Introduction for Kendrick Arthur Kemp & Black Liberation Theology of Disability:
I was 20 years old when I had my first stroke. It was a Sunday morning, and most of the family had left for church while my older brother and I were sleeping off a night of partying. I was on my way downstairs for some breakfast when suddenly I could not feel my legs. I grabbed the railing and called for my brother, who did not answer. Scared, I continued down the stairs, gripping the railing. After a couple more steps, I fell. The last thing I remember is my brother’s look of terror as he came down the stairs, having heard the crash of my fall.
After two years of rehabilitation, I could walk on my own. I had regained my ability to speak. Then, I suffered a second stroke.
Prior to suffering two strokes, my identity was varied. I was defined in the plural, not the singular. I was a man, a citizen, a pastor’s kid, and a Christian. I was raised within a working- class community and brought up in a working-class family. I was an athlete, making All-Sectional as a running back in football, All-State as a forward in basketball, and I set Lyons Junior and Senior High School track records in the 400, the 800, and the mile relay race.
After my second stroke, I again learned to walk and talk. I earned a B.S.W. from Syracuse University, then an M.S.W. from Binghamton University. In 2015, I graduated from Union Theological Seminary with a Master’s degree in Divinity, and I passed the ASWB test and became a Licensed Social Worker in the State of New York. I have spent a lifetime overcoming, yet the moment I suffered that first stroke my identity became singular: I became disabled.
The biggest blow to my progress has not been the two strokes or the limitations I now live with; what is most debilitating is the cultural reception that limits my identity. In response to having my identity shift from the plural to the singular, I have adopted a framework that fuses Black Liberation Theology and a Theology of Disability. A Black Liberation Theology of Disability acknowledges that we all navigate limitations and live with disabilities. Our challenge is to find a way to succeed in spite of them.
If we choose to understand disabilities as one of many challenges, then the stigma that subjugates those of us with physical and sensory disabilities becomes moot. For even the Christ suffered a disability, broken as he was on the cross. And he accepted and suffered the cross alone so that those of us who followed would not have to suffer it.
For James H. Cone, “Christian theology is a theology of liberation.” In A Black Theology of Liberation Cone contends that “there can be no black theologian that does not take seriously the black experience [which is] a life of humiliation and suffering,” because to take the black experience seriously is to take Christ seriously, a man intimately familiar with oppression, humiliation, and systemic suffering. My life is in need of Christian theology and it’s liberating message. Yet, within the church, I have been shunned. While I receive a special seat and a ramp, my emotional and spiritual needs are often not addressed because, at least for now, disabilities are still a taboo topic within the church.
Pre-strokes I sat where I pleased. Post-strokes I was assigned a seat, often to the side, feeling hidden from the rest of the congregation. Pre-strokes I actively socialized during coffee hour and at congregational dinners. Post-strokes I often sat alone; those congregants who did share meals with me were, at times, motivated by pity. Pre-strokes I regularly received communion. Post-strokes one congregation denied it to me. I became a spectacle. People stared as if I were from another planet—a contemporary leper.
Some within the church believe that their bodies are whole, and that the bodies of those with disabilities are not. This belief reflects a fear and distrust of those who do not have “whole” bodies, which goes back thousands of years. This belief contradicts the work of Nancy L. Eiesland, who proposes in The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability that we are all incomplete, and that communion with God and the Christ happens when we accept each other as incomplete, rather than dismiss or shun those who only appear as though they are incomplete. We might expect humiliation and suffering from communities that do not hold themselves accountable to the message of the Gospel, but we are stunned when churches become perpetrators of such treatment. It is particularly confounding when those who are familiar with the work of Cone and Eiesland choose to subjugate.
David confronted Goliath with the odds stacked against him, as did Samson before him when he toppled pillars and crushed Philistine foes. We who have the odds stacked against us often learn to survive by defying odds. In this, we can look to the example of Israel himself, also known as Jacob, who, in going against the odds, wrestled with God, and proved himself a formidable match. The limp that Jacob bears is not biblically defined as a handicap, nor is Jacob shunned as a cripple or disabled. Jacob’s limp is the mark of a survivor. He persevered through insurmountable odds and was blessed in return.
What risks do we take if we bless the disabled? Why do we feel ashamed of our wounds and do our best to conceal them? We are not perfect, nor are we intended to model or strive for perfection. Like the resurrected Christ, our wounds are visible and undeniable, and their very existence challenges us to reconcile our fear of vulnerability. What better place for reconciliation than the church?
Define Black Liberation Theology of Disability in the early 21st century? What does it look like today?
