Finding Healing in My Disability

By Kyle Stevenson

Every now and then, someone will observe that my walking pace is slower, my gait is noticeably different, and my speech is sometimes difficult to understand to first-time listeners. This is partly how my Cerebral Palsy manifests itself in my everyday interactions. I once had a Lyft driver attempt to exorcise my disability out of me. That’s an extreme case, but it’s not uncommon that people who would see that I have a disability would ask me if I want them to pray. When I ask them, “For what?”,  they would look dumbfounded and say, “your healing.” When I would answer, “From what?” They would not know what to say. They would look at my body and conclude it did not fit how they thought God designed bodies. They would decide something needed to be cured.

In the risen Christ we can meet Jesus, who is victorious over death and is powerful while still having a non-normative, disabled, and vulnerable body.

The sentiments of the people offering prayer for my healing are symptomatic of what disability theologian Thomas Reynolds calls the cult of normalcy. Reynolds says, “The cult of normalcy deals with bodily variations by rendering them pathological and deficient vis-a-vis reference points of power and privilege.”[1] The cult of normalcy is the societal construct that makes certain kinds of bodies and minds “normal” and ideal and which should be achieved by all. Bodies should be able to walk, walk straight, see, hear, speak, and all minds should be able to reason, process information in the same way and, if they do not, there is something wrong with them, and then the question is asked: “Do you want to be made well?” 

This is also how the Bible gets interpreted: we approach the gospel story with ableist hermeneutics that reinscribe the cult of normalcy.

Healing vs. Cure

I grew up in Black Baptist churches where, most times, the preaching moment ended in celebration. Whenever a healing text was preached, the denouement of the story was always the removal of the disability and a “restoration” to a normative body. “Blind Bartimaeus” who shouts out to Jesus and receives his sight, the “lazy” and “complacent” man at the pool of Bethesda who walks, the woman in Luke 13 whose back is straightened—these were celebrated with a shout that concluded the sermon. Sometimes, people with disabilities in the healing stories were preached as “living below their potential” because of their complacency. Disability was a metaphor for an obstacle. Yet this always ignored the structural barriers that people with disabilities encountered. Although the language in a healing text reflects a First-Century understanding of disability that makes disability a problem, these texts in fact try to convey what happens when marginalized people encounter Jesus. I believe I have experienced an encounter with Jesus to be always a healing one.

The concept of healing is not the issue. God does heal. However, God does not always cure, and there may not need to be a cure.Scholar and Methodist minister Kathy Black makes the distinction between healing and cure. She contends that cure has to do with eliminating the symptoms or removing the disability altogether. Healing, however, does not always imply a cure. Healing is finding “a sense of well-being into a person’s life, a sense of comfort, support, and peace.”[2] Healing can happen amid having a disability.

Furthermore, in the ancient world, a cure was unlikely, according to author John Pilch. Pain, illness, and/or disability were expected to be alleviated but not eliminated in the biblical world. With the innumerable medical advances in the world since then, the natural response today is to seek a medical solution for an illness. In the preaching moment, the miraculous medical solution to illness and/or disability is always applied to the story. That is how disability is usually regarded from the pulpit: typically a hermeneutic of cure is used instead of healing when healing texts are preached.[3]

A Dubious Interpretation

For example, John 5 is the story of the man who has been lying by the pool of Bethesda—he has had a disability for 38 years. People go to the pool waiting for the healing water to stir, and the first one in would be made well. Many others with disabilities around him are waiting for healing. When Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, his reply is, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (John 5:7). Because of this response, many preachers have declared he is lazy, complacent, and full of excuses. I have even heard it suggested that the man has the ability to scoot his body or roll it over into the pool and get in just in time as the water is being stirred. In this interpretation, Jesus ignores his excuses, cures his disability, and tells him to take up his mat and walk. The religious leaders see him carrying his mat on the Sabbath and question who has healed him. The man could not answer because Jesus has disappeared into the crowd. When the man meets Jesus in the temple, Jesus warns that something worse will happen to him if he sins. The man goes back and tells on Jesus, and the religious leaders begin to persecute him.

There are several problems with this type of interpretation. First, it assumes that the pool is accessible and shallow, and having seen the remains of the pool myself on a trip to Israel-Palestine, I would say that’s not true. It is too deep to roll over into the pool without injuring oneself. Second, there are structural and physical barriers to getting in this pool. It is common to typecast marginalized people, namely Black people, and people with disabilities, as lazy and complacent when stuck in situations where they are not flourishing due to systemic and structural barriers. Such blaming shifts the focus away from inaccessible resources and oppressive systems to conversations about “personal responsibility.” Nowhere in my Bible does Jesus call the man lazy, unprepared, complacent, or even full of excuses. Jesus’ comment about not sinning is routinely exploited by interpreters who want to link the cause of his disability with sin. Jesus does not say that; all he says is do not sin, or something “worse” will happen to you.

