Kendrick Kemp 

November 8, 2013 


In The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eiesland writes 

about her experiences being disabled. Eiesland develops a theology of liberation out of tragedy, 

as does James Cone with A Black Theology of Liberation. However, Cone’s tragedy is not 

cognitive or developmental, nor are his physical or sensory capabilities impaired. Rather, Cone’s 

tragedy is a uniquely American tragedy. It is a tragedy born out of a desire for some to justify 

having more at the expense of others. It is one of privilege and status. It is a tragedy of power. It 

is the tragedy of race. There is an intersection where The Disabled God and A Black Theology of 

Liberation meet. While each text speaks to a different experience of exclusion, it is the 

experience itself of being identified, branded, and forever marked as less-than where those who 

are systemically marginalized come together in the experience itself. Here, at this intersection of 

exclusion, is where I find these authors, and my journey toward reconciliation begins. The 

liberatory works of Eiesland and Cone expose the consequences of subjugation while offering 

redemptive solutions of healing and reconciliation; the intersection of the two, in their 

agreements and disagreements, lays the foundation for developing my own theology that takes 

seriously both race and disability as starting points for theology. 

The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eiesland 

In The Disabled God Eiesland makes note of the powerful role language can often play when 

identifying a person, or classifying a group of people. Eiesland notes, “As linguistics and 

anthropologists know, the act of naming someone or something grants the namer power over the 

named” (25). Rather than naming people like Eiesland and I disabled, why not identify us as 

people with disabilities? Disabled is defining, disabilities implies one characteristic out of many. 

“Historically, rather than naming ourselves, the disabled have been named by medical 

and scientific professionals or by people who denied our full personhood,” (25) writes Eiesland, 

further validating the significance of naming. Not only have medical and scientific professionals 

exclusively named those with disabilities, they have also exclusively diagnosed those with 

disabilities without ever consulting experts with disabilities themselves (25). Those with 

disabilities share a history of being named by those in positions of power in order to deny 

personhood: women, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and the 

LGBTQ community. In fact, the only people that have yet to be branded with a name that 

diminishes personhood within our American context are white heterosexual men. Rather than 

develop a theology that redistributes power so that those who have been subjugated are in a 

position of power over their subjugator, Eiesland crafts a theology of liberation—a theology of 

inclusion. For Eiesland, healing does not begin with vengeance. Rather, healing begins with 

reconciliation. Reconciliation happens when power is redistributed in a way that serves both 

those with disabilities as well as those without disabilities. 

For Eiesland a Theology of Disability is a two-way system. “Persons with disabilities 

must gain access to the social-symbolic life of the church, and the church must gain access to the 

social-symbolic lives of people with disabilities” (20). This two-way system is key. With it there 

is an equal distribution of power. Without an equal distribution of power—without a give and 

take relationship—one party will likely feel inferior to the other. A relationship with an 

imbalance in power is both dangerous and debilitating. It is dangerous for those who experience

an influx of power, and debilitating for those who feel as if they are not being valued. A two-way 

system can work toward presenting those with disabilities all that healthy church communities 

represent: a place where one feels less vulnerable, a place to belong, and a place to feel 

comfortable and safe. In short, a two-way system can help one feel whole, and “at-home” (21). 

The church serves as a location for healing. In fact, when support groups like AA and 

Al-anon choose to meet within churches it is a testament to churches serving as safe and secure 

locations for healing. However, with as much tragic irony as can be afforded, those with 

disabilities have been historically excluded from the church community of healing. For Eiesland, 

“The first and primary agenda is enabling people with disabilities to participate in the life of the 

church” (20-21) because the body of the disabled is synonymous with the body of the resurrected 

Christ. Eiesland continues, “Christ’s body, the church, is broken, marked by sin, divided by 

disputes, and exceptional in its exclusivity” (108). The church is naked, vulnerable, and 

wounded. We are not to be towering institutions that celebrate our own sovereignty. Rather, we 

are malnourished, and we thirst. However, this is not how the church often presents itself. 

Rather than accept its own brokenness the church has preferred to self-identify as whole, 

while those with disabilities are perceived to be alone in their brokenness. In 1 Corinthians 

12:12-13 the apostle Paul reminds us that we are all united: “For just as the body is one and has 

many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with 

Christ.” Therefore, when the church forgets itself—when the church forgets that it is broken—it 

forgets the Christ. According to Eiesland, “There is no perfect church as there is no ‘perfect’ 

body” (108). When the church forgets that it is broken, it becomes an entity with a lost identity. 

