Inclusive community as fulfillment of the imago Dei

This is a revision of a paper originally written for Systematic Theology at United Theological Seminary. It uses Symbol, SP Tiberian, and SP Ionic fonts; if you do not have these installed, you will see odd characters instead of Hebrew and Greek words in places.

Disability and Classic Systematic Theology

Paul Tillich wrote that disabilities, as a category of physical evil, are a consequence of finitude. He adds that one cannot ask questions about physical evil unless one has had a personal experience with it, so, at least for him, the matter must be left alone. Such a statement may give an impression that he was trying to avoid the question, but it is, for his time, honest. When Tillich wrote, it was quite likely that no one would have been available to deal with such questions. Advances in medicine, law, adaptive technology, and education since 1963 have created new possibilities for persons with disabilities to ask the questions that Tillich did not. To this we may add that Tillich is one of few theologians to address the matter at all. As writers and speakers commenting on the treatment of disabilities in a variety of fields often observe, disabilities are generally not on anyone's agenda. This study, therefore, has two concerns: first, to propose extension of some classic systematic structures, as well as examinations and modifications of some doctrines, as well as to argue for more attention to the emerging field of "disability studies" .

Despite his statement that the topic of disabilities is beyond his realm of inquiry, Tillich does give them partial consideration. This is done as he considers theodicy: although we cannot fully answer the question of theodicy raised by disabilities, the ultimate answer to this and any other evil is that God is not aloof, but participates in the negativities of our lives. This goes along with his idea that providence is the assurance of God's constant presence (Tillich, 1:267-270).

That idea of providence--a continual, all-inclusive loving presence of God--is also foundational for this study. But while acknowledging God's presence, one must wonder and ask questions when some events seemingly contradict this presence in today's world. There is nothing new to this; such questions have been asked for centuries, and are God's way of prodding us to examine our beliefs in light of the scriptural witness. For the person with a disability, some of the questions that arise are:

  • Where is God when you are faced with a system (particularly manifested in the actions of government and insurance companies) that refuses to pay for needs that make it possible to work, or ignores rampant discrimination, while politicians (and not a few preachers) announce in the name of God that there is no problem with the system for anyone who is willing to work, or who has the faith to carry on?
  • Where is God when the church refuses to recognize persons with disabilities as full members, placing them as the object of a ministry to a group, rather than each one being someone who is in a ministry of their own?
  • Where is God when the church refuses to recognize God's vocational call to a person with a disability because of presumptions about disabilities? Among such presumptions are those that link physical disability to being unable to accomplish the necessary intellectual requirements, as well as assumptions that a developmental disability makes it impossible to carry out the required duties. There are also questions about demands which are either never insisted upon elsewhere (such as house calls), a focus on the condition as a problem for benefit programs, and, of course, the general lack of full accessibility in buildings.
  • Where is God when the church finally says that its buildings need to be accessible, that congregations should accept people with disabilities as members and ministers, but refuses to require parsonages to be accessible?
  • Where is God, when a judicatory, having made such a decision, proceeds to call for justice in some far-flung corner of the world? (Not that it shouldn't, but it makes one wonder what they think justice is. How can you call for justice somewhere else when you won't deal with it at home? Or is it just the easy way out to call for justice in a place where it won't disrupt your own life?)
The list could go on. The problem is that the church has become increasingly a bureaucracy, mired in its own contradictions. It proclaims free grace to all but attempts to regulate it as a series of business-like transactions, with all the secular assumptions of value that go along with that, making some less human than others.

The doctrine of humanity and the imago Dei

It is my belief that much of this treatment comes from the loss of a full understanding of an important doctrine, the relationship of humans to God that is expressed in the imago Dei, the teaching that humans are created in the image of God, drawn from Genesis 1.26-27. When meeting a person with a disability, we might begin to consider this doctrine by asking "what constitutes the real person, the image of God?" The typical answer would be that the real person is constituted in a soul, spirit, or personality.

