Continuing from my last post, I wanted to mention how what we today call disability was understood at different moments in history, as well as how people with disabilities were treated.
To begin, I’ve given some accounts of the historical understandings of and responses to what we would today call disability. This overview is not meant to be exhaustive, but to locate important moments in the shifting social imaginary concerning disability.
Obviously, the medical advancements we have come to take for granted in the West did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome, and disease and injury was a common occurrence. What is important to note during this period is where the cause of this disorder was located – the gods. “In a world where diseases, injuries, malformation, and material misfortunes were often seen as signs of the ill will of the gods, scant public resources were allocated to disfigured citizens…” writes Almut Caspary in Disability in the Christian Tradition. Looking specifically at the treatment of newborns in Greece and Rome, Caspary points out that the generally high mortality rate for infants in this time aside, being born with a disability was a death sentence. Why? Because:
…a person’s value in antiquity was largely defined as social value: A human being was considered to be of value in view of his or her potential to contribute both materially and through acquired virtue to the good of the family and of society. Children were generally considered of value only to the extent that they had potential to make a virtuous contribution to the public good as adults.
– Almut Caspary
Thus, if a child was born with a disabling condition they would be left to die or killed. Leaving the newborn to die from exposure to the elements was a common form of infanticide. Even Aristotle supported it.
As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.
What is important to keep in mind, however, is that there were social and religious reasons for this practice – indeed, they couldn’t be separated. Caspary continues: “The disfiguring conditions of monsters, as they were called, were largely ascribed to supernatural powers that needed to be exorcised and purified for the benefit of society as a whole. Often such monsters were seen as manifestations of supernatural powers foreboding danger for the community; divine signs, portents, or bad omens for their families and the polis at large.”
Amos Yong gives a brief introduction to how disability was understood in ancient Israel. Like the above description of ancient Greece and Rome, there was a supernatural element to understanding the presence of disabling conditions such as blindness, deafness, and lameness:
…for ancient Israel, all sickness and “disability” was the instrument of YHWH, whether directly or indirectly, “to enforce covenants made with humans.”
Conditions such as blindness, lameness, and deafness were always connected to the sovereignty of God. A quick glance at Deuteronomy 28 makes very clear the results of disobeying God’s commands – disease, plague, illness, blindness, madness, etc.
Yet, Israel nonetheless believed in and lived in anticipation of complete healing. But, healing must occur before inclusion in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus and the Early Church
While on the surface Jesus’ healing of many people with “disabilities” may seem like a radical departure from earlier understandings of disability, it is actually firmly grounded in them. Yong points out three ways the healings of Jesus are a continuation of earlier understandings of disability. First:
Jesus’ healing of the blind the lame, the deaf-mute, and other ‘disabilities’ may serve to confirm a number of traditional stereotypes regarding people with ‘disabilities,’ chief of which is that they are passive and pitiable objects of historical forces dependent fully on God’s redemptive healing by the power of Jesus.
Second, even though Jesus in John chapter 9 says otherwise, the healings of Jesus are grounded in a belief of the connection between disability and sin. This was the assumption that the early church inherited and continued to operate from, as evidenced by Jesus’ comment in John 5:14: “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
Lastly, “…the emerging association between ‘disability and evil spirits.” That certain conditions were caused by demonic possession is well established in the narrative.
Clearly, then, ‘disability’ in the New Testament functions rhetorically to call attention to negative realities such as sin, evil spirits, spiritual degeneration, and moral reprobation.
– Amos Yong
Moving to Augustine, we find a more complex handling of issues surrounding disability. On the one hand, he suggests that we, to know a person, must not succumb to the temptation of judging a book by its cover. As Brian Brock puts it, “…our perception of other human beings must be illuminated or sanctified if we are to know them rightly and resist the temptation to approach people as little more than their apparent deficits of mind or body.” However, this is not the dominant approach Augustine takes towards issues of disability. While he at times takes a sympathetic stance towards the plight of those with disabilities, he dedicates most of his effort in justifying their existence in the first place.
Augustine’s was hence a theological explanation that connected the Neoplatonic idea of the completeness of Creation with the medieval doctrine of the Great Chain of Being: God in God’s infinite wisdom brought forth a diversity of creatures to manifest his glory and power.”
– Amos Yong
It is also important to mention that, not unlike almost all other aspects of theology for the next 1,000 years or so, Augustine made an important contribution to future understandings of disability.
In a striking inversion of the interpretations current at the time, he suggests that physical, sensory, and mental impairments, while still impairments (at least congenital impairments), are nevertheless not the work of evil spirits, because all humans are made by a Creator who creates only good things. In this strand of his thought we see him trying to overcome the human tendency to see the disabled as God’s mistakes.
– Brian Brock
Disability in an Enchanted World
In part two I will begin with Luther and share some more modern perspectives of how disability was imagined and how people with disability have been treated. But one final word on the above social imaginaries: it is fair to say that all of the views towards disability in general, and people with disabilities in particular, listed above experience the world as enchanted. Charles Taylor describes how ancient and pre-modern people experienced the world:
…they lived in a world of spirits, both good and bad. The bad ones include Satan, of course, but beside him, the world was full of a host of demons, threatening from all sides: demons and spirits of the forest, and wilderness, but also those which can threaten us in our everyday lives. Spirit agents were also numerous on the good side. Not just God, but also his saints, to whom one prayed, and whose shrines one visited in certain cases, in hopes of a cure, or in thanks for a cure already prayed for and granted, or for rescue from extreme danger…
The important point to draw from this is that these spiritual forces impinged upon people in ways that we wouldn’t recognize today. “In fact, in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn.” This is important to keep in mind as I move on to discuss post Enlightenment and modern notions of disability. While there was clearly a big shift in the social imaginary from an enchanted, pre-modern world to a disenchanted, modern world, these forces didn’t disappear from our imagination completely, but were relocated and internalized.