The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiseland.

“For me, epiphanies come too infrequently to be shrugged off as unbelievable. … I had waited for a mighty revelation of God. But my epiphany bore little resemblance to the God I was expecting, or the God of my dreams. I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair — that is, the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright. I recognized [God] in the image of those judged ‘not feasible,’ ‘unemployable,’ with ‘questionable quality of life.’ Here was God for me.”

The second reading is from the 2022 book The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

“It’s radical to imagine that the future is disabled. Not just tentatively allowed to exist, not just: ‘OK, I guess there’s one white guy with a wheelchair, cool — diversity.’ But a deeply disabled future, a future where disabled, Deaf, Mad, neurodivergent bodyminds are both accepted without question as part of the vast spectrum of human … ways of existing, [and] where our cultures, knowledge, and communities shape the world….

“Some people have scoffed at me when I broached the idea of a majority disabled future — surely I don’t mean this literally? But I kind of do….

“We are in the third year of a global mass disabling event — the COVID-19 pandemic — where, as I and many other disabled activists and people have noticed and stated, the world has been [disabled]. The entire world has been immersed in a disabled reality for the past two years. Masking, hand-washing, long-term isolation, awareness of viruses and immune vulnerability, the need for disabled skills of care … are just a few of the disabled ways of being that everyone, disabled and not, have been forced to reckon with.

“The COVID-19 virus and the failure to create a just global public health and economic response to support people undergoing it is also creating a disabled world in that mass numbers of people are becoming newly or differently disabled because of getting COVID, long COVID, and/or long-term complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disabilities from the grief, loss, and stress of the pandemic….”

Sermon — The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Let’s start with some statistics. The statistics around disability in the United States are attention-grabbing numbers, and help us understand why disability is so important for us to talk about.

The Center for Disease Control issued a report in August, 2018, with the imposing title, “Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults — United States, 2016” [Catherine A. Okoro et al.]. Using data from 2016, the authors of the study determined that one in four adults in the United States, or an estimated 61.4 million adults, reported a disability.

The study covered six categories of disability. Most prevalent was mobility problems, that is, serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, with 13.7% of adults reporting this as a disability. Cognition disability, or serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions, was reported by 10.8% of adults. Disability affecting independent living, that is, difficulty doing errands alone, was reported by 6.8% of adults. Serious difficulty hearing was reported by 5.9% of adults. Serious difficulty seeing was reported by 4.6% of adults. And finally, disability affecting self-care, that is, difficulty dressing or bathing, was reported by 3.7% of adults.

Those figures are based on data gathered in 2016, data from before the pandemic. I would expect that the numbers of adults reporting cognitive disabilities would be somewhat higher today. We’re seeing an epidemic of mental illness that appears to be a direct result of the pandemic, including anxiety disorder, depression, and other ailments; this would tend to increase the numbers of adults reporting a cognitive disability. Then there’s long COVID, which can affect both cognition and independent living. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in today’s post-pandemic world, something more than one in four U.S. adults with some form of disability.

When you listen to these statistics, you come to an obvious conclusion: disability is a normal part of life. Disability is normal, yet our society tends to think of disability as somehow abnormal. I remember hearing a disability rights activist say that those of us who consider themselves to be able-bodied should really be thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied. Most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives. If we’re not disabled ourselves, someone close to us will be disabled and there’s a good chance we’ll wind up helping care for for that person. Disability is a normal part of life.

Somehow we have to get ourselves to remember that disability is normal. Religion is a powerful tool for telling ourselves stories to make sense of life. So what stories might we, as a religious people, tell ourselves to remind ourselves that disability is normal?

First of all, we have to let go of the old religious stories that say disability is always something to be cured, something to be gotten rid of. This is, unfortunately, a regular part of Western folk religion. While it is true that sometimes disability is something that can be cured, more often disability is simply a part of who we are. We are a certain gender, we are a certain race or ethnicity, we are a certain biological sex, we have a sexual orientation — these are all aspects of who we are.

This is why what Nancy Eiesland says in the first reading is so profound. Eiesland asks: What if God is a quadriplegic? What if God is disabled? What if God is disabled in any one of the many ways human beings are disabled? A central part of the teachings of Western religion is that human beings are made in the image of God. The clearest statement of this comes in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Later on in Genesis, there’s another story of how God created male human beings first, then created female human beings from ribs of the male human beings. But this later passage gives us a story that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little weird; I prefer the story in Genesis 1:27. In that first story, God creates humankind in God’s image, both male and female human beings, God creates in God’s image. (As an aside, this implies that God is actually, to use current jargon, non-binary gender; but that’s a sermon for another day.) So if all human beings are created in the image of God, then logically disabled human beings are also created in the image of God. This is Nancy Eiesland’s profound insight.

Eiesland’s insight is extremely important to Western cultures, like our culture here in the United States. Even though not everyone here in the United States is Christian or Jewish, our Western culture contains has an unexamined assumption that this story of the creation of human beings is somehow true. The Declaration of Independence of the United States claims that all men (to use the gender-specific language of the late eighteenth century) are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We human beings are created equal by God. We human beings have human rights. And the justification for human rights in the West derives in large part from the Torah, from the book of Genesis, from this story that God created all human beings in God’s image. To be able to have human rights — this is a great gift we have received from the Bible, and it’s one of the reasons we religious liberals need to reclaim the Bible as our own.