But practice belies statements that the real person is not the body (or mind) alone. As a society, we expend much time and effort categorizing people according to the appearance the body. We then use these distinctions to attempt to judge what the person is really like. We also engage in artificial changes to our bodies to make an impression when judgments are made.

The need for reconsideration of our attitude is strengthened as we look to the scripture, and especially the life of Jesus, for guidance. Here, we find little rationalization, but much about how to act. An example is John 9, the story of the man born blind. The disciples want to theologize. Jesus, however, responds with a call to action that he proceeds to follow. Like the disciples, we often want to discuss theodicy (or any other side issue), but the first concern of the story is, "how do we live a life that witnesses to God's love?" That emphasis will continue through this study.

A further emphasis links disability theology to liberation theology. Liberation theologians conclude, from Biblical passages about hospitality and grace, that God has a special interest groups neglected or oppressed by the powerful. Disability theologians take the process one more step, asserting that the wounded Christ is a sign that God also experiences disabling conditions. Liberation theology also affirms that the disabled God understands oppression, and that oppression is a fact of political as well as spiritual life.

Because oppression is so pervasive and deeply rooted in culture, a change that reaches beyond "healing" is needed (Gutierrez, chapter 2). One change that is particularly necessary is for society to view people with disabilities as an oppressed minority, not simply as sick people in need of a cure (O'Brien, 8). Such a change also re-affirms people with disabilities as people first, with the same essence as any other person.

Thus we return to the question of what makes a person and what it means to be created in the the image of God. Genesis 1.26-27 says that God created humans "in our image" (wnmlyb \da) and "in the likeness of us" (wntwmdk). What this means affects our understanding of disabled people: is their image defective in some way that "the non-disabled" are not--and therefore less than fully human?

This phrase was rendered in the Vulgate as imago (image) and similitudo (likeness). Irenaeus was the first to attempt to distinguish similitudo, defined as supernatural abilities which were lost at the Fall, from imago, which he postulated was not lost at the Fall. But this distinction is a misunderstanding of structure, and the loss of one part but not another has no warrant. The two words are a typical Hebrew device: poetic parallelism. Although they do not express difference, the insight of what happened to this image in the account of the Fall is useful, for if disabilities were introduced there, they could be a result of sin--a flaw in the imago. But Genesis does not tell us of anything in particular physical natures that changed in the Fall. There is nothing beyond the general experiences of pain in childbirth and death. The symbol of the change is the violated prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When this happened, humans gained a dangerous knowledge and lost the immediate presence of God (Genesis 3.22-23).

A second matter is to consider whether the imago Dei is compatible with any physical understanding. The Biblical witness prohibits this sort of thought by forbidding attempts to equate any physical image with God (Exodus 20.4).

Some who want to maintain that the imago and similitudo are different quote Leviticus 21.16-24 to justify limitations for those with disabilities. Such a reading ignores context: it demands a level of perfection that no one reaches. It is part of an elaborate understanding of ritual purity, not of people's daily life (Bos in Merrick, 9). The passage in Leviticus refers to the presentation of the best that one has, rather than the offering of what is imperfect and thus economically expendable. The sacrificial injunctions are also not intended to allow oppression of the disabled: 19.14 places an injunction against any who would treat a disabled person as less than human. This is a direct statement that God has as much concern for the person who is disabled as anyone else. That God has issued a prohibition of imperfect sacrifice should warn anyone today who would offer anyone or anything we consider to be imperfect as a sacrifice for the sake of our own economic well-being. The ultimate value of a person is not how much money he or she can generate. Everyone and everything is to be treated equally as God's creation, and our best work offered in gratitude to God.

A third area of concern would be the relationships of humans with each other and God. One result of the Fall is that, having lost their relationship with God, the ways in which people relate to each other have also changed dramatically. The state of hostility with God has also become hostility toward each other, individually and corporately, as well as with creation itself (Tillich, 2:45). People were no longer what God made them to be. Out of this changed relationship, new demands arose. No longer would the earth yield the needs of life freely. Work ensued. The introduction of sin is not a distortion of the imago, but a changed relationship with God and others. Again, we lose connection to particular disabilities.