Encounter at Bethesda

Nevertheless, there are liberating ways to preach this text. The “healthcare system” at the pool of Bethesda is unjust, inaccessible, competitive, and exploitive. People who want to be healed compete for their healing by figuring out a way to get into a pool that was not built with them in mind. The man in John 5 gives Jesus the only answer he has had at his disposal for 38 years, and it is a default answer we hear even today: people with disabilities are told there is only one way to get something done, one way to get our desires met, and one way to live the life we want to live. That way is often through an ableist and capitalist system where we must beat out other people because there are only so many spaces and only so many resources, and there just is not enough funding to improve accommodations. Jesus says, “Get up. Take up your mat and walk.” This is not a condemnation of his laziness or complacency but a way of telling us that we do not have to seek wholeness in toxic and inaccessible systems that operate under the guise of care. 

After he is cured and has the Temple encounter with Jesus, who warns him about not sinning, he goes and tattles to the priest that Jesus is the one who healed him. The man is trying to protect his interest, still seeking validation from oppressive systems. By telling on Jesus to the religious leaders, he is still doing what Jesus has attempted to free him from—he is still attempting to win approval from institutions that pretend to be interested in his welfare. He does not express gratitude to God but seeks validation from an institution whose religious leaders do not care about this man. Bible scholar Jaime Clark-Soles argues that the man may be cured but is not healed.[4]

Full and Abundant

Thankfully John 9 shows a different response from a person who is being healed. Jesus encounters a man who is blind from birth, and Jesus makes it clear that it is not because of sin, but that the glory of God might be revealed in him. Jesus “cures” his blindness by making mud, putting it in his eyes, and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The Pharisees are upset, so they call him and question him. They call his parents, and then they call him in a second time. By now he is frustrated with the accusation that Jesus is not from God. He argues that if Jesus were not from God, he would not have made him see. To which they say dismissively that the blind man was born entirely into sin. 

The sad irony is that Jesus has made it clear that sin was not the issue, but the religious leaders have insistently concluded that now that he sees and claims Jesus as being from God, he is born entirely in sin. The man, now seeing, is driven out of the religious community, and Jesus meets him again. This second encounter is where the healing happened. Jesus says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus reveals to the man that it is Jesus himself. The man says he believes and worships him. Healing texts invite us to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Word of God, and Son of God who gets his authority from God and leads to eternal life. An encounter with Jesus is deeper than cure. It is healing, redemptive, abundant. It means eternal life. It is healing to know that regardless of systemic barriers, Jesus still finds a way to offer people with disabilities like myself full and abundant lives.

The Resurrection is central to my life, theology, and practice as a Christian preacher. It informs my work for a just world. All of my life, I have heard Black Baptist preachers close the sermon with, “They whipped him all night long. They marched him up Calvary’s hill and nailed him to a tree. He died! He died! Didn’t he die! BUT early Sunday morning, He got up with all power in his hands.” Professor Harold Trulear notes that Black Christianity finds solidarity in Jesus’ gruesome execution and finds hope in celebrating His Resurrection. The vulnerability and the disabling markers of state violence that he received Friday are obscured in the triumphant proclamation of Sunday’s glorious Resurrection, as if those wounds no longer exist. Jesus is indeed raised with “all power in his hands” and all authority has been given to him—yet in those same glorified hands he vulnerably carries the wounds from crucifixion: the Resurrected Jesus shows Thomas the marks in his hands and side (John 20:24-36). While Black people have emphasized both death and Resurrection equally, Trulear notes, the connection between the two is often obscured because of the Easter news of “early Sunday morning.”[5]

Disability theologian Nancy Eiesland highlights that the Resurrected Lord rises with the wounds in his hands and side. His body has been raised in a non-normative body that had lived under the disabling force of the Roman empire that would ultimately execute him. He is raised up with a disability intact, Eiesland argues.[6] In the risen Christ, we can meet Jesus, who is victorious over death and is powerful while still having a non-normative, disabled, and vulnerable body. Encountering a risen Jesus who is not cured and restored to a normative body is healing for me. 

The Rev. Kyle Stevenson is a graduate of Morehouse College, Emory University, and Columbia Theological Seminary. He was licensed to preach at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA., and ordained in 2019 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. 

[1] Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Brazos Press, 2008), p. 60.

[2] Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic Preaching and Disability (Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 48-51 (Googlebook location).

[3] Black, A Healing Homiletic, p. 50.

[4] Jaime Clark-Soles, “John, First-Third John, and Revelation,” in The Bible and Disability: A Commentary , edited by Sarah J. Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Amos Yong (Baylor University, 2017), pp. 333-378, 340-346.

[5] Harold Dean Trulear, “To Make A Wounded Wholeness: Disability and Liturgy in an African-American Context,” in Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, ed. Nancy L. Eiesland and Don E. Saliers (Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 233-248, 239.

[6] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon Press, 1994), pp. 107-108.