Letter from the Dean

By Gregory Sterling

One of the best told stories in the Fourth Gospel is the account of the man who was born blind (John 9:1–41). It is clearly structured around the healing of the man (9:1-7), a series of interrogation scenes (9:8–12, 13–17, 18–23, 24–34), and the final encounter between Jesus and the man (9:35–38) and the religious authorities (9:39–41). 

In the initial encounter, the disciples asked Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents so that he was born blind?” (9:2) The assumption in their question was that visual impairment from birth was the result of a moral deficit. The religious leaders later echoed this in their ad hominem response to the man when they said: “You were born totally in sin and you are going to teach us?” (9:34) 

While our society is not inclined to express reservations or levels of discomfort in theological formulations, we often respond the same way to those who have disabilities. I had friends whose son was born with multiple disabilities: intellectual and visual. His needs were acute enough that he required assistance and lived in a local facility. His parents brought him to church every week. On one occasion they were out of town and asked me to pick him up and bring him. I had never paid attention to how other people interacted with Tim. As we walked into the church foyer, people said hello but moved away—not just to give us room but with anxious looks that suggested they were unsure of how to react. Fortunately, Tim could not see their faces, but I could and have never forgotten it. The stories in this issue relate the same reaction—sometimes within our families (see the article by LaTonya McIver Penny)  and sometimes within our society (see the article by Samuel Caraballo).

Jesus rejected any connection between morality and disability: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents.” (9:3) Jesus did not see impairment; he saw human beings with needs (see Kyle Stevenson’s fuller expansion of this point). Some of us have one type of need and others have a different type of need, but we all have them.

I once took a youth group to an acute mental care facility to sing Christmas songs to the adolescents there. When we arrived, I was taken aback by the condition of the residents whose disabilities were more serious than I had anticipated. The youth group sang a series of songs and then—to a person—walked across the room and gave hugs to each of the residents. They did not see the disabilities—or the different shapes of the bodies—they saw human beings made in the imago Dei just as they were. It was not an act of pity, but of human solidarity. Their spontaneous response taught me something about the gospel that I have never forgotten: they saw their counterparts as Jesus saw this man.

Throughout the series of interrogations in the story of John 9, a pattern emerges: the religious authorities become more entrenched in their opposition to a clear act of God while the man moves to faith and becomes a powerful witness for God’s act. The climax occurs in the final scene when Jesus confronts the religious authorities: “I came into this world so that those who do not see might see and those who see might become blind” (9:39). The statement is a great example of Johannine irony playing on two levels. On one level, Jesus affirms the healing of a man born blind. On another level, it is an affirmation that one who could not see spiritually has come to faith while those who claim that they see spiritually have had their blindness exposed. There is a reversal of human expectations: a blind beggar has become a better spiritual guide than the enlightened religious authorities.

Those who struggle with disabilities have something to offer; and in some cases, they may offer more to us than we can offer to them. If you want to realize some of the specifics, read the stories in this issue. You will discover how a would-be priest was turned away because of epilepsy and then played a major role in bringing about legislation that changed our nation (Tony Coelho). You will be moved by the story of two sisters whose lives have intersected (Dianne Bilyak). You will learn how two women have touched the lives of many others in their own communities (Janet Schaller’s account of Zoe and Wendy). 

I have pointed to a few articles, but they are all powerful. I was deeply moved by reading them. It brought me back to that Sunday afternoon when the youth group embraced the residents in an acute mental health facility. Our hope is that these articles will do the same for you and that all of us will commit ourselves to the embrace of all as human beings made in the image of God.