As part of the imago, people were given "dominion" over the creation. That the imago was given to humans implies a difference between humans and other creatures. It also results in an ability to form relationships. This ability is one which I have never seen absent from any person. In some, we may think it limited, but it should be understood as different, and expressed in ways that we may not understand--which is our inability, not the other's.

God's act of giving dominion asks humans to live in an active relationship with God, with each other, and with the creation, showing mutual respect in a community. Dominion can be understood better by considering the results of the Fall. The change that occured from disobedience is that humans know "good and evil," and have thus become like God (Genesis 2.17, 3.22). The man and the woman knew before the Fall that some things were good and that some things should not be done. The change, as the story progresses, was human knowledge of differences among themselves and others in the creation. No longer were all equal; now we meet the human notion of assigning rank, based on our ideas of "usefulness."

Dominion, given to us as a cooperative way of promoting the good of the earth, has changed to an ideology that justifies an artificial order, a method of ranking not only the rest of creation but our own kind as well. Properly understood, it told of an equal and creative co-operative relationship with God in caring for all the world. But now separated from God, we do not understand dominion. Yet God still desires relationship with us; otherwise the Biblical witness would end at Genesis 3. The centrality of God's continuing love is that although humans have chosen, in seeking to exalt themselves, to make a mess of the world and all that goes in it, God, knowing we are made for better, refuses to let us go that way (Westhelle in Thistlethwaite and Engel, 131-132).

As part of the notion of ranking, we also ought to consider the attempt of humans to make God into their image, or, as Professor William Babcock of Southern Methodist University was fond of saying, the human search for a God who is worthy of us. Many still teach that any person whose body or mind does not function in what are considered normal ways is less than the image of God. Such a person needs to be healed in some way that "normal" people do not. An argument advanced for such attempts is that Jesus instructed us to be "perfect" just as God is (Matthew 5.48), and that the imperfection of people with disabilities precludes them from participating in God's image unless they are changed. But this ignores an obvious sense of the passage that it completes: that our love, which is shown in our actions, should be inclusive, and not one based on accepting only those with whom we are comfortable. Further, when Jesus said "be perfect," he used teleioV, which refers to attaining a purpose or being complete (BAGD, 809). Not only is Jesus condemning the kind of behavior that people are trying to pass off as "religious," he is telling the people to bring fulfillment to the lives of all. Not only is he not advocating a system based on appearance, but he is emphasizing the all-encompassing love of God as an example for his followers (Wink, 14-16).

The warning of the Genesis account is an appropriate reminder here. It tells us that among the effects of the Fall is the human tendency to create artificial distinctions and categorize others. This is done to (among other groups) disabled people when the person who is making such a structure places themselves in a preferred category, which is usually marked as the norm. This is often stated in terms of sin: the disabled person has sinned and the other has not, an attitude that ignores Romans 3.22-23, and almost every example of the life of Jesus. It is another attempt to remake the person involved into their own image of God. We quickly forget that one of the great complaints of the "religious" people about Jesus was that he associated frequently with those who were considered sinners. To him, they were not a lesser category, but the people that God loved and cared for the most. While I do not see that disability is the result of sin, I do see that even if it were, that would be no cause to place such a person (or any person we might call a "sinner" today) in a lesser category.

If a connection between sin and being less of a person and disability is not biblical, why does it persist? Perhaps it is because popular attempts to make such a connection are a biblical pattern! We see an instance of this in the story about the man born blind in John 9. The link to sin was not affirmed in the outcome--a point that should be stressed when reading it. As with many of Jesus' teachings, we are challenged to examine ranking methods that we have introduced, here in the form of the boundaries we draw around people and the assumptions we make, which include the link of disability and sin (Gourgy in Merrick, 36-45). We focus on our own failures: sin and division. Jesus, however, focuses on the faith of the community and the change that comes to the society. Some people are cured of an ailment; all of the people are healed of the effects of sin (Senior in Bishop, 12-15).

