It was at Thessalonica when Paul and his friends were first referred to as “These people who have been turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). I have just spent the last week in an intensive and extensive seminar with Northwest University MA in Theology & Culture
students discussing an upside-down world, one in which the weak are the strong, the foolish reflect the brilliance of the gospel, and the disabled are the “indispensable” and those with “greater honor” (1 Cor. 12:22-23). This was no easy conversation, especially not given the pentecostal ethos, climate, and presuppositions operative. Pentecostals respond to disability in faith, believing for healing, praying for a miracle, and expecting the supernatural curing power of the Holy Spirit to show up. Sometimes, even oftentimes, such miraculous cures occur, and in the majority world context, entire families, even whole villages, come to Christ as a result. But what happens when those with disabilities do not get up from out of their wheelchairs? When those with mental illness do not – indeed cannot – stop taking their prescription medication? When Down syndrome children grow into adults, like my brother, without a chromosomal fix? All too often, their internalizing the implicit message behind faith healing leads them to consider themselves as second class citizens of the church (at best) or as unwelcome and as not belonging in the body of Christ (at worst)!
Confronting these challenges, we burrowed deep into the scriptural traditions, especially the Lukan corpus long central to the pentecostal imagination. All of a sudden, invited to reconsider the early Christian movement in light of disability perspectives, our apostolic heroes were understood as including those like the bent-over-woman (whose healing put to shame – bent over in turn! – the synagogue leader; Luke 13:10-17); Zacchaeus, the one who became a disciple without being cured of his shortness (see Luke 19:1-10 and my discussion here); and the Ethiopian eunuch (who was accepted despite suffering bodily impairments which would have excluded him from priestly service in the Old Testament; Acts 8:26-40), among others. Gradually, our paradigm for Spirit-empowered life and ministry was being turned upside down: it is not that those who are naturally talented and able-bodied are not used of God; its that those who are most often least expected are or can be channels of the Spirit, if only the people of God were indeed attentive or and receptive of such gifts.
So what if “the blind, the lame, and the deaf” are no longer categories which we (the temporarily able-bodied) reduce so-called others to, but ones who are recipients of and participants in the coming reign of God and its eschatological banquet (see Luke 14:7-24)? I have written much more extensively about these matters elsewhere (e.g., The Bible, Disability & the Church, and Theology & Down Syndrome). But to the person, each of my students pushed to ask about what needed to happen in our lives, our churches, and our culture, if we were to reject the stigmas about disability, dispense with our stereotypes regarding people with disabilities, and repent of our “us” versus “them” mentality. The task involves nothing less than a turning upside down of our established conventions about “normalcy,” health, beauty, and other matters. Such requires, of course, also nothing less than a new and fresh Pentecost, one that will inspire such imaginativeness, enable such innovation, and empower a new “we” constituted by those across the spectrum of abilities to embody the values of the cross and the coming kingdom.