Blindness and the Church: Image, Reality, and Appropriate Behavior
June 21, 2014
Two realities have played a large role in shaping my identity: my blindness and my Christian faith. I have at times struggled with just how these two things about me coalesce.
Recently, my wife and I attended a church service, and when it was over, we were approached by an elderly woman who asked if she could pray for us.
"Certainly," we both said. She began to pray, and before long, she was asking the Lord to heal us of our blindness. Let's just say that the experience was very off-putting. Meaning well is not always synonymous with doing well. My wife and I had a good laugh over it later, but our initial response to this incident was frankly a sense of embarrassment. The event also made both of us wonder why it seems sometimes to be the case that one's faith is thought to be stronger if one prays for healing than it is if one simply accepts life as it is and makes the most of it with all of its joys and sorrows.
Dealing with one's identity of course is hard for anyone who faces squarely the question, "Who am I?" When you give the answer to that question, "I am a Christian," matters do not get easier but harder to the extent that you take the Bible as the Word of God and hence approach it with the seriousness you think it warrants. So then, how should I feel about passages like Leviticus 21:18 that exclude blind descendants of Aaron from performing the functions of priests? Granted, other physical deformities are singled out for divine exclusion as well in this passage. And then, there is the famous narrative in John 9 about Jesus healing a blind beggar. In the process of healing him though, Jesus does something that would certainly have scared me if I had been the blind beggar in this narrative. He spits on the ground (John 9:6). He then takes the saliva and makes mud, putting it on the eyes of the blind man. How did the man in the story feel initially? We are not told, and we have no way of knowing. Had it been me, my first instinct would have been to step back. The mere sound of someone spitting, regardless of whether I know him or not, if I hear it in a public place, at the very least makes me want to take shelter against the wind that might inadvertently blow spittle in my direction.
Church leaders at times too have said some very offensive things about the blind. I cite the following from Charles Haddon Spurgeon's sermon The Blind Beggar as he is answering the question concerning how the blind man came to hear about and place faith in Christ: "It certainly could not have been because he had traveled much through the country, for blind men stay at home; they care not to journey far. There is nothing they can see. However fair the landscape, they cannot drink it in with their eyes; whatever lovely spots others may behold, there are no attractions for their blank survey. They therefore stay at home."
Before I continue, let me say at once that my annoyance with Spurgeon here should not be construed to mean that he should not be read or respected. Such a response would be uncharitable at best and stupid at worst. As a teenager, I benefited from Spurgeon's book All of Grace, and I admire him for many things. And to be fair to him, he was likely making these statements based on blind people he either knew or about whom he had heard. Nonetheless, the unspoken assumption in his remarks is that the only people who could truly benefit from travel are the sighted since they are the ones who experience the attractions of landscapes. Again, to be fair, the idea that people as much as possible should have equal access to jobs, media, etc., had not yet penetrated society in the way that it would in the twentieth century.
It is safe to say that the examples I have offered both from the Bible and from Spurgeon do not go very far in painting blind individuals in a positive light. The image of a blind person is often that of someone who is incompetent, sad because she has no sight, unable to do the normal things for herself expected from others. If you live by yourself, no one usually cooks for you, cleans your house, lays out your clothes, washes, or dresses you. (And to be clear, no one thankfully volunteers to do these things for my wife and me either).
Even though many blind people are capable of doing these things for themselves and in fact do them, the image for many people remains unaltered even if they know theoretically that blind people don't need this kind of help. With this image in mind, reinforced by what people hear from the Bible or think they hear from it, often I suspect that many church people decide they just don't know how to treat blind people within their group. My wife and I have been fortunate to find many church members who have been willing to go to lunch with us or invite us to their homes. We have of course also felt at times quite alone after a service when everyone is standing around chatting while we are standing somewhat awkwardly off to the side.
The Bible depicts life as it was lived in the first century, but we now live in the 21st century, and political and social culture have changed tremendously. Technology and helpful social programs in many parts of the United States at least have made it possible for more blind people to hold down jobs and support families. I think that more people know this, but why is it the case that blind people (and for that matter others with disabilities) often feel more marginalized by the church than they do by those who make no profession of faith of any kind? Why does there seem to be on the one hand an awareness of progress for the blind by almost anyone who is aware of current trends while at the same time several people within the church who still regard the blind as those who need to be helped instead of equals who can serve with them rather than simply be served?
That the image still resides in the minds of many of blind people as incompetent and helpless is evident when someone you've just met comes over and exclaims: "Your house is so clean!" This exclamation is part of a larger issue that we might call the amazement syndrome. If you are blind, people can be simply amazed if you come across as smart or well-dressed or informed about the latest and greatest television banalities. Whether it is in the form of too much amazement or too little confidence in the blind, I contend it is largely because that image of the incompetent and helpless blind guy still haunts the minds of many people.
What then should we do? The first answer is to conform our thinking to reality. Blind people now don't have to beg, and none of the blind people I know in fact do. Because of wonderful advances in technology, blind people now text, use email, make popcorn in the microwave, watch television, and hold down jobs as lawyers, scientists, teachers, pastors, customer service representatives, etc.
Secondly, rather than worrying about how to act in front of the blind, simply interact with them the way you would anyone else you are trying to make feel welcome. Invite them out to lunch or into your home like you would a new visitor to church. Simply put, to the question, "What should I do in the case of the blind person who comes to church?", the answer is: just what you would do for anyone else by showing hospitality and respect.
Just as there is neither Greek nor Jew, male and female, in Christ Jesus, so finally there is neither sighted or blind. While I by no means wish to sacrifice each individual's uniqueness as blind, sighted, male, female, white, black, etc., to a bland homogeneity, it still remains true that the most important thing for Christians at least is the unity expressed in the faith as we fellowship together. Starting with this focus might help put some of the other things mentioned in this post in a better perspective.
Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX. Be sure to also read Cody here - http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2014/06/what-do-those-with-disabilitie.php