It is not disability, but categories, that go with fallenness; it is inclusiveness that goes with the Kingdom of God. The same Jesus who brought cures and healing later appeared before the disciples. He showed them the crucifixion wounds and asked them to touch and believe. In this story, he stresses a continuing relationship (which includes the acclamation "Lord") with them (John 20.26-29). He asks us to recognize that even though he has been impaired, full personhood is still there. Nothing in the centrality of his being has changed because of the impairment. Being a whole person is compatible with being disabled.

The imago Deireconstructed

If we accept that a disabled person is as much in the imago Dei as any other, how do we understand, or what can we learn of God, from such a person? And from this, what do we learn about the imago?

A common thread of attempts to deny full personhood to disabled people is a denial of variety in creation. In reaction, we may note that the imago is inherent in all people: they were created male and female, and many of them--yet the imago remains, despite the differences. An appreciation of variety is the beginning step to a proper understanding. The differences we discern and use to divide continue the human attempt to deny the validity of variety, and can be seen in the criterion of rank: how much is the other like me? This is an indication of our fallen misreading of life. Rather than join with others, we assume polarities: good, which is like us, and bad, which is not like us. Our identity is not in relation to our likeness to God and humans, but in "contrast and competition" that emphasizes differences and further separates us from God (Heyward in Thistlethwaite and Engel, 196).

The obvious (although not always visible) difference of a disabled person is the body, a difference that gives rise to the criteria of rank and the assumed polarities. (This also applies to mental disabilities. People with disabled bodies are often judged mentally deficient on the basis of the body because similar signs are seen in the bodies of those who have developmental disabilities. Most revealing here is the frequent remark that a person found to have a mental illness or disability "seems so normal" when the body shows no sign of it.) As we have noted, neither the body nor the mind is the sum, or even the indicator of the person. At the same time, embodiment is a reality which we must face: "we do not simply have bodies, we are our bodies" (Migliore, 124). We live in them, and they are a reality that is part of the real person, whether they are flesh and blood, or flesh and blood and plastic and metal (Eiesland, 22). As such, they are a symbol of the mixed nature of life. All bodies are imperfect and disabled, for they are now mortal. Recognition of the nature of our embodiment is recognition that life has confines, which we seem to try to avoid. This is a first indication that all have a developmental disability when it comes to God: we are made in the image of God, but cannot understand what God and the life we have been given is really all about. The challenge is find a balance so that the mind is not separate nor so that we are not only bodies. This balance can be found in the function of our bodies: they are how we communicate with the world. Similarly, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as a method of communication, is a foundation for our knowledge of God (Creamer, 71-72).

This message of incarnation leads to the cross: "Jesus on the cross is God disabled, made weak and vulnerable to worldly powers because of the perfection of divine love" (Merrick, 61). Good Friday is a reminder not only that God has suffered with us, but that God was wounded for our sake, and bears the marks of brokenness. Here we see how "power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12.9, NRSV). It was here, after the resurrection, when the wounds were displayed, that the disciples really understood what Jesus had taught them (Eiesland, 99). What more disability can there be than for God incarnate, the God so many consider all-powerful, to be and remain wounded?

To affirm oneself in weakness is to affirm Christ, in weakness and strength, and to affirm that we have nothing to conceal, which is what is asked of us: to admit that humans are incapable of the way of life to which they aspire. We can no longer make God in our image, and must admit to God that our own image is tarnished. The presence of disability forces us to examine and confirm that God is among us when we act in faith to assist each other, a cooperation that is the intention of dominion.

