Redefining Disability

Our Interview with Daniel Harris: “Jesus gave up his power and became disabled for us.”

Daniel Harris / 4.20.23

This interview was originally published in the Sickness & Health Issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

If I asked you to name three stories of sickness from the Bible, I’m guessing you could easily rattle them off: stories of leprosy, plagues, the bleeding woman who touched Jesus’s robe and was healed. But what about disability? Could you still name three? And here’s a catch — the stories don’t end with a healing.

It’s difficult, right? Partially that’s because this subject isn’t often talked about in church — and there might be a reason for that. When we look at wellness through an able-bodied lens, we either lose or ignore stories about disability altogether. To understand where people with disabilities have been present in God’s story, and where they’re alive and well in the body of Christ today, we need another lens.

Enter: Daniel Harris. At six months old, Daniel’s parents were told he had cerebral palsy and might never walk or talk. But God had other plans for Daniel. Today, Harris identifies as a native Memphian cerebral palsy artist, author, actor, and activist. I first met Daniel a few years ago on the other side of the screen in Washington, D.C., as he spoke for my church’s five-year anniversary. I kept hearing his name mentioned during discussions about disability and the Church. And I understood why after I learned that he’s currently working on his doctorate of ministry focusing on disability.

You can find him acting in a theater, or at Western Theological Seminary working on his dissertation relating blues music to disability, or on YouTube, where you can watch his recent TEDx Talk. Today you’re going to find him here, in this interview, where he defines disability theology and shares the powerful ways God uses people with disabilities in His story — both in the Bible and in the body of Christ now. 

— Kelsey Marden, Interviewer


Mockingbird: For this issue, we’re talking about disability in categories of sickness and health. What are your thoughts on whether disability even fits into either of these categories?

Daniel Harris: Well, we have to redefine what it means to be sick and what it means to be healthy. If we’re talking about sickness in terms of your body not feeling well, or a situation where you’re in pain, that is not the same as my disability — I don’t really have any pain. So, it’s more about my disability and who I am. It would be like saying, because you’re a man, that means you’re sick. But no, that’s just the way God created me. 

Disabilities like mine only read as sickness because of the way people treat you; they look at my disability as a social problem. But my disability is not my body; it’s more about the way the world around me wants to treat me.

M: What is something you wish people in the Church understood from your perspective, and about the body of Christ as a whole?

DH: Well, even in the way we arrange our meetings, there is not a ramp going up to the stage or the pulpit. So in my mind, I’m thinking, okay, in order for me to preach the gospel, I have to be able to walk to get up to the pulpit. When we take communion, there is no way for me to drink from the cup without help, and I thought, well, maybe the wine is not for me. How is that? When you go to a Catholic church, that’s not really a problem though, because the priest is giving you communion. But in the more contemporary Protestant church, everybody just gets their own communion cup, and it’s hard for someone like me to take part in that.

And so, it’s little things like that where most people with disabilities would not say anything, because we are the minority who aren’t walking into the church. I am the only one here with a disability, so I have to follow what everybody else is doing. 

M: I know that you’re studying disability theology. Could you give a quick summary of your definition of that?

DH: Disability theology is just like any other minority theology. Like with black theology or feminist theology, it means looking at God through the lens of the minority, in my case disability. Nancy Eisland is the one who really created the term disability theology, with her book, The Disabled God. She relates in the book the way I now see disability: it means Jesus was born, Jesus gave up his power and became disabled for us. And then he was wrongly disabled on the cross. But I think that there’s a lot more that we can say, beyond what she was able to talk about in the book. The Disabled God only deals with the physical, but what about people with intellectual disabilities?

I agree that Jesus was wrongly disabled on the cross. As a man with a disability looking at the communion table, I feel like the body of Christ was disabled and broken for me. He knows exactly what I have been through. He knows the limitations that I have, and the struggle I have. And when you think about the incarnation — how God becomes a man and gives up his power — that just shows how much Jesus loves us. That he would go and give up everything and become immediately human for us, you know?

So disability theology means looking at the whole Bible, seeing where disability is already present in it, but also allowing people with disability to rewrite on their own what that means.

M: I love that. It’s comforting for me too. Can you say more about Christ’s resurrection and this idea of the disabled God?

DH: Even though the resurrected Jesus feels no pain, he still bears the marks of one who has a disability. That is a part of him. And I personally believe that there will be people with disabilities in heaven. I believe that my disability is part of who God made me. Why would I be something that I’m not? Other theologians would say, no, that’s only what’s going on down here, but in the end, everything will be made whole.

