Disability and the Church

A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion

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Lamar Hardwick
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , February
     2021.
     208 pages.
     $16.20.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830841608.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Accompanying the disability-rights movements there exists an ever-emerging awareness of the experiences of those with disabilities within the Christian church. Stories of being removed for “disruption,” and of being pitied rather than valued, reveal that the church in the West has much to learn in regard to its relationship with disability. In Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion, Lamar Hardwick writes directly to the church with the goal of examining its failures while providing it “a new lens that places disability at the heart of the diversity conversation” (19).

Hardwick’s method in approaching this goal is twofold. First, the author turns to his own personal narrative of pastoring a church and being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of thirty-six (16). This personal experience leads Hardwick to a second approach, one that seeks to draw a parallel between his story and the internal struggle of the church in a time of social upheaval. Though the church has “excelled despite her difficulties,” Hardwick explains that “many of her self-taught coping strategies are no longer working” (17). That is, when it comes to those with disabilities, the church continues to fall short of its inclusive and radical purpose. Using these approaches, he presents a biblical theology of disability and concrete strategies for churches to cultivate a more inclusive and welcoming community.

The impact of Hardwick’s personal story on his goals is apparent as he begins to assess the church’s approach to disability, in particular his assessment that the “rugged individualism” of the West has led to a church that is resistant to the growing concerns in the United States over diversity and inclusion (24). For Hardwick, the growing need for diversity and inclusion in the United States points to the original bearer of this banner—the church. The central question of diversity and inclusion is, “Who’s missing?” (25). The church is regularly tempted to create homogenous communities and in doing so neglect one of its basic functions of inclusion. In parallel with movements of racial reconciliation, the church lacks a compassionate response to difference and instead opts for “indifference toward those who are different” (30).

Hardwick sets a foundational approach to biblical diversity by arguing that diversity must entail peace (the unity of difference), unity (demanding equality), individuality (the allowance of personal identity to remain), reconciliation (willingness to participate in shared life), and sacrifice. In this way, he believes the church was born to be a place of inclusion and the full participation of all peoples. Briefly analyzing the banquet parables of the Gospels, Hardwick points to Jesus’ challenge to the powerful who center themselves in the seats of importance. Hardwick sees an explicit parallel with the banquet parables and the present state of the church, in which “the disability community is always an afterthought” (43). In terms of setting a more inclusive table, he believes that many churches fear the cost of developing inclusion because the “return” is low (45).

The problem, in short, is that focusing on financers of ministry prioritizes the ones already given important seats at the table over the ones Jesus tells the church to invite. Instead, Hardwick argues that churches should be places where those with disabilities are heard and have the space to tell their own stories. Critical of the church’s theological approach to disability, Hardwick reflects on how he feared his diagnosis because he feared the social suffering that accompanied it.

The church’s struggle with disability is a struggle to accept the bodies and minds that differ from the supposed norm (73). Hardwick draws on the work of Willie Jennings, discussing the social imaginary that led the church to become a place of removal of “bodies of color” and those with disabilities (76). His most robust critique thus far emerges here, as he states that those with disabilities exist “without place” and must identify in their disability. Conversely, those with disabilities are discouraged by the church from identifying with their disability and thus live without place in a liminal space. Additionally, the belief in heaven as the ideal and the erasure of disabilities in the kingdom of God leads to further marginalization in the present (84).

Hardwick shifts here toward the concrete ways in which churches can educate themselves on disability, create communities that address the needs of those with disabilities, and finally develop policies that allow for their full membership. Rather than make those with disabilities into objects of inspiration (111), churches can implement models built on reciprocity and interrogate the ways in which their physical and immaterial communities are inaccessible. In Hardwick’s view, churches can benefit from expanding their understanding of disability beyond the medicalized models and toward more social models that view disability as primarily an issue of social structuring (105).

Central to Hardwick’s ecclesial approach is the focus on preaching on disability. By centering the perspective of disability in the text, the author believes congregations can begin their education and formation toward inclusivity. Though this focus on preaching runs the risk of prioritizing a sort of rationality-centric view of formation, Hardwick somewhat balances this with a second focus on community-developed friendships that promote the well-being of families affected by disability in the long-term (123). It is at this point that Hardwick’s work is at its most valuable, as it provides step-by-step ways for churches to accomplish the inclusive vision he has promotes. These community steps include accompaniment with families as well as reanalyzing songs, sermons, and prayers for the ways in which harm is inflicted on the disability community. In the end, Hardwick believes that by building an inclusive community in concrete ways, the disability community may be given a place and participate in their local churches in “meaningful and fulfilling ways” (191).

Overall, Hardwick is successful in analyzing the broad issues surrounding disability, theology, and the life of the church and points in a helpful concrete direction. Readers, especially laypeople and pastors, should easily find plenty here to practice in their own individual and congregational lives. Though in some cases Hardwick’s critiques stop short of their full potential (e.g., critique of economic and marketing approaches in the church and the ways they affect those with disabilities), this text is essential for pastors and congregations to begin allowing these questions and recommendations to expand and correct the church’s approach to disability.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cody Bivins-Starr is an independent scholar and an assistant at L’Arche Portland.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lamar Hardwick, known as "the autism pastor," is the lead pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia. He writes and speaks frequently on the topic of disability, especially autism, and he is the author of the best-selling book I Am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor.

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