I have touched, in considering the image of God and Leviticus, on the relation of economic values to perceptions. Disabilities remind us what values are important, and that things we think are important are not (Moede, 293). It is a distorted view of values that has brought many mis-directions in today's society. I start with the term "disability" itself. People are considered to have possibility and to have succeeded in terms of their economic contribution. Any difference impeding such contribution is marked as dis-ability (Macquarrie, in Bishop, 28). When a person is considered unproductive, providing (meager) resources becomes charity, continuing the stratification of society that is part of the fallen state (Thistlethwaite and Engel, 32-39). This system focuses on what is "not right" rather than what the person is capable of. When a person's needs exceed their economic value, we mark them as beyond help. This degrades the value of the person as God's creation. One is no longer valued for what one is, and is assessed by another as outside the community (Eiesland, 62-63).

Such valuations can be seen in common reactions to disability. One may be considered damned with punishment for sin. In such a case, no help need be offered until a change occurs. Another is to be blessed as a superhero who has overcome: the person has become of economic value by their own effort (Eiesland, 70-71). The person is not simply someone with certain skills and limitations. Both of these views ignore God's call by viewing disability negatively: it is something to change, so as to become "normal" (Creamer, 68). Both attitudes point to and contribute to a third reaction: by remaining disabled, one does not have enough faith to be "healed," which is a sin, or else one has an abundance of faith, and is held up as an example to others, who may or may not be in a similar situation. All of these attitudes remain intensely individualistic.

In the light of this, there is a biblical story to consider that tells us much about God's attitude to disability. In Mark 2, Jesus healed a man unable to walk. Four of his friends brought him to Jesus. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw their faith, he proceeded with the healing. It is the faith of his friends that brings change (Moede, 295). The first act of Jesus was forgiveness of sins, but this had nothing to do with the man's recovery. He did not get up until he was specifically physically healed--indicating a deeper level to healing than physical "normalcy." The healing was the result of the concern of the community, which brings forgiveness. What if Jesus had not given the man the ability to walk? One must think that his friends were still ready to carry him about. Jesus first healed their separation from each other.

From this story, I have come to understand where the imago Dei resides. We are in community because none of us is complete and perfect. People made in the image of God were made male and female, and in community. When people work together, as God first intended in granting dominion, their varying gifts are complementary, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12.4-21. We work together and care for each other. We are valued for being whom God made us to be: in relationship to God, others, and self. Working together as a community, we fulfill the image of God in which we were created. Together, not separated, we find ourselves and God, as Tillich says:

. . . the other person is a stranger, but a stranger only in disguise.
Actually he is an estranged part of one's self.
Therefore one's own humanity can be realized only in reunion with him--
a reunion which is also decisive for the realization of his humanity (Tillich, 3:261).

The resolution comes in joining together, but must continue in mutual realization of that which transcends all of us. Categories and names are a human need, but they are meant to show the variety of possibility that marks the image of God. In all our differences, we show God, who is too great to be described in any one situation. And we are now charged to work to implement this on earth as a witness to God's love. An inclusive ministry toward all people is representative of and a witness to God's inclusive love, a love which embraced those considered to be outside of social acceptance. In following such an example, we let God define the possibilities (which then are limitless) rather than allow our perceptions (which, however good they may be, are still limited) to define them. In this way, the church is a community living a life of faith. It is a revolutionary community, where the value is being a person and each person reflects, in some way, a bit of God.

Disabilities point us to the community as the image of God, but suffering among individuals remains. How do we deal with such suffering as a community in the image of God? Can God's love as the rule of society redefine what we think about suffering? Certainly, much of it would disappear if we first acted right. But some things remain senseless to us, however much we may come to practice the rule of love. Perhaps, as a beginning point, the implications of the image of God in community will cause us to re-think what we consider God to be. A crucial question would be: is God the cause of all that happens, or is God that Being of love who responds in compassion to our difficulties and draws us together?

