Disability, Theology, and the Cross of Christ
- ISBN: 9781481313674
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: April 2021
The atonement stands at the center of an incredible amount of theological debate and controversy in Christian doctrine, theorized to have wide-ranging impact upon human salvation. However, almost all of these theories neglect to include disability as a central focus in a way that is unproblematic. The task of formulating an account of the cross informed by disability is one that David McLachlan takes up in Accessible Atonement: Disability, Theology, and the Cross of Christ. From the outset, McLachlan is committed to the core Christian idea that at the cross “God addresses the whole human condition” (1), arguing that the cross is where God’s character, purpose, and care for humanity are expressed most fully. Yet, McLachlan is explicit about the ways in which the cross has been weaponized against those with disabilities. Disability is often intertwined with sin in Christian theology, and so the notion that the cross is the defeat of sin seems to imply the restoration of those with disabilities to “typical” or “ideal” bodies. Thus, the central question of the text is this: If the cross is this central to Christian doctrine, what does it tell us about disability (2)? Rather than treat disability as a niche subject of theology, McLachlan seeks to provide an inclusive account of the atonement that works as a foundation for disability theology while avoiding the marginalizing pitfalls that plague Christian theology more broadly.
McLachlan begins by surveying the way disability theology has utilized the cross and themes of atonement, hoping to shed light both on the ways it already interacts with atonement theories and the dimensions of the issue it overlooks. Disability theology has emphasized the “disabling” of the image of God revealed on the cross, pointing to both Christ’s body on the cross and the presence of his wounds in his resurrection (17). McLachlan notes, however, that this account remains incomplete in that it is not inclusive of those with intellectual disabilities. Disability theology additionally raises questions regarding the emphasis on agency and reason in atonement theories, challenging the rationalistic notions that make faith in the cross contingent upon intellectual assent. People with intellectual disabilities are seen as less human when placed under the historical standards of atonement theologies that place excessive emphasis on agency. For McLachlan, an accessible account of the atonement begins with seeing the cross as a revelation that God identifies fully with “human impairment” (18). Disability theology likewise challenges notions of “healing” that emphasize a return to a perfected and idealized mind or body, resisting eschatological visions of “homogenization” (21). In interrogating disability theology’s engagement with atonement, McLachlan argues that it neglects universal notions of atonement, but this gap itself is a revelation that atonement theories focus too much on sin and moral failure.
Turning to the dominant atonement theories, McLachlan draws connections between the key models (sacrifice, justice, and victory) to disability. By doing so, McLachlan notes their import as well as their weaknesses. For example, notions of sacrifice are helpful in pointing to Jesus’ identification with humanity but remain problematic because it is often associated with the language of Christ’s perfection and thus perfected bodies. The goal with these comparisons is to provide an account of the atonement that remains universal (addressing the whole of humanity) but that maintains particularity of experience in order to preserve the variety found in those with disabilities. To simply equate atonement with sin and healing would be to problematically equate all disability with sin and the need for perfection (62-63).
For McLachlan, the way forward is “atonement-as-participation.” McLachlan argues that the atonement is where God addresses the human condition, but also where God participates in his contingent creation. At the heart of this idea is that God in God’s triune nature, though distinct from creation, comes to accompany creation in all of its variety and risk (79). McLachlan is careful, however, to define “risk” in a cautious way. He argues that risk entails variety and possibility more so than suffering, and thus those with nontypical bodies and minds can give witness to the joys found in risk. God, in Jesus Christ, thus participates in this risk via the cross. The main problem this approach to the atonement seeks to solve is alienation from both God and creation. By seeing alienation as the fundamental aspect of sin, McLachlan is successfully able to account for the way the atonement addresses sin without equating disability with sinfulness (88).
McLachlan argues that the cross can rightly stand as a foundation for disability theology rather than an awkward theme to be avoided (129). If one is able to move beyond viewing atonement in relation to moral sin and instead view the atonement as God’s participation in the contingency of creation, McLachlan hopes that all varieties of disability can be addressed in this central doctrine in a way that avoids problematic notions of disability while including those with disabilities as central to Christ’s work rather than special cases. Salvific responses to the atonement, then, are not reliant upon individual rationalist notions of salvation but rather emphasize the corporate inclusion of all varieties of humanity. There is thus space for not only healing, for victory over moral sin and alienation, in the cross, but also the joyful celebration of disability as offering particular and various gifts to humanity. McLachlan breathes new life into both dogmatic theological discourse on the atonement and disability theology by providing a praiseworthy portrait of what can happen when disability is central to the formulation of Christian theology.
Cody Bivins-Starr is an independent scholar.Cody Bivins-StarrDate Of Review:June 28, 2022