Human Difference and Sacred Vocations: Toward a Theology of Disability

This guest blog was written by our Global Scholar Dr. Andrew Barron, who is a specialist in the Jewish context of the New Testament. But he also has a growing interest in the theology of disability, which arises out of his own family experience. You can read more about Dr. Barron’s work here on our site, and you may consider giving to his teaching work through our donations page. Dr. Barron is especially committed to teaching under-serviced people groups, and one example of this has been his online and sessional classes at the Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is also adjunct faculty at Tyndale University and Wycliffe College, and an instructor at Moody Bible Institute, all the while acting as Director for Jews for Jesus Canada. Read his article on the “Conflicted Jewish Imagination of Joy Davidman” here (C. S. Lewis’ wife).

My wife gave birth to our first child, Rafael, in 1995 while we were stationed in South Africa. The doctor called a few hours later to tell us that he had Down Syndrome. This was the beginning of an unexpected and difficult journey along the path of difference and the way of proximity to disability.

Disability is ubiquitous. There are 516 million people who are disabled. Approximately 42 million people are blind and 294 million are deaf or hearing impaired. 357,000 people have Down Syndrome in the USA and 57,000 people have Down Syndrome in Canada.

What are our bodies? Is there a normal person? What is ability and what is disability? What is care? Where is God in all of this and how does He meet us in disability?

Along the way, I’ve learned that regarding the disabled, God is not only caught up, but He is fully connected and anchored in this human difference. Moses was arguing with God about his calling as the Redeemer of Israel and he complained about his own disability. God’s response:

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? […] I will help you speak and will teach you what to say. (Exodus 4:11,12)

I would go so far as to say that God implicates Himself in the situation and tells Moses that He is going to help and care. Moses received help and went on to lead His people.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:14)

I believe that Israel’s vocation was to care and be cared for. This is our example. Rafi’s vocation is to be cared for. My vocation is to care for him. Being able-bodied is more than a medical construct‒ it is a vocation.

We all experience this in relatively the same way: At the beginning of our lives we received care. Eventually (if you are able) you give care. Then you will receive care again. It’s inevitable that our ableness is temporary! It’s part of being human. We all must accept that our own brokenness is hidden and will eventually be uncovered. Don’t think that being cared for is undignified or diminishing; it’s not true. Care is sacred whether you are giving it or receiving it. Receiving care is a subversive vocation!

Proximity to disability teaches us that human difference is sacred and that the disabled are a conduit of the gifts of God. The disabled are witness to God’s hospitality in a world without it.

If Paul is right that ‘from him and through him and for him are all things’ (Romans 11:36), then we need to think in new ways about strength, weakness, and ability and how we use our time and vocation.

There is plenty of lament in disability. I don’t want to romanticize it, but I hope my friends and colleagues would find time and space to be in proximity to human difference. In God’s time our vocations can look different. The disabled have a vocation of receiving care. They are us.

Dr. Andrew Barron is teaching an online class at Tyndale called Theology and Disability (BSTH 39X) January 4-8, 2021. Contact Tyndale’s registrar for information. You can read his C.V. here.


2 thoughts on “Human Difference and Sacred Vocations: Toward a Theology of Disability

  1. I think it is a limitation to say that persons with disabilities, such as Down syndrome, have the vocation of receiving care. All of us must receive care throughout our lives and must give it as well, though care of different forms. I have read that persons with Down syndrome have given the care of love and acceptance and joy. I’m thinking also of the song “Danny’s Downs” by Michael Kelly Blanchard. You can find it on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_tzThE_7UM.

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  2. Thanks for your reply. To say that Rafi’s vocation is to receive care is an overstatement to prove a point that life cannot be determined by commoditization. We live in a society of strangers and too often our lives are just a commodity. The vocation of care is a metaphor for a life of value – no limitation is inferred.

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