The consistent attribute given God in the Hebrew scriptures is dsh. This is not power, but love that is extravagant, that reaches out beyond hospitality to solidarity (Bos, 10-14). An all-powerful God would ask to be present in dominance (Eiesland, 100). Such a God could not appear in unexpected ways--but God is always appearing in ways that reverse human expectations. Whatever God's omnipotence really means, because of the limitations of human perception, God appears to us as limited, for we must use human terms to explain everything, even when it is beyond our capacity to understand. Thus, an idea formulated from process theology helps to explain how I react to this problem: God will continue to work for the best, and, if I will work with God's aims, and develop my own abilities, God's good will come from the situation.

This apparent limitation is a choice God made for our good, so that God could be with us to comfort and guide us, rather than rule us, rather than make us to be an "other" who needs help. The continuing presence of God is the message reflected in the image of God in our community, and the vision of God in the variety of the people that God has created. When, in any way, we deny any person participation in that community, we are denying God, who created them. We are denying them their opportunity to be teleioV, or complete persons (which is not to say that God is governed by our denial and will not accept them: it is ourselves we shortchange). Our practice is in need of change: we will not see creation restored (remembering that it was made "good," or complete, not perfect) until we allow people to be complete in our community, and fulfill the imago Dei.

Addendum on Theodicy

I recognize that the problem of theodicy remains unexplained, and that it is an issue often raised in connection with disabilities. I first note that in the material read, theodicy is a concern of those who do not have disabilities. The concern of those with disabilities is practice. When the questions raised by such statements on our practice make hard demands, theodicy can be a diversion, a convenient way to avoid the questions of those in the situation. But there are points of intersection. None of the many proposals for understanding the existence and origin of evil are adequate, in my opinion: we can tell that they may not have come from this or that, but cannot say further. However, when considered in complement, they begin to offer a better picture. We have the hope and promise of God's presence, but the ultimate teleioV is still in the future, even though we have a harbinger of it today. The inability to effect a full reconciliation here or elsewhere in theology is a reminder that conflict and lack of understanding are existential conditions (Cahill, 164-166), but I doubt that this will cause me to end the inquiry! Although we may not understand evil, we must take it into account to understand the ability of the community to do good or ill (Tillich, 3:372-373).

A beginning point for such an inquiry would involve pain and suffering as tragic, and consider how that relates to a definition of evil. This inquiry will be carried on with a new awareness of what it means for us to be in community, and that, whatever it may or may not discover, we must give first attention to a life of mutual love. It is often difficult for us to deal with people who are different from us. Perhaps this is because they are not really all that different. All of us are in need of God's healing. When we are confronted with an obvious need, we would like to mask it so as to deny our own failures. An open heart to God's claim on our life as holders of God's imago is an opening to admitting our needs and sharing God's love for all.


Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature ..., revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Bauer's fifth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1979. Cited as BAGD

Bishop, Marilyn, editor. Religion and Disability. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. "Kingdom and Cross" Interpretation 50 (1996): 156-168.

Creamer, Deborah. "Finding God in our bodies: theology from the perspective of people with Disabilities" Journal of Religion in Disability and Rehabilitation 2 (2, 1995): 67-87.

Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon. 1994.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988.

Harvey, Van A. A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York: Collier, 1964.

Merrick, Lewis H., editor. And Show Steadfast Love: A theological look at Grace, Hospitality, Disabilities, and the Church. Louisville: Presbyterian Church, 1993.

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1991.

Moede, Gerald F. "God's power and human Ability" Ecumenical Review 36 (1984) :290-298.

O'Brien, William. "Ragging on Society" Other Side 21(6,1985.): 8-9.

Ratcliff, Donald. "Toward a Christian perspective of developmental disability" Journal of Psychology and Theology 8 (1980):328-335.

Reider, Miriam. "Going beyond the limits of disability to do and become" One World 101 (1984):18-20.

Thistlethwaite, Susan Brooks and Mary Potter Engel, editors. Lift Every Voice. New York: Harper SanFrancisco. 1990.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology (3 volumes). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-63.

Wink, Walter. "The Bible and exclusion, bias and prejudice" Witness 77 (1994):14-16.


Revised 12 September 2007