- Embracing Limits, Queering Embodiment:Creating/Creative Possibilities for Disability Theology
I am grateful for Sharon Betcher's reflections, particularly the ways in which she honors Nancy Eiesland's legacy while simultaneously encouraging us to imagine new directions for feminist disability theology. Not only does she provide a rich center point for this roundtable discussion but she also invites [End Page 123] conversation that I hope will go far beyond this set of essays. My reflections here focus on Betcher's distinction between flesh and body, which I find full of possibility in at least three significant and interrelated ways: as a foundational challenge to the idea of "normal," as a point of contact with other academic discourses (particularly queer theories), and as a site of potential for engagement around pain.
I come to this essay with a particular commitment, partly based in a concern with and disappointment about the compartmentalization of "disability" within religious and theological discourses. While disability (both as a topic and as an identity) is more present in the academy and in theological education than it was at the time Eiesland published her groundbreaking 1994 book, its place is still tenuous and partial. Too often I hear disability as an "and" statement—as, for example, when we talk about race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability. When religious studies or seminary courses engage disability at all, it is often in a separate unit or discussion (often at the end of the semester), an addendum or afterthought. Those of us who work in the area of disability theology are often considered to be dealing with "special" interests (reminiscent of "special" education), and are typically (and uncritically) assumed to have a particular connection to these issues—not because we have/are flesh, as Betcher might claim, but because we must have a "personal" (read: nonacademic) experience with disability/impairment. These sorts of claims and positionings are frustrating, not only insofar as they negate complexity and ignore the fleshly realities that Betcher so helpfully names but also because they position disability as a theme and experience best left to closets, corners, and other closed spaces.
Betcher offers us some openings, some possibilities for conversational intersection. Her appeal to flesh, rather than to body, is one such space. Two important claims are embedded in her argument against body. The first is that the use of body invites, as she writes, "the hallucinatory delusion of wholeness" (108). In other words, body has been taken to be another (disembodied) ideal that no one can attain. The second, related but yet somewhat different, is that we too often take body to be a generic term, leading to what Betcher describes as "naturalization or normalization." In this way, the term body had been taken as shorthand for "normal body," requiring a signifier for other kinds of bodies ("disabled body" being one example among many). I would argue that these two errors are interrelated, as we all have neither ideal nor normal bodies, and yet that they must be unpacked or challenged from slightly different perspectives. A corollary here might be found in other areas of feminist discourse where both the ideal woman and the generic woman have had to be deconstructed—the first to show that women were, in fact, human, living, people; the second to highlight ways in which the assumption of a generic type acts to "white"-wash or erase critical differences between and among these human, living, people.
I find the lens of disability to be a promising way to challenge both the ideal [End Page 124] body and the normal body. Clearly, this is significant for people who already wear the label of disability, as we are often identified as those whose bodies are least normal—and, from this position on the margins, we can first make apparent and then challenge the assumptions of the center. Yet it is also important to recognize that this is not just a project for or of people "with disabilities." Here I find Sallie McFague's proposal of attention epistemology to be helpful: "the kind of knowing that focuses on embodied differences."1 Betcher makes a similar claim when she invites us...