Only when the church recognizes that it is broken and accepts this brokenness, and is willing to 

accept its own imperfections, does the church honor the sacrifice and the resurrection of the 

Christ. Only when the church accepts the marginalized and accepts its own disabilities will the 

church serve its intended purpose to collectively heal. 

One key liberatory component of Eiesland’s theology of disability is described as 

“holding our bodies together.” For Eiesland, “‘holding our bodies together’ is the work of 

solidarity with our own bodies, other people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups” 

(95). A destination is often what drives people. For Eiesland, the destination is not primary. 

What is vital for Eiesland’s liberatory theology of disability is the journey—how we get to the 

destination. Salvation is not a gift to be granted to those of us who are challenged with 

limitations by those in power. Our participation in the journey is a fundamental component to 

salvation. Eiesland concludes, “Finally, holding our bodies together means uniting with other 

marginalized peoples in resistance” (97). 

Eiesland’s theology is a theology of inclusion. It calls forth the marginalized to use their 

collective powers to expose the systems that benefit from the subjugation of others. “Structures 

and attitudes that keep women, people of color, and the poor marginalized also stigmatize people 

with disabilities as their ‘normal’ practice” (95); these structures and attitudes create an ideology 

that permit people to subjugate others. If we do not fit the prototype of the system, you are set 

aside. We are ignored. We are not valued. 

A Black Theology of Liberation, James H. Cone 

According to James Cone, the preeminent scholar of Black Liberation Theology, “Christian 

theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light 

of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the 

essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ” (1). Christian theology is a theology of the 

oppressed. It exists in order to serve the oppressed. The “inner thrust for liberation is not only 

consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1). A theology that does not “arise” 

from a community of the oppressed is not a theology of the gospel (1). Therefore, within an 

American context, Cone asserts that God is black. 

For Cone (and as it should be for the rest of us), “It is a sad fact that the most blatant 

expressions of human oppression (the enslavement of black Americans) have been overlooked in 

American theology. And because of that gross sin, it cannot be forgiven” (90). Like Cain, we are 

forever marked with the sins of slavery. However, unlike Cain, when consistently confronted 

with the opportunity to accept responsibility and reconcile our sins, we turn away from God and 

do not answer to the call. The problem of reconciliation is the problem of conceding the 

authority, power, and privilege of whiteness. “Reconciliation does not transcend color, thus 

making us all white,” proclaims Cone in Black Theology and Black Power (151). Furthermore, 

“The problem of values is not that white people need to instill values in the ghetto; but white 

society itself needs values so that it will no longer need a ghetto. Black values did not create the 

ghetto; white values did” (151). 

From the conception of our United States, slaves and their ancestors have been denied a 

history of immigration—stolen from their homes and sold into slavery—as well as their 

personhood—first as slaves, then with segregation and Jim Crow, and presently with the more 

economic and socially acceptable systemic means of control, like the ghetto. As a result, if God 

is a God of the oppressed, if the gospel message is a message of the oppressed, then God is 

black. It follows for Cone, “The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed 

condition his own condition” (121). Cone further asserts that there is a biblical mandate for his 

claim. The plight of African Americans is synonymous with the plight of the Israelites. “By 

electing Israelite slaves” as God’s chosen people, “and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus 

Christ,” God reveals that God is known where there is “humiliation and suffering” (121). 

Furthermore, in Black Theology and Black Power, Cone asserts, “Christian freedom 

means being a slave for Christ in order to do His will” (42). The dichotomy of being free in the 

world, while being a slave for Christ shatters the oppressive language of slavery. It gives those 

who have been enslaved, as well as their descendents, power rather than shame. If love for the 

Christ is to be a slave to the Christ, then we are all—regardless of race—a slave. We become 

submissive, not to one another, but rather to the Christ. And that power, which we submit to, is 

not a power that subjugates, but the power of love. 

