Vulnerability Re-Imagined

The truth is, we are all deeply vulnerable down to the core of our beings. We may be strong, yet not as strong as someone else. We may be intelligent, but awkward with our hands. We may be lonely, anxious, over weight, or not as good looking as some others. We must all come to a place of acknowledging our vulnerability, and the awkwardness we feel in the presence of others and of God. But the challenge of ubiquitous human vulnerability can be turned to hope for the future of our society if we as Christians are willing to live into this particular truth of our shared humanity. Our very differences and imperfections have potential to bind us together, through hospitality, in God’s kingdom as agents of God’s loving grace.

In his book, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Thomas E. Reynolds places the stigma of disability within the framework of human vulnerability. The meaning and power of disability is not as obvious as we might think, as it is driven by context and social norms. It is important to understand that the root of any disability rests in the soil of our vulnerability. Out of this vulnerability grows a host of societal coping mechanisms by which we control one another.

Reynolds’ theology of disability, then, is infused with an understanding of how vulnerability was present at the beginning of God’s creation, and is ongoing in God’s plan of redemption. God does not place a yoke upon his creatures that God does not share in equal or greater portion.

What stands in the way of humanity embracing its vulnerability? Reynolds calls it the “cult of normalcy,” a reaction to either personal or corporate vulnerability. It is a protective mechanism to maintain comfort, security, or the status quo. Society at every level embraces this cult of normalcy, thinking it will thrive best when vulnerability is hidden or eradicated.

Reynolds addresses the church’s culpability in this cult of normalcy in a discussion of the imago Dei. It is not difficult to imagine that anyone who does not conform to norms established by the Church could be accused of as not conforming to the image of God, and should therefore be shunned, or otherwise denied some degree of fellowship in the Church. Reynolds’ idea of imago Dei as “imitatio Dei” challenges the idea that being “in God’s image” implies that we are “perfect” in some human projection of “godly” standards. Rather, we should obtain perfection in our conformity to the loving nature and work of God, who embraces the weak, the disabled, the poor, and the marginalized. Thus, the “imitatio” interpretation acts as a reminder that we, like our God, should love broadly and tenderly, assuring that God’s love is cast horizontally to the entire world, not just vertically between God and a few of God’s “chosen servants.” Reynolds sees that wholeness is not the absence of vulnerability or disability, but something that is only found as we live with one another in the truth of our weakness, our need, and our vulnerability. This way of living celebrates our unity and our “welcome” with both our creator and one another. 

What might it look like for the church of Jesus Christ to take up the call to “be perfect” as God is perfect? It might look like a church that prioritizes people over form and appearances. Television and radio broadcasts of services may seem like a good evangelization tool to some, but the demands for a “good performance” can deny a congregation the joy of simply being themselves with one another each week. I recall my father, an Episcopal priest who never passed over a teachable moment. More than once we watched him step down from the pulpit, walk down into the pews, and pick up a fussy child right in the middle of a sermon. He smiled and said, “Aren’t we blessed to have children with us?” With these words he silenced the angry thoughts of those who were annoyed that someone would bring their baby into a service, and at the same time he blessed the child and her family who needed to know how welcome they were, and how important it was for them to be in the service.

Imagine how much more we would reflect God’s image if, like Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle, we saw our moments of interconnection with other imperfect people as holy moments of “kinship.” Imagine how much more we would reflect the image of God if we carried what Reynolds calls “God’s Welcome” with us into every conversation, and every human interaction at churches, in our homes, and in our day to day lives.

This blog series features the work of students from the Disability Awareness course offered at Northeastern Seminary during the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Barbara Isaman-Bushart (MDiv/MSW, ‘08), this course focuses on the diverse needs of individuals living with disabilities, with an emphasis on how to improve awareness, accessibility, and inclusion within the local church. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here.

Michael Brown is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology and Social Justice at Northeastern Seminary.
He attends Church of the Holy Trinity and works as a librarian for Marcellus Central School District in Marcellus, N.Y.

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