(Now at this point, those of you who are atheists, or heretics, or Buddhists, or nothing-in-particularists are saying to yourselves: This is all very fine and good, but I don’t believe in that old story. The God of the Israelites, the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians — that is not my god. But please remember we’re not talking about personal, individual beliefs here. We’re talking about the big widespread myths that underlie a shared Western culture in which we all participate, like it or not. So even if you don’t believe in this myth personally, this is a myth we want to claim for ourselves. This is one of the myths that gives us human rights in the West — surely, we can work with this, even if we personally don’t believe in it. So even for those of you for whom the Bible is not your bag, there are solid pragmatic reasons why we religious liberals want to retell this story as the shared inheritance of anyone living in our Western culture.)

To return to Nancy Eiesland: If God created all human beings in God’s image, then clearly God also created disabled people in God’s image. In other words, God is disabled. In other words, disabled persons have human rights just as able-bodied people have human rights. We all have human rights.

This is a surprisingly important conclusion. The Center for Disease Control tells us that one in four adults in the United States is disabled. If disabled people did not have full human rights — if, according to one of the founding myths of our Western culture, God did not create disabled people in God’s image — then one in four adults would not have full human rights. Clearly, we could not tolerate such a situation. Instead, we say: all people have human rights, regardless of ability.

This conclusion is surprisingly well aligned with the Universalist tradition of which we are the inheritors. The old Universalists pointed out that if God is actually as good as everyone says, God is not going to condemn anyone to an eternity of damnation in hell. Instead, the old Universalists said that all human beings are equally worthy of God’s love. Now apply this old doctrine of universal salvation to people with disabilities: all persons are equally worthy of God’s love. This is an important corrective to an unfortunate strain of the Western Christian tradition that said people with mental illness were demon-possessed, or that people with physical disabilities were either sinners or somehow cursed by God. Nonsense, we Universalists would reply. That is ridiculous. All persons are worthy of God’s love. No demons are involved, no sin is involved, and no cursing is involved. If you believe that kind of stuff and nonsense, you’re the one who is sinning. Disabilities are not marks of disfavor from God, since everyone is loved equally by God. A disability is simply that: a disability. (This notion of universal love, by the way, is one of the chief reasons I’m proud to say I’m a Universalist, even if I don’t have quite the same conception of God as the old-time Universalists had.)

All this might tend to have personal importance for the one in four among us today who happen to be disabled. But it’s also likely to be of personal importance to all of us at some point in our lives. Remember, there’s a very good chance that most of us, probably all of us, are going to be temporarily or permanently disabled at some point in our lives. I know people who have contracted long COVID, and who haven’t been able to work or to function normally for months; that would be considered a temporary disability. The pandemic has apparently caused an epidemic of mental illnesses, and some of these mental illnesses are serious enough to be considered disabilities. As I noted earlier, it seems likely that if the CDC researched the rate of disability in the United States today, more than one in four United States adults would report themselves as being disabled. This is what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they suggest that we might be headed towards a majority-disabled future.

When I think about a majority-disabled future — or even a future where one in three adults in the United States are disabled — my big concern is how we’re going to care for one another. As a whole, our society provides inadequate support for persons with disabilities. Anyone among us who are caring for an aging partner, or an aging parent, has direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to fight for accommodations for a child with disabilities has had direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to explain to an employer why we are not able to work as much as usual because of long COVID or Lyme disease has had direct experience of this — actually, while I was recovering from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago, I had to explain to the congregation I was then serving why I could no longer work fifty hours a week, but had to drop back to working just forty hours a week.

Since our society provides little support to persons with disabilities, we’re going to have to figure out how to care for one another. This is part of what Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they say that disabled people’s “cultures, knowledge, and communities [can] shape the world.” People with disabilities have had to learn how to care for one another; they have had to learn skills of interdependence. We can learn skills of interdependence from the disabled community.

Actually, here at First Parish we already work on our interdependence skills. We have the Caring Circle, where we help each other out when someone is ill or needs meals or other help. And we provide to each other not just physical care, we also give each other spiritual care. We talk to each other about our health problems or disabilities, we listen to one another, perhaps most importantly we are simply there for one another. We do that spiritual care for one another when we go to social hour after the service and talk with one another; or when we pick up the phone and call someone who can’t make it here on Sunday mornings; or when we send cards or texts or set up a videoconference call with someone who is stuck at home.

Here at First Parish, we’ve already started caring for one another. Yet we can learn more about caring for one another from the disabled community. I’ll give you one example of how we can learn from the disabled community — and I almost hesitate to say this, because I know what a hot-button issue this is — but each of us might consider wearing masks more often. I know how annoying it is to wear a mask, but wearing a mask can serve as a form of mutual aid and caring that supports the health of other people, particularly people who are immune-compromised. This is one way we can support interdependence.

And as a liberal religious people, there is another small task we can take on. We can reclaim that old story in Genesis where God creates all persons in God’s image. (Remember that this is a central myth in our Western culture; you may not believe in God yourself, but the majority of people in our society do.) If we happen to hear anything that sounds like someone is casting disabled people as less than human, we might gently challenge them. In the words of the Torah, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” However you conceive of God — as a myth or metaphor, as a cultural inheritance, as a living presence in your life, as something else altogether — whatever your conception of God, we can think of God as disabled because God created all humankind in God’s image. Or to put it in more familiar language, we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights.