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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