In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone asserts that there are five sources of Black 

Theology: the black experience, black history, black culture, revelation, and scripture. For Cone, 

“there can be no black theology that does not take seriously the black experience—a life of 

humiliation and suffering” (24). Therefore, because the black experience is a life of humiliation 

and suffering, it is a life in need of liberation—a life in need of Christian theology, a Black 

Theology of Liberation. The life of those with disabilities is also a life of humiliation and 

suffering. In fact, the black experience and the experience of those with disabilities meet each 

other consistently on their journeys of humiliation and suffering. Historically, black culture was 

robbed of all personhood, including the power to name, which is a power that has been taken 

from those with disabilities as well. It is an attempt to define the subjugated as “nonpersons” 

(27). While Cone writes of the black experience existent “in a system of white racism” (25), the

experience of those with disabilities is also existent within, humiliated within, and suffering 

within, that same system. 

An Identity of Plurality, Rather than the Singular 

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. I made All-State as 

a running back in football, as a forward in basketball, and set Lyons Junior and Senior High 

School track records in the 400, the 800, and the mile relay race. Then, at the age of 21 I suffered 

a stroke. I became disabled. Shortly after defying my doctor’s expectations by learning how to 

walk and talk again, I suffered a second stroke at the age of 23. I again learned to walk and talk, 

defying expectations. I earned a BS in Social Work from Syracuse University, then an MS in 

Social Work from Binghamton University. I have spent a lifetime overcoming, yet I am not 

defined or identified by these accomplishments. The moment I suffered that first stroke my 

identity became singular. I became disabled

While I am commonly referred to as disabled, I would claim that I have disabilities. 

There is a difference. Every one of us has challenges. As an African American man, as a black 

man with disabilities, I am in a unique position to speak to the cultural erosion that handicaps the 

progress and spirit of the subjugated. The biggest blow to progress has not been the two strokes 

suffered or the challenges I now live with. Rather, that which is most debilitating is the cultural 

reception. It is important for those of us with disabilities to adopt a platform that acknowledges 

our voice. 

My contention is that a Theology of Disability can be that voice. Disabilities are 

challenging, and we all face challenges. Our responsibility is to find a way to succeed in spite of 

our challenges. If we choose to understand disabilities as one kind of challenge then the stigma 

that subjugates those of us with physical and sensory disabilities becomes moot. For even the 

Christ suffered a disability, it was the cross. And he accepted and suffered the cross alone so that 

those of us who followed would not have to suffer it. 

Within the African American church I am shunned. I receive a special seat and a ramp, 

while my emotional and spiritual needs are not addressed. There is still a taboo when it comes to 

people with disabilities within the church. There are those within the church that wrestle with 

this taboo and work to diminish it, while others see those of us with disabilities as incomplete. 

There are those within the church that believe they are whole, while those with 

disabilities are not. This approach to community is not only rampant within American culture, 

but contradicts the work of Eiesland. If what Eiesland proposes is correct and we are all 

incomplete, then communion with God and the Christ happens when we accept each other as 

incomplete, rather than dismiss and shun those who only appear as if they are incomplete. While 

experiences of humiliation and suffering are expected from communities that choose not to hold 

themselves accountable to the message of the gospel, it is most confounding when churches 

become perpetrators of such treatment as well. It is particularly confounding when those who are 

familiar with the work of Cone and his estimation that a Christian theology is a theology of the 

oppressed, choose to subjugate. 

David confronted Goliath with the odds stacked against him, as did Samson before him 

when he toppled pillars and crushed several Philistine foes. Those of us who are confronted with

the odds stacked against us often learn to survive by defying odds. In fact, Israel himself, Jacob, 

defies the odds when wrestling with God and proves to be a formidable match. The limp that 

Jacob walks away with after wrestling with God is not biblically defined as a handicap, nor is 

Jacob shunned as a cripple or disabled. Jacob’s limp is a mark that Jacob is a survivor. He 

persevered through insurmountable odds and was blessed in return. 

The work of Eiesland and Cone has ignited a spark, yet that spark can only take me so 

far. The work of Eiesland is spawned out of a culture of whiteness. There are few African 

American advocates with political, social, and theological power who advocate for those with 

disabilities. I am tied to the Christian faith. It is the tradition in which my descendents developed 

our identity. I have an allegiance to it. However, now that I live with disabilities the culture and 

language of the tradition no longer speaks to me as it once did. Is the solution to break away? 

Works Cited 

Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation: Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986 

Cone, James. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: The Seabury Press, 1969 

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward A Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994