Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ableism, the gospels, and the Book of Eli

I've been giving more thought recently to the oppression that folks with disabilities face in our society. Under capitalism we are judged based on our ability to sell our labor as a commodity - that, is to work for wages. Those who can't work are often either cast aside or treated with pity and contempt; they are not considered equal citizens in society. This situation is called ableism, and just like racism, sexism, and classism, it is something we need to confront.

Do the gospels shed any light on this situation or do they simply reinforce ableism? Skimming through the Book of Luke today I was struck by several different perspectives on folks with disabilites that seem to exist side by side. I have very little time to write now, so this is only a sketch, not a serious analysis/ exegesis...

1) many of the religious authorities at the time (the scribes and Pharisees) considered people with disabilities to be cursed or possessed by demons. At times it seemed Jesus agreed with them; he just debated with them about whether or not these demons could be cast out on the Sabbath. (At times it seems he was also debating about whether this healing should be done for free or for a charge). This doesn't seem to be all that liberating because it still associates ability with godliness and disability with evil. It also assumes people need to get rid of their disabilities to be happy and free and doesn't imagine any positive role folks with disabilites could play in society.

2) At other points Jesus seems to flip this logic on its head; he says that people with disabilites are actually the ones who are more righteous than the religious authorities who judge them. In the Parable of the Great Feat (Luke 14: 15-24), Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be like a banquet where the master has invited many prestigious guests of honor who are all too busy to come because they are caught up in their own possessions and business dealings. So the master invites all the "poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame" to eat instead. The idea is the last shall be first, the first shall be last - the outcast and oppressed in this society are actually more likely to find salvation. Those who you think are good are actually evil, and those you think are evil are actually good.

3) A similar theme runs throughout the gospels, where the scholars are unable to "see" clearly who Jesus is but the blind who they condemn are able to "see" and understand him.

This last theme is dramatized very well in the movie the Book of Eli which I saw the other week. In the post-apocalyptic world described in that movie, all of the Bibles have been burned because the war which brought the apocalypse had to do with religion and people burned the Bible to prevent it from happening again. Carnegie, the warlord/ gangster figure wants to get ahold of the last Bible so he can use it to rule through hegemony and ideological manipulation instead of through brute force. Eli is trying to bring the Bible to Alcatraz, which symbolizes the monasteries which protected certain forms of learning during and passed them on during the Middle Ages. At the end of the book we realize that Eli is blind. The copy of the Bible he is carrying is in braille. So when Carnegie steals it from him, he is unable to read it. The idea is that the true power of the book cannot be understood by the powerful who wish to use it to justify their power.... only those who "walk by faith not by sight" understand the book's purpose.

Is this consistent with basic themes of liberation theology? For example, the "hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed", the idea that oppressed people can unlock the meaning of scripture better than their oppressors? Are people with disabilities, as oppressed people, able to unlock the secrets of scripture better than those who condemn or pity them? Or, is the movie(and perhaps the Gospel narratives it revamps), reinforcing oppressive narratives like the "supercripple" who through sheer willpower overcomes adversity (the Christopher Reeve mystique?) Or is the movie (and the gospel narratives it revamps) romanticizing folks with disabilities, treating them like symbols of truth who are somehow more "pure", without recognizing their existence as complex and contradictory human beings?

These are questions I need to explore a lot further and I am open to folks' insights on this if you have any suggestions.