Thursday, 8 January 2009

Whitley Lecture 2009

Yesterday, a number of us from South Wales Baptist College made a pilgrimage to Bristol Baptist College to hear Sally Nelson deliver her truly excellent 'Whitley Lecture 2009'
It is entitled: 'A Thousand Crucifixions: The materialist subversion of the church?' which doesn't really give the game away in terms of it's content, so I'll spill the beans here... It's an extended reflection on the theology of disability.
What follows are my notes taken during the lecture, and they therefore represent simply what struck me as she was talking, with a bit of my response thrown in. They are certainly not intended to be a summary of the lecture... If you're interested in the lecture, you can either hear it in person (see Andy Goodliff's blog for details) or order yourself a copy from Whitley Publications c/o Regent's Park College.

  • The starting point for the lecture was Jesus' injunction to take up one's cross (Mt 10:38-39), and Sally shared how unhelpful it can be for those who are carers for the disabled to be told: 'Well, we all have our crosses to bear, don't we?'
  • Nontheless, she affirmed that the idea of suffering existing at the heart of our faith is something to hold on to.
  • She noted that faith in christ does not guarantee freedom from pain. Rather, faith offers a framework of meaning for all of life's experience.
  • Sally quoted Victor Frankl who says that it is not suffering per se which destroys people, it is suffering without meaning. This raises a very serious question for me as to whether there are in fact some forms of suffering where it is hard to find meaning. The example of dementia was raised, something we have experienced in my own family, and the question was raised of whether dementia might be an example of 'meaningless suffering?' Sally's take on this is that if we take Jesus seriously, then no suffering is meaningless, because it finds its meaning in the 'fulfilment of the life project'.
  • In suffering we share in the suffering of Jesus.
  • The question was raised of whether a disabled person is 'healed' in heaven? The answer Sally gave was 'yes - but they might still be disabled: It's just that the disabity doesn't matter any more.' This seems to me to be in accord with the social model of disability, whereby the impairment is physical, but its designation as disability is a social construct. By this understanding, the church can become the place whereby an alternative human community is modelled, where impairment does not necessarily entail disability or exclusion.
  • Sally suggested that Jesus' healing ministry is often about restoring a person to their place in society, or restoring them in terms of their personal relationships. And she wondered how would it be if we replaced the word 'healing' with 'restoring proper relationships'?
  • At this point, I hear an echo of Jeffrey John's voice: '[The healing miracles] seem to have been deliberately selected by the evangelists to show Jesus healing at least one of every category of persons who, according to the purity laws of Jesus’ society, were specifically excluded and labelled unclean, or who were set at varying degrees of distance from worship in the inner temple. The list of those who suffered some degree of taboo and exclusion contains menstruating women, lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles, tax-collectors, homosexuals, prostitutes, adulteresses, women in general, children, people with withered limbs, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, the lame and the dead. At least one representative from each of these categories is a subject of Jesus’ healing miracle stories… Each of these healings is, of course, a demonstration of Jesus’ healing power and compassion for the individual, but that is not the main point. Uppermost in the evangelist’s mind – and far more relevant to us – is the miracle’s universal significance: the overturning of social and religious barriers; the abolition of taboos; and Jesus’ declaration of God’s love and compassion for everyone, expressed in the systematic inclusion of each class of the previously excluded or marginalized. .. As we consider the meaning of these miracles for today, the question repeatedly poses itself: how far has the Church seen or wanted to see the implications of this systematic, subversive, highly risky inclusivism on Jesus’ own part, and preferred instead to create and cling to its own taboos?' (The Meaning in the Miracles, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, pp. 10-11)
  • True inclusion is therefore not about the disabled person becoming different, but about society becoming more inclusive.
  • Sally then explored the metaphor of the church as body, as the place where equal dialogue between persons is possible. By this understanding, the church's address to the world can be transformative and healing, as the church subversively models to the world an alternative way of being human, one where diversity is valued, the 'other' is included, and brokenness and suffering are given a cohesive narrative.
  • A question I have at this point is: What is the role of the Spirit in this, as the agent of God's transformation in the world? It occurs to me that what we are looking for here is the miracle of Pentecost being repeated over and over, as the boundaries between humans are broken down and true community, which values diversity, is created.
  • In this way it is the church, understood as a dialogical and relational community, which God gives to us to equip us to face suffering. It is all about the church, this earthly yet unearthly community...
  • My frustration: In my experience the church all too often fails to be what it could and should be. All too often it is a place of exclusion, a place where difference is not embraced, a place where physical incompleteness is enhanced rather than made whole.
  • What would it take for our churches to become places of genuine healing? Where people are restored to right relationship - with God and with others - regardless of who they are? Where 'difference' is welcomed, and humanity in all its forms is valued, and where suffering finds meaning in the very heart of God's love.

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