It happened one too many times. My Seeing Eye dog and I went to church and heard another totally uninspiring homily about John 9, the story of the man born blind. It contained the usual elements: “I knew a blind person who was amazing (climbed Mount Everest, was cheerful all the time); wouldn’t it be awful to be blind?.... Jesus’ healing of the blind man was miraculous; the Pharisees were blind not to recognize Jesus for who he was; and pray that you never act blind (insensitive to the world around you).” In my younger days, I might have picketed. Being over 50, I decided instead to propose some better ideas for preaching about this miracle story so it could inspire both the blind and the sighted in the congregation.
The Old Testament offers five views of blindness worth noting. One is that of blindness as a blemish that disqualifies one from temple service (Lv 21:18-21; 2 Sm 5:9). Blind people are also portrayed as groping and incompetent (Is 59: 10; Dt 28:29). Other Old Testament references suggest that God punishes sinners by blinding them or their animals (Zep 1:17; Zec 12:4). But compassion toward the blind is a duty for good believers (Lv 19:14; Dt 27:18). Isaiah also contains multiple references to a God of compassion who opens the eyes of the blind (35:5; 42:7; 42:16; 42:18-9). These disparate images could be combined thus: blindness, sometimes caused by God, is a blemish that limits persons who are to be pitied by the sighted.
The New Testament introduces two new dimensions of blindness: Jesus heals the blind and he disputes the Old Testament connection between blindness and sin (Jn 9:3). But blind people are still viewed as objects of charity (Lk 14:14). As early as the fourth century A.D., hospices and cloisters for the blind were established to carry out this charitable mission.
Fast forward to 1824, when Louis Braille, first taught by a local priest (even though he was blind and poor), invented a raised code for letters that enabled the blind to be literate. Braille codes exist for most of the world’s languages, as well as for music, mathematics and scientific and computer notation. Christian philanthropy for the blind established early schools for the blind in the United States in the 1800’s and founded publishing efforts in Braille like the Xavier Society for the Blind (1900) in New York City.
Three ways of looking at any disability, including blindness, have been used. The moral model (tracing back to the Old and New Testaments) views blindness as something to be ashamed of and blind people as inferior. Some of the common stereotypes of blind people that fit with this idea are that they have multiple disabilities (someone shouts at me or asks the sighted person next to me what I want). Another version of this stereotype appears when people pay a blind person what they intend to be a high compliment by saying, “I don’t think of you as blind.”
This stereotype is also seen when people assume that blind people are “superior” in some way, like being above interest in sex or being “so brave.” About 15 years ago there was a giant flap about providing Playboy in Braille (no pictures) as part of the National Library Service magazine collection. Interestingly, no magazine racier than Ladies Home Journal is provided in Braille for women. In the moral view of blindness, a good blind person would be passive and grateful for charity. John Milton’s “Sonnet on his Blindness,” written over 300 years ago, fits well within this paradigm: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The second way to consider blindness is the medical model. What cannot be fixed by modern medicine can be ameliorated by rehabilitation and education. Blind people can learn to read Braille, travel independently with white canes or guide dogs and use talking computers. “Good” blind people, in this paradigm, seek to be cured of their blindness. If this is not possible, they learn to exist as effectively as possible in a sighted world.
The third model of blindness is that of a minority group. The last 25 years have seen “the last civil rights movement,” when people with disabilities banded together. This view considers a disability as a social, political, cultural phenomenon that develops when a person has an impairment. To be considered a minority, a group must be identifiable, suffer prejudice and discrimination, not be joined by choice and identify itself as such; and its members usually intermarry. These criteria certainly fit the blind. When I was married, the most common question was, “Is your husband blind?” When I said he wasn’t, he was often pronounced to be a saint for marrying me.
Blind people are present in our faith communities and are served by them. The John Milton Society (www.jmsblind.org) and a page on the Library of Congress’s Web site (www.loc.gov/nls) provide links to the offerings of particular denominations. But difficulties seem to arise when the blind individual wants to be more than a passive churchgoer. Issues faced by blind congregants range from getting to church (public transportation is often not available on Sunday) to not being asked to take leadership roles. Those called to ministry have had to fight to overcome attitudes dating back to the Leviticus prohibition on service cited earlier. Old theology and old attitudes are not checked at the church doors.
Theology has long tried to answer the question of why there is suffering and, by extension, disability. The fact that a book like Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie has been on best-seller lists for over 100 weeks shows that this is a concern of many people. Theodicy explains suffering variously as God’s will, a punishment, a test of faith, an opportunity for character development, a manifestation of the power of God, as redemptive suffering and as a sign of God’s mysterious omnipotence. A given individual may express several of these perspectives on his or her blindness.