Undoubtedly, we live in an “Age of Terror”: of political and social terror and violence. Black men and women are killed in the streets, progressive political measures are under scrutiny, and those with disabilities are constantly underserved and ignored as secondary citizens. A Black Liberation Theology of Disability could help us understand our present situation and learn how to fight against it. It is first and foremost a way of life grounded in a theological framework. It encompasses black persons living with disabilities and focuses on their social, spiritual, and economic needs. It seeks to transform society to embrace black persons living with disabilities as an important part in the fabric of society and supports those already doing the work. Finally, it understands a God who is disabled, who is paralyzed by the cross. God is not indifferent to suffering and is in solidarity with the marginalized. In this way, a Black Liberation Theology of Disability can help us keep our soul intact without compromising our morals.
How is a Black Liberation Theology of Disability different from a Black Liberation Theology and a Theology of Disability?
In an essay entitled To Make a Wounded Wholeness: Disability and Liturgy in an African American Context, Harold Dean Trulear offers the disparity between African Americans with disabilities and white Americans with disabilities, which is at a ratio of 14 to 8, meaning there are almost twice as many African Americans with disabilities as white Americans.
“African Americans with disabilities are person whose marginality to the mainstream of American society lies anywhere from the double jeopardy of race and disability to the quadruple jeopardy of race, disability, class, and gender,” explains Trulear. A Black Liberation Theology of Disability looks at race, disability, class, and gender.
Trulear’s essay was published in 1998, in a collection of essays entitled Human Disability and the Service of God, edited by Nancy Eiesland and Don E. Saliers. In July 2015, the CDC published a report reinforcing Trulear’s claims. Out of the 53 million adults in the U.S. living with a disability, the CDC reports that more non-Hispanic black Americans live with disabilities than any other racial-ethnic group, with nearly 9% more non-Hispanic black Americans living with a disability than white Americans. We are a marginalized population living within a marginalized population.
Additionally, in the introduction to Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, the collection’s editor Christopher M. Bell threads a history of African Americans with disabilities being targeted, from Harriet Tubman to Emmett Till to James Byrd. Incorporating race, disability, class, and gender into his argument, Bell explains, “Disability Studies scholars contend that cultural barriers preclude the full practice of disabled subjects in society similar to the ways that homophobia, racism, and sexism deter queer-identified, racial minority, and female subjects from operating at their full potential.” Maintaining the spirit of these words, Bell then goes on to reference feminist and disability scholars. Citing Michele Wallace, and her work in Black macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Bell reveals that Harriet Tubman “‘suffered dizzy spells and sleeping seizure’” after being “‘struck in the head by an overseer with a metal weight’” at the age of 15 when intervening on behalf of a fellow slave. Bell, and by proxy, Wallace, acknowledge a legacy of systemic violence on black and female bodies, which is in-part the culprit in Tubman developing a disability; but, that did not stop her. “A disability perspective,” writes Bell, “(re)positions Tubman’s instantaneous disabling alongside of her subsequent actions of attaining her own freedom and then returning to the South on numerous trips to liberate other slaves,” which led to Tubman being nicknamed the “Moses of her people.” Biblical interpretation offers that Moses suffered a speech impediment, so it is fitting that the liberator of the Israelites from Egypt and the liberator of black Americans from the South both lived with a disability.
Emmett Till and James Byrd were targeted, in part, because they lived with a disability. In Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio, Bell references Anne Finger’s reveal that Till “whistling” at a white woman was not intentional, but a practice he used to relax his throat muscles due to a speech impairment, which he developed after suffering bulbar polio. According to Finger, “‘Until her death Mobley believed that the whistle leading to her son’s death had been the result of an attempt to free his voice, rather than wolf whistle directed at the white woman.’” Therefore, Till was more vulnerable and targeted, in part, because of his disability.
43 years later, James Byrd would also be targeted, in part, because of his disability. For those unfamiliar with the case, in Jasper, Texas, Byrd was tied to a pick up truck and dragged to his death. “‘I recalled reading, on the day the crime was first reported, that a disabled African American had been brutally murdered,’” explains Disability Studies scholar Lennard Davis. “‘…Yet when the story reappeared days, weeks, months later, Byrd was simply referred to as African American.’” Like Till, Bell argues that Byrd was targeted because of “race and disability.” For Bell, those with disabilities are “relegated to the margins.” For black Americans with disabilities, we live on the margins of the margins; we exist on the fringes of the fringe. A Black Liberation Theology of Disability looks at all of these realities together, building on the work of both a Black Liberation Theology and a Theology of Disability to draw the circle wider.
How can congregations practice a Black Liberation Theology of Disability?
The first question I would ask a congregation is, “Does your place of worship welcome people living with disabilities?” The great thing about many churches is that we want to be welcoming, but sometimes we have blinders on, preventing us from being as welcoming as we can be. That said, there are follow-up questions, which, in one way or another, ask “How?” “How is our congregation welcoming?” and “How does our congregation show that we are welcoming?” The following are some questions I find helpful when engaging with congregations seeking answers to these “How?” questions:
- Does your church promote a culture where congregants are free to discuss polarizing issues like disabilities?
- Are folks who are otherwise driven to the fringes of culture invited into the center of your church community?