For a long time, before I got into disability theology, I almost left the Church completely because it was like, well, where do I fit in? Where am I in the story? Because everybody around me is telling me, oh, when you die, you’ll finally become normal — you’ll be like everybody else. And I’m thinking, well, then who am I right now? I spent my whole life trying to be normal, and a lot of that was because of the Church saying you have to be able-bodied.

Tim Lowly, Beacon (“Bless the Bastard”), Tim Lowly © 1991, 48″ x 60″, tempera on panel. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

M: When we read through the Bible, we see people with disabilities mostly in the context of Jesus meeting and healing them—people who are paralyzed, blind, deaf, mute. But are there other stories in the Bible that maybe we haven’t really dived into in church, or other scriptures that speak to this theme?

DH: Most of the time when we read the New Testament, and we read of all the healings, we are looking at it through the lens of an able body. You look at the man at the pool who was laying there. Jesus came by and said, “What do you want me to do?” Then he healed the man. But after that, it doesn’t say the man had any relationship with Jesus. That’s another thing: we relate healing to salvation. There has been a whole school of thought of, well, by being made whole, that is the same as you becoming a Christian.

Growing up, people would say that the reason I’m not healed was because I had too much sin in my life. That is a misunderstanding that still goes on today when we assume those who are not healed are not living the right way. We assume that when people get ill, they have done something wrong.

And then you go back to the Old Testament, to Moses, who had a speech impediment. God says, “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” And Moses said, “No, find another guy. I can’t talk.” And that went on three times before God said, “Okay, Aaron will go with you.” But at first God wanted him to go by himself — with the words that were already in him. 

When we look at Moses, especially in the United States, we always think about the movie The Ten Commandments. You think about Moses going to Pharaoh and saying, “Let my people go!” But it would have been more like, “Let my people go,” and Pharaoh would have asked, “What did he say? I don’t understand.” And then Aaron would have said, “He said, let my people go.” But we don’t see that. We always see all of the biblical speakers being strong and able-bodied; they are never weak. But the Bible is full of weak people — full of people with disabilities — because that’s what God liked to do. God is one who likes to show off His power through the person you would never expect.

You look at the stories in the Bible, and we always look at the heroes as strong people who overcame all of these obstacles when actually the Bible is full of people who do not overcome. Or if they do overcome, the only reason is because of God, you know?

M: What are some other examples? Who are some other people that come to mind, who don’t overcome?

DH: Well, “don’t overcome” … those might be the wrong words. They do overcome, but not because of themselves.

We have David, who is the little guy, and his whole thing is that he has to overcome the giant, but it isn’t because of him, it’s because of the Lord, who chose the little guy. You know. And then you have Gideon—people were coming to kill him, and he had an army of thousands of men, but for God that was too many. God wanted an army of only 300 men. That story is a way of God saying, no, I’m the one in control. I am the one that is the power behind everything.

I think that the Church today has put too much upon the individual to be all they can be, when it’s not about us, it’s about God.

M: More personally, how has your view of disability changed both through what you’ve studied, and also in your own experiences with God?

DH: What is key to me is the idea that when God said, “Let us make man in our own image,” what He was talking about is the relationship between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. When we look at creation, we think of the physical body being a “perfect body,” but I believe the Imago Dei is the image of the relationship that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit had. We were made in His own image so that He can have a relationship with us. So, at the Fall, that is what was marred, what was taken away: the relationship. And that’s what is being redeemed — that image.

The way I view disability now is the fact that, not only did God make me the way I am, but God delighted in the fact that he made me the way I am. I really got into disability theology about eight years ago, and it totally changed my whole world. Faith was no longer about where I was trying to get to— it was about becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin, in my own person.

It even changed the way I talk about myself too, because I don’t like saying that I am a man with cerebral palsy. I say I am a cerebral palsy man. You know, just taking that agency and saying no, this is who God made me and that I’m the one who gets to define what is what. And so I had to rebuild my whole foundation and my whole relationship with God. Because how does a cerebral palsy man — how do I — have a relationship with God? What does that look like?

I didn’t throw out all the teaching I had learned, but I want my relationship with God to be one where I’m not trying to be an able-bodied person. For me, it’s really hard to fast — I cannot give up food for a long period of time. So, what does it look like for me to have a time of fasting and prayer? Or what does it look like for me to be a pastor or a minister of the gospel? And if I had to pull everything in well, it’s really a love relationship and it should be between me and my God and no one else. No one else can dictate our relationship with one another.

