This book made me feel seen.
As a disabled person, I have rarely heard stories like mine told in church or theology. So this profound, prophetic book was powerful reading for me. Through engaging narrative theology, Dr Kenny shares heartbreaking stories of disability injustice, reflects on her lived experience in the light of disabled saints from the Bible, and gives us hope for a more just church. Each chapter relates a different disability experience, then gets practical with soul-searching questions, offering starting-points for those setting out on the road to becoming anti-ableist churches.
Churches have been the setting for some of the writer’s worst experiences of ableism. Ableism – the toxic system that creates hierarchies of bodies and minds, based on whether we measure up to society’s values of what is ‘normal.’ In just one example, Kenny tells us about “prayerful perpetrators” – the Christians who “weaponize prayer” against her, seeking to change her body, when she needs no cure. God is their vending machine, she tells us. In their quick-fix narrative, disability only exists so it can be cured. Prayerful perpetrators leave her having to justify her still-disabled existence. “I am indignant that this takes place under the veil of Jesus-following,” she writes, “as though they are the bouncers to God’s table.”
But the church has a far better model of human worth. The risen Christ: wounded, disabled and divine. It is through this image of the disabled God that this book challenges Christian communities to do better by their disabled siblings. “God subverts our ideas of what power looks like,” Kenny writes. “And it looks like disability.” Jesus is foremost among many disabled people in Scripture, and this book takes a deep dive into the stories of these disabled saints. What a delight that was for me, when the church has not told me that these are disabled people’s narratives at all. In a retelling of the story of my disabled brother Jacob, whose hip is torn from its socket in a struggle with God, I was vividly reminded of my own easily-dislocating joints. God’s benediction comes through Jacob’s limp, the writer tells us. Disability is a divine blessing.
That’s why to tell disabled people that we are worth less than others, or that we need ‘fixing,’ is to deny that we are image-bearers of God. Through this book, readers are shown how disabled people are much more than an opportunity for anxious curative prayer, as Kenny reframes disability as part of God’s diverse creation. Disabled people have so much to teach others about encountering God, she says, as we embrace our distinctiveness, accept our limits, and celebrate our interdependency on each other and God. Disabled people’s body-minds are prophetic gifts to the church, not prayer requests.
There are many more compelling stories in this book – from tales of disability doubters, who struggle to listen to disabled people’s lived experience, to disability mosquitos, the everyday ableist actions that make up injustice, which by grace can be un-learned. The book ends with a powerful vision for the church, in which “prayerful perpetrator and disability doubter can dine together” at the accessible table to which Jesus invited disabled people first. Where we are all banqueters, and none of us are “bouncers” keeping disabled people out of God’s house. “Let’s rip the roofs off houses of worship so that all can get to Jesus,” is the writer’s radical invitation.
This book is a prophetic call to the church to live out disability justice. If it left me wanting anything, it was more stories of disabled saints, from the Bible and in today’s church. As Kenny writes, “We need to tell new stories about disability that allow us to exist in all our complexity without categorizing us as suffering or sinning. We need to start telling the story that disability can be a blessing from God.” Amen.
Naomi Lawson-Jacobs is an IC supporter and has long been involved in the planning and dissemination of ideas from the annual Conference on Disability and Church, a partnership between IC and St Martin-in-the-Fields. They are the co-author (alongside Emily Richardson) of the recently published book ‘At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches‘, based partly on their PhD research.