  It is at this point that the innkeeper emerges as someone who doesn’t let the power of prejudice to stifle the possibility of transformation and wholistic restoration even if it had been initiated by a repulsive and suspicious ‘outsider’.  


Going deeper into the parable it is appropriate to see the innkeeper as one with power who invests trust where there is possibility for suspicion and prejudice.


There were several reasons why the innkeeper should have been suspicious of and hostile to the Samaritan. Was it not more likely that the Samaritan could have been the one who had assaulted the wounded man? Further if the innkeeper was aware through local gossip that the Priest and the Levite had actually seen a wounded man and continued on their journey, should he not have doubted what it was that made the Samaritan think of himself as being better and more righteous than the priest or the Levite – who, respectable and professional people that they were and knowledgeable about the media misrepresentation that such actions could attract, ‘kept to the policy of non-intervention in what could have been a circumstance of profound emotional manipulation’. [1]    Should not the Samaritan have showed the same, if not more humility than the Priest and the Levite, who acted in the best professional model, respected the privacy of the wounded man till the end, and did not take upon themselves the task of legislating new rules of intervention in social issues?  After all, is it not people like the priest and the Levite – who establish careful codes of conduct, respect individual privacy, follow health and safety regulations, maintain extreme professionalism and effectively disengage themselves from what is not their role – who make society what it is today? [2]


If we look at the parable other questions are also have naturally haunted the inn-keeper. He would have thought, was not the Samaritan by carrying out the highly symbolic action of binding of wounds… something which according to Hosea 6 is God’s action towards to Israel, taking a shot at playing God? What business did he have in this whole issue as a non local? Was this a street theatre of some sort – a foreigner’s attempt to massage his ego or a misguided attempt to humiliate the locals?[3] Further, one of the suspicions that the Jews had against the Samaritans which becomes clear in Josephus’s writings was that the Samaritans took sides with the Jews during good times and disowned them when they were in trouble.[4] On what basis then could the innkeeper trust the Samaritan? Was it not possible that the Samaritan would never return to repay the balance, but would leave the victim with impossible debts to pay?



It is in such a context that the innkeeper silently replaces suspicion and hostility with trust and support. He opens the doors of his inn, wide for him and makes him an inn-sider. As a result the Samaritan entrusts the wounded man entirely to the innkeeper and promises to come back. It is in this reciprocity of trust and mutual help that healing and restoration of wholeness is made possible. The challenge which the innkeeper poses to us today involves the risk of offering good where an evil response is easier and more likely and more justifiable.  


The challenge of becoming the innkeeper also has implications for our self-identity. Acceptance of those who are Samaritans to us as the ideal neighbours is a threat. It is letting go of our system of scoring points against our ‘opponents’. In a context with an overwhelming temptation to forge one’s identity counter-relationally, it is only as long as we keep those who are Samaritans to us as bad, repulsive and reprobate that we can thrive as the good… the generous… the subjects.  Thus the challenge of accepting and recognising the good of the Samaritan is not merely an invitation to change our attitude towards others. It involves a daunting but also creative task of re-identifying ourselves … not against the other but alongside the other as partners. This task has crucial implications in our present clash of identities as the subjects and objects. Such identification offers an effective anti-dote to self-deceptive justifications of ourselves which can be sustained only through promoting prejudice and hatred.


The innkeeper also encourages us to shed the temptation of seeking to always be the heroes and heroines of God’s acts of liberation. The parable is the parable of the Good Samaritan and not of the good-innkeeper.  The story helps us to remember that at certain times our primary task is not to be the change-makers, but to learn to play the supportive role to change-makers. Too often, wanting to be the change-makers can be a way of exerting control. It can emerge from fears that accepting the good of others and cooperating with them can make us powerless – and we genuinely fear the loss of control involved. Therefore sometimes we opt out of the story when the script is not tailor-made to propel us ‘centre-stage’. The innkeeper challenges us to acquire the silent grace that comes from learning to give up that control. We learn to live as people who do not fear the surprises and shocks of outsiders – the Samaritans of today – taking control, even in our own inns. Dear brothers and sisters in conclusion, becoming an innkeeper today involves working towards a world where it is easier for human beings to work together and difficult to be separated and isolated.


According to Augustine’s interpretation of the parable the inn is the Church. The inn keeper thus can be said to represent the church. If we choose to go by this interpretation the parable is a reminder of the true identity and the vocation of the Church. The Parable addresses us not only in the language of the imperative – what we ought to do – but the language of the indicative – of who we are and are to become.[5] We are to be both a body and a space of healing and restoration, where even the outsiders can be agents of transformation and justice. We are to become a space and a body where outsiders and inn-siders work together.


As a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom of God – the Church cannot shield itself from the other. As a community of the people of God, the Church must have the confidence that God is present even in the outsider – which in the words of Stanley Haeurwas, is ‘a confidence made possible only because the community itself was formed by the presence of the ultimate stranger, Jesus Christ’[6] – the one who came to his own but whose own received him not. Therefore brothers and sisters, the inn-keeper as the insider, challenges us to receive with gratitude the gift of the outsider. This is because it is only in the face of the other that we rediscover ourselves and recognise God.  One Good Samaritan may be good enough for the first aid, which is life saving indeed, but to make the healing more complete we need innkeepers, their resources, their open doors, and their hospitality.

[1]  See Samuel Wells, ‘The Jericho Affair’, in Christian Century, June 29, 2004, (p.17).

[2]  See Samuel Wells, ‘The Jericho Affair’, in Christian Century, June 29, 2004, (p.17).

[3]  See Samuel Wells, ‘The Jericho Affair’, in Christian Century, June 29, 2004, (p.17).

[4] J. Massyngbaerde Ford, My Enemy is My Guest: Jesus and Violence in Luke, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1984)


[5] Patrick J. Willson, ‘Who We Are’, in Christian Century, June 26, 2007, (p.19)


[6] Stanley Haeurwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (London: SCM Press,1983), p.85

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