M: Earlier you mentioned that you almost left the Church. So, I’m curious about what brought you back? What made you choose this path of pastoral care, going to seminary?

Spot Illustration: Lucy Haslam

DH: I’ve been on this road for my whole life. Even when I was a lot younger, I always wanted to be a local pastor, and I went to Bible college, but I was doing it the wrong way. I was trying to make myself “normal” and or to fit into the “normal” way of thinking. And so after I graduated and got my Bible degree, I went back to my local church and said, “Okay, I got my degree, what now?” And they responded, “Well, great job, but we’re not going to ordain you because of the way no one will understand you. No one will be able to hear you.”

And so that has been my whole life story — trying to do everything I can to fit in and then being told no. And then I began to speak at conferences. Matthew Watson, a pastor in Washington, D.C., would bring me up to speak at his church. So for me, there was always a tug of war. This church over here says that nobody can understand me, but I just spoke at a conference of 5,000 people and they’re all on Facebook quoting me about what I said. So … what’s going on here?

I have a friend who is an amputee, and after I went for my master’s degree we started talking about how God created her with one arm in mind. And through our conversations both of us started digging into disability theology and little by little, I started getting more confident in what I was about, and the fact that I didn’t have to do everything just the way everybody else wanted me to, and that’s still going on today. When I go to write my dissertation or I’m working on my doctorate, my professors have to remind me all the time, Daniel, this is your thing. Don’t try to be like the able-bodied person who is writing a paper. You do it how you want to. So, put in your artwork and put in your stuff like that.

For a long time I was really angry at God — saying, “Why would you put me in a religion that doesn’t want me? It’s not their fault, it’s your fault, and I am angry with you.” And it got to the point where I had to be angry with God and allow that anger to come out until I had nothing left to be angry about. And now I can go back into the Church and really engage knowing that it will be okay. Maybe I won’t get a ramp, or maybe they won’t always hear me, and that’s okay. I’m not putting my hope in the Church. I’m putting my hope in God.

M: I feel like that’s a really good lesson for everyone. Because I think culturally, we’re seeing people losing their faith because of what they’ve seen in the Church.

I’m curious, what is your dissertation about?

DH: My dissertation is about disability and vocation. So, I Iive in Memphis — home of the blues. And I’m trying to relate the blues to disability. The blues is a way of singing about the African American response to what’s going on now. So it is a form of lamentation. I took that idea and I asked myself, what is the Blues’ own take on disability? How do we lament our own community and how does the disability community tell our own story? By telling our own story, that is our vocation. 

For us to even be in relationship with one another, or in order for me to love my neighbor, I need to hear your story. And you need to hear my story. So, there is a form just like the Blues — there is this thing of call and response where I’m telling my story to you, but that requires that you have to respond in some kind of way. Either you reject me or you receive me. But there’s always a response, you know?

M: Thinking about the people who are going to be holding this article in their hands, what is something that you would like them to know about Jesus, the human body, and this theme of “in sickness and health,” which, as you said in the beginning, doesn’t really fit in this category?

DH: I would actually say that it does fit into the category if we are looking at the Church and being the body of Christ, and being together. There is a guy whose name is Lamar Hardwick and he wrote a book called Disability and the Church, and he reminds us that unity is not conformity. When we are even together, we’re not called to conform to one another, but we’re called to be together, to unify.

But considering “in sickness and in health,” it is exactly like a marriage, because of the whole idea that nobody is going to walk away from the table. Like this may be hard to stick out, but I’m going to include you in everything I do. And you’re going to include me in everything you do. And it is the love of Jesus that bound us together. The only way we can do that is because Jesus first loved us in order for us to love one another.

I don’t want to go on and start my own church; that’s not the way. I want to be a part of what is already going on. I’m asking you to love me and not only love me, but let me, as a person with a disability, love you. Because it’s not all about you helping me, it’s about allowing me to help you. 


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2 responses to “Redefining Disability”

  1. Gail M Telecky says:

    This was fascinating for me. I will be reading through it again and probably again. At 71 years old, I have experienced cancer twice, had a very serious back surgery, widowed 13 years ago and more. I have been angry at God, but why. Amazing article, I live within the boundaries of happenings in my life, perhaps a disability, but also a blessing.

  2. Melissa Dodson says:

    I read this for the second time today. Thank you so much, Daniel, for sharing with us.

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