- Are positions of leadership available to folks with disabilities, and are there programs to educate congregations concerning stigmas like disabilities?
- Does your church offer support groups for congregants with disabilities, as well as their family members?
- Do congregational leaders have statistics on the number of folks living with disabilities, not just within the church, but in the surrounding community as well? Often, folks living with disabilities do not have access to the resources available to them; learned churches can change this with awareness and action.
The thing about disabilities is that they are not always visible, nor are they always diagnosed. There can be folks within our congregations who are living with disabilities, some of whom are openly suffering, but are undiagnosed. Additionally, there may be folks in our congregations living with a diagnosed disability, who are vulnerable, and may feel ashamed to share it, or concerned that they would be further isolated if sharing their disability with their congregational community. Asking these questions, both of my own church community and of inquiring congregations, serves both their current congregants as well as future congregants.
70% of people over the age of 80 are living with a disability, and it is likely that some of them are sitting in our pews on Sunday mornings. 50% of people living below the poverty line are living with a disability: those whom Jesus time and time again charged us to serve. 40% of people who have not completed high school are living with a disability. 30% of Black Americans are living with a disability, 26% of Hispanics, 25% of women, and 22% of Americans are living with a disability.
Congregations can start practicing a Black Liberation Theology of Disability first by acknowledging these statistics. These folks are our family and friends, and neighbors. Second, congregations can acknowledge the biblical mandate to serve those living with a disability. These acknowledgments begin to take disabilities out of the realm of taboo and start the work of liberation.
Lastly, before we go any further, and this likely does not need to be said, but I am going to address it anyway: I am biased. I live with disabilities. Though, while I am biased, I am also somewhat an expert on the subject of living with disabilities within a culture where being “disabled” is taboo.
Is there a place in Black Liberation Theology of Disability for those of us who are not black, and for those of us who do not live with disabilities? If so, what is our role?
When I consider this question, I often think of Malcolm X. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in a chapter appropriately entitled Icarus, Malcolm recalls a “blonde co-ed” from a “New England college,” which he does not name, visiting him at a Muslim restaurant in Harlem, shortly after he visited her school. In fact, Malcolm jokes, “She must have caught the next plane behind that one I took to New York.” So, this young woman, whom Malcom further describes “her clothes, her carriage, her accept, all showed Deep South white breeding and money,” approaches him in this restaurant, and catches him off-guard, asking “Don’t you believe there are any_good_white people?” Malcolm is likely caught off-guard because, as he states, he had never seen anyone “more affected than this little white college girl.” He answers her questions, stating, “People’s_deeds_I believe in, Miss-not their words.” To this, she replies, according to Malcolm, “What can I do?” His, now famous, response, “Nothing.” She then, as reported by Malcolm, “burst out crying, and ran out and up Lennox Avenue and caught a taxi.”
Later in the epilogue, Alex Haley writes that Malcolm said he “lived to regret that incident.” For me, this moment of honesty, humility and vulnerability is a gift; it has shaped my own theology. We all have a part to play in advocating for justice, whether it is justice for the civil rights of those with disabilities, the black community, our LGBTQI brothers and sisters, and equal pay for all regardless of gender. We all have a role to play. We are responsible for looking after one another politically, economically, and spiritually. To borrow from another Civil Rights icon, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Specifically, within a context of a Black Liberation Theology of Disability, I return to the questions previously shared. By asking these “How?” questions, congregations, regardless of their identity, can begin to assess how best to serve those with disabilities within their community. Lastly, there are programs already in place within our local, state, and federal governments that churches can work with in order to learn more about disability services and partner with in order to offer additional support to those living with disabilities in their congregations and communities.
A Black Liberation Theology of Disability puts the marginalized first. What does it mean to put the most vulnerable among us first?
We are not favored by God, nor does show God favor when we dismiss those with disabilities as inferior. In I Corinthians 12:24-25, the Apostle Paul writes, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” It is not that are only as strong as our weakest member, but rather, we are only as strong as how we care for our weakest member. Paul continues in verse 26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” A culture of empire, a culture of status quo, celebrates the more privileged members of a society at the expense of those deemed inferior. When establishing a foundation for Christianity, Paul was intent on developing an alternative to the status quo.
A culture which allows those in positions of power to take from those without has remained. It is prevalent within American culture, as it is within American churches. Jesus advocated for those deemed inferior, and Paul set up the early church as a refuge from the status quo. It is now our responsibility to accept and honor their legacy.
What does it mean to put the most vulnerable among us first? The most vulnerable are in need of the same sense of dignity that the most privileged take for granted. Jobs. Patience. Education. Empathy. Understanding. The most vulnerable need these things, and we need them everyday, and we need them in the same way all people need them. The most vulnerable among us are often more vulnerable because we are denied these things where others receive them freely.
We need to be willing to change our ideology, our worldview, and have conversations with our most vulnerable populations, and, most daringly, we need to be willing to listen.