Voices at the Margins

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					                                 Voices at the Margins
                       Ironside Lecture. St John’s Nelson. 7/10/06

Opening Prayer – Leunig. In Order to be Truthful.

In order to be truthful
We must do more than speak the truth.
We must also hear truth.
We must also receive truth.
We must also act upon truth.
We must also search for truth.
The difficult truth,
within us and around us.
We must devote ourselves to truth.
Otherwise we are dishonest
and our lives are mistaken.
God grant us the strength and the courage
To be truthful.


African –American writer, bell hooks, speaking out of her own embodied experience,
speaks of the place of the margin in the following manner.

To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body….

Living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We
looked both from the outside in and from the inside out. We focused our attention on the
centre as well as on the margin. We understood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of
the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and centre. Our
survival depended on an ongoing public awareness of the separation between margin and
centre and an ongoing private acknowledgement that we were a necessary, vital part of
that whole.

This sense of wholeness, impressed upon our consciousness by the structure of our daily
lives, provided us with an oppositional worldview – a mode of seeing unknown to most of
our oppressors that sustained us, aided us in our struggle to transcend poverty and
despair, strengthened our sense of self and our solidarity.

…..identify marginality as much more than a site of deprivation….also a site of radical
possibility, a space of resistance….a central location for the production of a
counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the
way one lives. (149. Yearning.)

Today I want to explore in particular the articulation of a theology from the margins of
disability and the particular challenges inherent within this particular growing body of

The NZ Government Policy Document entitled The NZ Disability Strategy, written in 2002
and now being enacted systematically in both law and social policy begins with the stark
phrase. “We live in a disabling society.”

It goes on to qualify this statement by clarifying that disability is not something individuals
have. What individuals have are impairments. The may be physical, sensory, neurological,
psychiatric, intellectual or other impairments.

Disability is the process which happens when one group of people create barriers by
designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other
people have. Our society is built in a way that assumes that we can all move quickly from
one side of the road to the other; that we can all see signs, read directions, hear
announcements, reach buttons, have the strength to open heavy doors and have stable
moods and perceptions.

Disability relates to the interaction between the person with impairment and the
environment. It has a lot to do with discrimination, and has a lot in common with other
attitudes to do with racism, sexism, any scripting that dictates a tyranny of a norm that
then divides and excludes.

Certain bodies have been socially constructed as lacking full humanity – thus as less then
“whole”. In modernity these were the “degenerate types”. The “degenerate” is an early
modern conflation of what we today would distinguish as disability, race and gender. The
notion of degeneracy operates in tandem with modern scientific anthropology,
complementing its ideal of the autonomous, self-made, self-mastering individual.

Nearly everyone Michael Warner writes in “The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the
Ethics of Queer Life” wants to be normal. And who can blame them, if the alternative is

being abnormal, or deviant or not being like the rest of us.

Try to imagine a world where the hegemony of the normal does not exist.

We live in a world of norms. Each of us endeavours to be normal or else deliberately tries
to avoid that state.

There is probably no area of contemporary life in which some idea of a norm, mean or
average has not been calculated.

To understand the disabled body, one must return to the concept of the norm, the normal
body. So much of writing about disability has focused on the disabled person as the object
of study, just as the study of race has focused on the person of colour. But as with recent
scholarship on race, which has turned its attention to the issue/dynamic of whiteness, so
too there has been a shift within the field of disability studies/theology to focus not only on
the construction of disability as on the construction of normalcy.

The shift is deliberate emphasizing that the “problem” is not the person with disabilities;
the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the “problem” of the
disabled person.

The constellation of words describing the concept of “normal”, “normality”, “norm”,
“average”, “abnormal”- all entered the European language rather late in human history.
The word “normal” as constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from, the
common type or standard, regular, usual”, only enters the English language around 1840.
(Previously the word had meant “perpendicular”; the carpenters square, called a “norm”,
provided the root meaning)

Likewise the word “norm” in the modern sense has only been in use since around 1855.

The concept that preceded it was that of the “ideal”, a word dating from the 17th Century.

The ideal body was that exemplified for example in the tradition of nude Venuses. The
mytho-poetic body that is linked to the gods (in traditions in which the body of the gods is
visualized). This divine body, then, this ideal body, is not attainable by a human.

When ideal human bodies occur they do so in mythology.

The concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population
must or should somehow be part of the norm. The norm pins down that majority of the
population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve.

The bell curve becomes in its own way a symbol of the tyranny of the norm. A bell curve
will always have at its extremities those characteristics will always have at its extremities
those characteristics that deviate from the norm. So, with the concept of the norm comes
the concept of deviations or extremes.

Modern colonization in its incessant evangelical need to reach out to the end of the earth
advanced using a psychosocial map of “zones of degeneracy”. (Betcher….) This notion of
degeneracy was based on the Enlightenment’s evolutionary Darwinian story of the “Family
of Man”. This biological map of humanity’s evolution presumed that the civilized European
human was both descended from those so called earlier, “primitive” races of distant
continents now encountered in the age of continental discovery and the epitome of
evolved, civilized humanity.

Degeneracy here came to categorically encompass the less than wholesome others of the
emergent modern self – namely the ‘internal enemies’ of the bourgeois male - women,
racial others, the working class, and people with disabilities.

These degenerate types it was felt would weaken the “vigorous bourgeois body and state.
The moral propriety of the middle class as also the moral superiority of the colonizing
nation depended on spatially confining degeneracy, both geographically( whether to a
specific country, continent, or neighbourhood) and socially, for e.g.: to a particular class.

The stigmatic markers of debility conceptually included what we distinguish as gender,
race, and disability.

These “stigmata’ debility, which were conflated under the canopy of “degeneracy” also
then denoted the spatial confinements to which such bodies must be returned – for e.g.: to
slums, housing zones, the streets, and asylums.

They were if you like territorial markers – and disability was one of such markers along
with race and gender.

Because physical, mental and social defects pulled people down…it was therefore
necessary to avoid this pull downwards by maintaining rigid boundaries between those
prone to decay and those who were to participate as citizens in the new order.

The emphasis on nation and national fitness played into the metaphor of the
wholesome/perfect body. If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation,
then the national body will not be fit.

It was the beginnings of the powerful movement of thought - what we come to know as
the notion of eugenics – that notion that individual variations would accumulate into a

composite (blended, mixed) national identity was a powerful one.

One of the central foci of eugenics – was what was broadly called “feeblemindedness”. This
term included low intelligence, mental illness, and even pauperism, since low income was
equated with relative inefficiency. Likewise certain ethnic groups were associated with
feeblemindedness and pauperism.

The list of disabilities for which sterilization would be appropriate were, “congenital
feeblemindedness, manic depressive insanity, schizophrenia, hereditary epilepsy,
hereditary St Vitus’s dance, hereditary blindness and deafness, hereditary malformation
and habitual alcoholism. (Compare NZ data – “Unfortunate Folk. Essays on Mental Health
Treatment 1863 -1992, Chapter 13, The Problem of Mental defect in New Zealand 1920 –
1935, pp 200-214).

So the very term that permeates our daily living – the normal – is in actual fact a
configuration that arises in a particular historical moment.

The implications of the hegemony of normalcy are profound and one of the tasks of a
developing consciousness of disability, and the doing of theology from the margins, is the
attempt to transgress, to “queer” the hegemony of the normal and to institute alternative
ways of thinking and being., as an intentional way of using the margin as a site of
resistance – a site of radical possibility.

Disability Theology from the Margins of “normality”.

The prejudice, hostility, and suspicion toward people with disabilities cannot be dismissed
simply as relics of an unenlightened past.

Reworking a theology from the margins of church theology and practice – including the
Bible itself – has often been dangerous for persons with disabilities.

The first step of reworking – or if you like, deliberately claiming the margin of disability as
a site of resistance is to identify and confront some of the key aspects of the church’s
disabling theology, beginning with its biblical roots. It is as the prayer of Michael Leunig -
about the acts of searching for truth, uncovering truth, and acting for truth and in so doing
finding within the ‘truths’ a new and freer way to realize the embodied God in the midst of
new truths.

A distinctive theme in the Hebrew Scriptures which has so deeply affected New Testament
scriptures and resulting Christian traditions and practices is the conflation of physical
disability and “impurity”. The “holiness code” of Leviticus 17-26 communicates a strong
message that physical disability is a distortion of the divine image and an inherent
desecration of all things holy.

Bodily wholeness is “unclean” and needs to be kept at the periphery of the community.
Leviticus 21: 18-20 prohibits anyone “blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a
limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a dwarf, or a man with a
blemish in his eyes” from priestly activities or entering the most holy place in the temple.

These and similar passages have historically been used to warrant barring persons with
disabilities from positions of ecclesiastical visibility and

Although the specific standards of such passages may not be retained as criteria for
today’s leadership, the implicit theology persists in church actions and attitudes.

New Testament texts have also been read to support a link between sin and disability.

Several Gospel narratives and even Jesus’ own statements are ambiguous, sometimes
upholding and sometimes discounting such linkage.

Luke’s account of the man with paralysis who is lowered through the roof of the house
where Jesus is speaking has often been interpreted as a story of heroic helpers and a
crippled sinner (5:18-26). Jesus’ own words – “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are
forgiven you’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (5:23) – suggest some association between
forgiveness and healing.

In John’s story of the man by the pool of Bethesda (5: 5-16), Jesus follows his healing
with an apparent affirmation of the link between sin and disability when he tells him, “Do
not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (5:14) . In John (: 1-3, however,
Jesus offers a very different perspective. When his disciples ask whether the man’s
blindness is the result of his or his parent’s sins, Jesus answers: “Neither this man nor his
parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

A different but equally troublesome biblical theme is the ideal of virtuous suffering. I
passages such as Paul’s account of the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12: 7-10), righteous
submission to divine testing is upheld as a praiseworthy disposition for Christian disciples.

Likewise, early interpretations of Job and the story of Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) purported
that physical impairments were a sign of divine election by which the righteous were
purified and perfected through painful trials.

Disability is seen as a temporary affliction that must be endured to gain heavenly rewards.
While more subtle, this theology of virtuous suffering has been no less dangerous. It has
encouraged persons with disabilities to acquiesce to social barriers as a sign of obedience
to God, and to internalize second class status inside and outside of the church.

Not only do we live in a ‘disabling society’, ‘we live in a disabling church’ – a church -
in which certain bodies have been constructed as lacking full humanity – thus not being
able to equally in and through their bodies reveal something of the very nature and being
of God.

What is urgently required in the doing of theology from the margins, which if necessity will
bring rightful challenges to any ‘normative centre’ is what is known as a ‘queering’
process – a frame of mind which actively engages in queerying – ‘queering’.

Jione Havea, (Tongan Methodist Biblical Scholar), writing about the action of queer(y)ing
the bible speaks of one of the goals of queer theory – (that theory and way of being and
seeing which has arisen out of the margins of sexuality) – “ as seeking to disrupt
modernist notion of fixity by exposing how the “natural” and “normal” are constructions,
thereby vulnerable to history and politics, and therefore to change. In other words, queer
theory is in the business of querying taken for granted societal pillars (or, if you prefer
psychoanalytical language, social phalluses), and as a consequence denaturalizes or
de-essentializes formerly stable identities. In this regard, all forms of authority, including
the authority of the bible, are shown to be constructions (or if you prefer more playful
language, fabrications) and deployments of power.

The engagement in the doing of theology from the margins of disability and I would say
also the margins of sexuality disability studies involves an engagement with what we call
hermeneutics, - a engaged mode of interpretation - and the text of disabled
hermeneutics is the body. (hull.p5)

The body is not only a suitable starting point for a theology of disability – but in actual fact
I believe all our articulating of theology because the body is our source of knowledge not
only of ourselves but of the world and everything in it. We are our bodies.

We ‘know’ God in and through the bodily form of ‘incarnation’ – God, Immanuel – one with
us – revealed in the Christ in human bodily form. We see something of the divinity in one
another – all created in the image of God – the face of God – in varying bodily forms – no
one form more normal than the other – no one from more or less revealing of the image of
God than another.

Human knowledge is created by humans. Human knowledge takes the form of constructs,
which express the social and political position of the knower. The emphasis upon bodily
knowledge takes this further by pointing out that we know the world as our bodies know it.

This is crucial for a philosophy and theology of disability because it enables us to postulate
the existence of several worlds of human knowledge. The experience which a blind person
has of the world is significantly different from that of sighted people, that we can speak of
it as a constructed world. This emphasizes the independence and integrity, the wholeness

of the blind world, and set blindness free from being interpreted merely in terms of

As John Hull, Professor of Religious Education and Practical Theology, a person born
sighted but now blind comments, “Blindness is not something that simply happens to one’s
eye; it is something that happens to one’s world. This enables us to also relativise the
hegemenous assumptions of many sighted people, who do not realise that they live in a
world which is a projection of their sighted bodies, but make the mistake of thinking that
the world is just like that, the way they see it.” (6. Hull. The Broken Body in a Broken
World: A Contribution to a Christian Doctrine of the Person from a Disabled Point of View.)

The significance of this for Christian anthropology lies in the fact that it emphasizes the
plurality of human worlds, and the recognition of the plurality immediately relativises the
absolute claims of a single, dominant world. (Hull 6. Open Letter from a Blind Disciple to a
Sighted Saviour: Text and Discussion)

The significance of this for the reading of the Bible and the interpretation of Christian
traditions makes for very exciting and challenging times.

As John Hull states; “If there is an absolute truth, it is not to be found through a process
of artificial and often unconscious absolutising, but through a proliferation of many
meanings until everyone’s meanings are gathered in. This is the way that the Bible
becomes truly ecumenical, truly catholic (and truly liberating- my words). We do not know
how many perspectives there might be. We do not know how many new groups and new
cultures will hold up the diamond of God’s word and give it a new twist, so that new
patterns and colours flash forth from it, but if the Bible is to be a book for all people, this
process cannot be arrested. It is necessary that all those who are spoken to by the Bible
should have an opportunity to reply, and thus the conversation which is within the Bible
should have an opportunity to reply, and thus the conversation which within the Bible can
enter into conversation with us today, and through offering a voice and a hearing to
everyone, we can create a community of free speech. (2. Hull. Letter from a Blind Disciple
to a Sighted Saviour).

In concluding let me say that I believe these are exciting and challenging time to read
the bible and be the church. For the final word on biblical interpretation has not been said,
God and truth are still in process, just as we all are as human beings as interconnected
parts of the evolving created world. The bible is still being written, and firstly, we should
not forfeit our responsibility to make our contribution to this important task, and,
secondly, we must pay attention to the voices – the interpretive embodied voices at the
margins for what they would have to say to what we have come to assume as being the

Let us close as I began with the prayerful and most insightful words of Michael Leunig:

In order to be truthful
we must do more than speak the truth.
We must also hear truth.
We must receive truth.
We must also act upon truth.
We must also search for truth.
The difficult truth,
within us and around us.
We must devote ourselves to truth.
Otherwise we are dishonest,
and our lives are mistaken.
God grant us the strength and the courage
to be truthful. Amen.


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