Worship Reflection Sunday, March 19, 2023

“The Politics of Exclusion”

The story in the ninth chapter John that we heard today is about the politics of exclusion. The man who is blind from birth is judged to be a sinner. If not him, then surely his parents sinned. In the biblical tradition, because God is holy, the people of God must be holy. Physical disabilities are signs of spiritual impurity. These disabilities are a distortion of God’s perfect image. The blind, the lame, a person with a broken leg or arm, someone with a blemished eye cannot enter the holy place in the temple because they are sinners not for what they have done but because of who they are–they are a distortion of the image of God. Certain foods may be eaten and other foods are prohibited because they are clean or unclean. The same applies to people. Some people are clean and others are unclean. Some people are pure and others impure. The unclean and impure people can go through rituals of cleansing and purification, but until they do they are unworthy and unwanted.

A society that is organized around such a moral code creates a political and social hierarchy. It’s called a brokered empire. There are gatekeepers who monitor who is allowed in and who is kept out. In our society we like to think we value social mobility. Anybody can become whatever you want to be, just work hard and play by the rules. But the reality is zip codes, pedigree, schools you attend and social clubs you belong to count and family wealth all count. These are the gatekeepers in our society. People who live in the wrong zip codes, don’t have the right racial pedigree, are members of the wrong socio-economic class are more or less expendable. They don’t have the same rights and protections that other people have. We may not like it, but we know how the system works.

In biblical times the unclean people were unwanted. They were expendable. People with leprosy were unclean. The same for the lame, the blind, the deaf. To be personal, I have vitiligo, a skin disease. In biblical terms, I am unclean. I am a sinner, not for what I have done because of who I am. I have vitiligo. This is what chapter nine is about in John’s gospel. The man born blind is unclean. He is a sinner. People refuse to believe him because he is a sinner. Then Jesus heals him and the man tells everyone that he has been healed, and they refuse to believe that he is the same person who was blind or he is a different person. Whatever happened does not conform to their experience and expectation. The gatekeepers have spoken. He’s out.

John Dominic Crossan calls a society with gatekeepers and moral codes and social hierarchy a brokered empire, a brokered society–you need to get a pass to move from one level to another or you are trespassing. That’s Congressman George Santo’s real crime–he’s trespassing. Other members of Congress are telling him that he doesn’t belong there. Crossan contrasts the brokered society with an unbrokered society that is inclusive of everyone–the beloved community. The blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, and the prisoner is set free. It’s a big tent and a big table. All are welcome. That’s what we want to see and be.

But what if, I mean just suppose for a moment, let’s entertain the possibility that the man born blind from birth is not healed. This possibility came to me while I was reading an article by Nancy Eiesland. She was not born blind, but she was born with significant health problems and she had a lot of surgery early in her life. She says that like the friends of Job, well-meaning people would tell her that her God-given disabilities were to build character. Interesting idea. Suffering builds character for those who suffer and allows others to be charitable. What does the Lord require of us? Charity. Don’t get me wrong. Charity is not all bad. A lot of good things happen as a result of people’s charity. But charity is not a substitute for justice.

Nancy Eiesland says that by the time she was 7 years old she was sure that she had enough character to last a lifetime. As she tells her story, she never felt sorry for herself, she didn’t ask “Why is this happening to me?” She didn’t ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But she did ask, “Who is God?” and “Where is God?” And eventually she wrote a book called The Disabled God, the God with disabilities. And she asked, “Why is that all of the disciples of Jesus are able-bodied?” Would Jesus have been a failure if he didn’t heal the blind man? Then, instead of thinking of herself as disabled, she started to think of others who were without disabilities as being “temporarily abled.” If we are going to be an inclusive community of the beloved, we cannot continue to think of “temporarily abled” as the norm and the disabled as being somehow somewhat less than normal. Disabled equates to deficient, or defective. Some parts are missing. Some parts aren’t working. They are disabled. We need a different theological language. I don’t think we have that language yet. Nancy’s point is that we need to find a language of solidarity that takes us beyond “temporarily abled” and “disabled.”

Eiesland interprets the Easter event in the context of what I am calling the politics of exclusion. Jesus the crucified and resurrected Christ bears wounds on his side and his hands. This Christ is in solidarity with people who live with disabilities. The resurrected Christ is the disabled Christ, the Christ who is in solidarity with people with disabilities.

As a society We have made great strides. We passed the ADA, the American Disabilities Act. That was important legislation. And once upon a time we had a Voting Rights Act that really was a voting rights act. That important legislation gave people who had been denied the right to vote the power to vote. These laws changed our society. They removed artificial barriers. Now new barriers are being erected. Gatekeepers are enacting laws to let some people in and to keep other people out. The legal barriers being put in place are excluding people on both physical and moral grounds.

The politics of exclusion is not new. It is rooted in religious notions of clean and unclean. Legislation to ban books, define a person’s sexuality by birth gender, regulate women’s health care, criminalize safe medications because they are “unclean” to use the biblical term, all of these laws are rooted in a twisted biblical theory known as the holiness codes. This code says simply: because God is holy, we must be holy. Those people who have the power to make the law are taking to themselves the power to define what is holy, what is clean, what is acceptable, and who and what is unclean and unholy and unacceptable. This is a theological argument about the nature of God and about what it means to be a human being.  We have to be willing to frame the issue theologically. We need to talk about what it means to live a dignified life before God. Rather than insisting that Jesus had to heal the man who was blind from birth, we have to denounce biological determinism. The current phrase being used in theological circles is “disability theology.” I would propose the better wording is “dignified theology.” How does a theology that affirms the dignity of every person impact our society? How does a theology of dignity shape our political institutions and economic life? Dignity theology does not answer every question. But it gives us a place to start a new conversation. And that’s worth something.  Amen.