Always in these visits, Erick ministered at least as much to me as I did to him. He steadfastly witnessed to me that God was a way through, not a way out of life’s difficulties, a message I deeply needed as I groped for a way to reconcile belief in a loving God with the miseries of mental illness. His words had considerable integrity to me as I watched him struggle against the effects of Parkinson's to retain basic life functions such as eating and speaking.
He pointed me toward helpful writers such as Nancy Eiesland and Stanley Hauerwas as I sought out theologians writing about disability. As I remember his mentoring now with appreciation, I would like to share some of his thinking with our readers. This article he wrote for The Mennonite a few years before his death in 2007 sets out in simple terms some of the key ways he saw Anabaptist beliefs intersecting with disability theology (reposted by permission from The Mennonite).
—Christine Guth, ADNet Program Director
The Lord is My Strength:
Toward an Anabaptist Disability Theology
By Erick Sawatzky. Reprinted by permission from The Mennonite, February 18, 2003.
Disability is a personal issue because I suffer from Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition that has no known cause or cure. Typically, one becomes weak and stiff, and the disease manifests itself in tremors, slurred speech, and imbalance.
Although I have not been plagued with the question, Why me? I have wondered at times why a gracious God allows such things to happen. I have also realized there are no answers for this question and that the answers out there are all inadequate.
I first encountered this problem while working as a chaplain at the prison. Prisoners inevitably had court dates coming up. Some of them hoped that if they prayed to God and attended various services they would get two years rather than ten, or five years rather than fifteen. I used to tell them God was not a slot machine or Santa Claus. God was better thought of as a way through rather than a way out. I have since discovered it is easier to preach that when one is well than when one is not.
It does not take much imagination to speak of the absence or distance of God in times of disability. I find it more helpful to talk about having God reinterpreted to us. Total strangers have helped me by opening doors or doing what they can to make me comfortable. In Colorado Springs, a stranger took me to dinner in his van because he thought it was too treacherous for me to walk. In the stores or at church, people who otherwise have nothing to do with me have been helpful.
Disability is a peace issue. One can define peace as the absence of violence, but one can also define it in terms of shalom or “at one” —of being wholesome with one’s fellow human beings. That is why disability is a peace issue. People simply do not understand that accessibility is not the same thing as convenience or welcome.
Disability is an issue of the Bible: It is the entire theme of the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk only sees violence, yet at the end of this three chapters he says: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (3:17-19a).
And that is not all. Throughout the Bible, we see the first being last, the last being first, and the unimportance of being a head taller than everyone else. Our God is truly a strange God. Our salvation is won through death on a cross. The Kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom.
Disability is an issue of biblical interpretation: Often that term—biblical interpretation—gets overloaded. We need to do theology. If one does a word search for disability in the Bible and looks for discussion of the theme, I doubt one will come up with anything. But just because the Bible does not address certain issues in certain language with certain words does not mean it doesn’t have anything to say about the issue.
Nancy Eiesland writes in The Other Side (September-October 2002): “The primary problem for the church is not how to ‘accommodate’ disabled persons. The problem is a disabling theology that functionally denies inclusion and justice for many of God’s children. Much of church theology and practice—including the Bible itself—has often been dangerous for persons with disabilities. The prejudice, hostility, and suspicion toward people with disabilities cannot be dismissed simply as ‘relics of an unenlightened past.”
Disability is a theological issue: It deals with real people and a real God. It is a real issue because, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, sometimes you can only name the silences. We need to go beyond pity and patronage in our churches and in our society. We also need to find understanding and meaning in talking to people with disabilities who might give us an answer.
Christine Guth is Program Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. Erick Sawatzky was Director of Field Education at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary prior to his death in 2007. He received his Doctor of Ministry degree from St. Stephen's College, Edmonton, Alberta.