Theologizing about one’s blindness may also be influenced by a person’s stage of acceptance of the condition. Initially, this was conceptualized as being similar to the stages of acceptance of dying posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Possibilities for going beyond acceptance to disability pride, disability positive and disability culture and connections have also been noted. Jane Erin, for example, reported in The Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (1991) that immediately after the birth of a child who was blind, 20 percent of the parents surveyed viewed visual impairment as a punishment for sin, but that percentage dropped to 4 percent as time passed. Initially 32 percent of the parents thought they had been especially chosen by God to raise their special child; this rose to 45 percent over time.
In the last 25 years various theologies of disability have been put forth. Most start from the position that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalmist said. A disability is but one part of who a person is, and we all have different gifts. Disabled people are called to use their gifts for the service of God. After all, Moses was called to lead the people of Israel, and he stuttered. Jesus still had wounds after his resurrection. Jesus cured some people with disabilities, but more important, he talked to them and associated with them. The Jesus who suffered on the cross and lamented, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” also was raised from the dead. People with disabilities can take hope and comfort from a God who suffers with us but for whom suffering is not the last word.
God empowers people with disabilities to struggle daily with both the concrete limitations that are part of their disabilities and the societal attitudes that limit their participation in this world. But people with disabilities are not only “suffering servants”; they are also leaders. St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” for example, may have been a seizure disorder. Temporarily able-bodied people should be struggling beside people with disabilities, not pitying or stereotyping them. People without disabilities should also be seeking healing from their able-ism.
Most blind characters in the Old and New Testaments, with the exceptions of blind Bartimaeus and the man born blind, are not central actors in the stories in which they appear. They tend to be one-dimensional objects of pity or healing. Images in which darkness equals sin equals blindness and sight equals light equals insight were widespread in Old and New Testament times. They still are. The line “was blind but now I see” in the hymn “Amazing Grace” was penned over 150 years ago, but “I see” is still used as a shorthand way to say, “I understand.” I do not favor politically correct circumlocutions like “visually challenged.” There is nothing wrong with the word blind. But, please, do not use it to mean ignorant.
In homilies on the man born blind, it would be good to hear discussion of what strengths for coping with a disability develop in people. How did the blind man get to the pool to wash? Why did he go? When the blind man said, “I am the man,” he was saying he still was the same man even after his cure; that not much had changed. Was he also saying that he was not ashamed of having been blind and earning his living the best he could by begging? As the blind man answered the questions of bystanders and the Pharisees, was he remembering other times when other people thought they knew his case better than he did? How many parents of disabled/blind children can identify with the parents in the story as they are harshly questioned by others about what they are doing and why?
In his second encounter with the Pharisees, the blind man escalates his assertive answering. He is clearly tired of defending himself. Even though he has been cured of his blindness, he was not healed or accepted by his community. Now he was cast out for his beliefs. In saying “Lord I believe,” he was taking a strong stand. Had living his life as a blind person given him the strength to do this? People with disabilities do not have to be ashamed of their disabilities, and that is the last word in this healing narrative. In the end, the blind man is the one shown to be open to revelation.
For those of us born blind, or visually impaired at any time in life, John 9 poses some challenges. Where is God in your blindness? How do you step out in faith? How do you deal with discrimination because of your blindness? Where are you on the dependence-independence-interdependence continuum? Are there ways you wish your faith community treated you, as a blind person, differently? How are you attempting to bring these about?
But in curing the blind man, Jesus also wanted to heal the temporarily able-bodied to walk beside the blind man in a journey of faith. How can contemporary people who see avoid treating people who are blind the way the Pharisees treated the man born blind? Look around your places of work and worship, your circle of friends and your favorite places to play. If you do not see one out of seven people with a disability, ask yourself why. Are there physical and/or attitudinal barriers? Imagine yourself going through your typical day with a particular disability like blindness. What would you need to do differently? This will give you good ideas of what services you might need to advocate for, together with people with disabilities.
The biblical injunction still stands: “Invite the blind to your feasts.” I would broaden this to suggest joining organizations to work for civil rights for and with people with disabilities. Also make friends with people who happen to have disabilities. After the initial discomfort of working out the concrete details of the disability accommodation, you will be repaid for the extra effort by gaining a new perspective on the world. Being a boundary crosser can help liberate and heal you as well as those you are crossing the boundary to walk with in solidarity. What would Jesus do?
Editor’s note: An audio version of America is available for the visually impaired from the Xavier Society for the Blind, 154 E. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010 (212) 473-7800.