I have a friend—I will him call John—who has lived with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) for many years. A man in his early seventies, John moves and communicates very slowly but laughs easily and loudly. He loves making artwork and walking outdoors. John also suffers from a form of mental illness called intermittent explosive disorder. His frustration with his impairments and limitations can exacerbate an angry episode. Sometimes during an episode, John threatens to hurt himself or others. Thankfully, he lives in a community where his vulnerabilities are valued, celebrated, and protected as his strengths. People there know and accommodate his needs, and they communicate patiently with him.[1]

Yet some of John’s friends grew concerned for him this summer when the Washington Post published an article entitled “Distraught People, Deadly Results.” The article, which is updated monthly, highlights the number of fatal encounters that people with mental illness have had with police since the beginning of 2015—as of early September, that number was 174.[2] John takes walks each day to McDonalds for coffee, a small daily ritual that affirms his sense of identity and ability, but the Post article reminded us that his daily walks entail a great risk. We wondered what would happen if someone were to encounter John who is not patient with his limitations, impairments, or vulnerabilities. What would happen if this impatience catalyzes one of his explosive episodes? What would happen if someone misinterpreted John’s frustration or anger, perhaps someone who was armed?

It is a wonderful thing that John’s L’Arche community affirms and protects John and his vulnerabilities. John’s community has the patience to receive and appreciate the gifts that he is able to contribute: his help with dishes and laundry, his mealtime prayers, his laughter. But John constantly encounters a world outside of L’Arche that does not consider his impairments worthy of value, affirmation, or protection. Outside of L’Arche, people often see John as a person who simply gets in the way of life’s normal rhythms. He holds up traffic because he is slow to cross the street. He slows down a line because his order is difficult to understand. He is an embarrassment because of his incontinence. In situations like these, John’s condition makes him stand out and keeps him apart from others.

John does not reflect our culture’s values and confuses its sense of utility, organization, and order. Because John threatens society’s wellbeing and success, society threatens John with marginalization; John is profoundly vulnerable to social stigmas. The effects of these social stigmas have been incredible. For years people like John, considered socially useless, were warehoused in notoriously abusive institutions for the “mentally retarded” like Willowbrook State School and Forest Haven Asylum. In the small, bare wards of Forest Haven, patients lived underfed, often covered in open wounds and their own bodily waste.[3] Like so many before him, John is constantly pushed to the margins of all manner of social spheres because he fails to act and live in ways that his culture finds valuable.[4]

Concerns about John’s social vulnerabilities raise a theological concern. What do the vulnerabilities of those with IDD mean for the doctrine of providence, the theological account of God’s sustaining relation to creation? Many Christians have linked disability and providence with the presumption that disabilities are divinely willed or intended.[5] Moral valuations have accompanied such theological claims. Hans Reinders explains, “Whether it is named a ‘curse’ or a ‘blessing,’ in both cases the occurrence of disability is attributed [in many religious communities] to a divine will operating in a universe under its control. The underlying assumption is that disability receives its religious or spiritual meaning from being ‘caused’ somehow by God.” Nancy Eisland makes a similar observation, noting, “The persistent thread within the Christian tradition has been that disability denotes an unusual relationship with God and that the person with disabilities is either divinely blessed or damned: the defiled evildoer or the spiritual superhero.”[6] These observations show how the attribution of disabilities to divine providence can create a theological justification for the stigmatization of those like John who live with IDD.

Drawing heavily on the life and teachings of Jesus, theologians working in disability studies have long criticized arguments that cast disabilities as “curses” bestowed by divine providence.[7] What has been less addressed is the theological claim that divine providence bestows disabilities on people like John as a “blessing.” As Reinders and Eisland point out, it has been common to cast disabilities—conditions of immense social vulnerability—in a simplistically positive light because of their presumed origin in divine providence. Yet John’s story demonstrates that it is neither possible nor desirable to understand disabilities as unqualified goods. It is not obvious that social vulnerability is a moral or a spiritual good, and it is usually entirely counterintuitive to claim that it is. With this claim I certainly do not dismiss all theologies that attempt to show how experiences of suffering and vulnerability can produce spiritual goods or growth in moral virtue. Rather, I contest how such theologies are simplistically employed to cast disabilities as mere blessings. This kind of uncritical optimism leads us to overlook the hardships that shape the life of someone like John. Is it possible for his physical condition to bless him when, in most situations, it only serves to exclude him from a common life shared with others? Indeed, amid his many vulnerabilities, the sense in which his IDD blesses John is hardly obvious.

Insofar as we assume that IDD is the result of divine providence—be it a blessing or a curse—we forfeit occasions to ask whether or not we contribute to the vulnerabilities of those with IDD. As Thomas Reynolds notes, to assume that John’s vulnerability is divinely willed or intended “promotes passivity and resignation to situations of personal hardship or social exclusion and oppression that otherwise should be resisted and transformed. Not only does this sanitize impairment by explaining it away in terms of the potential good it produces, it also baptizes the status quo, sanctioning [a] cult of normalcy.”[8]

In a culture that prioritizes individuality, independence, self-sufficiency, efficiency, productivity, beauty, and an ability to buy and consume products, what good is a person whose presence frustrates all of these values? A doctrine of providence is especially dangerous when it underwrites or justifies the abuse, marginalization, or death of vulnerable human beings like John. I suggest, therefore, that we take a closer look at how we understand the intersection of providence and disability, particularly in light of the work by the theologian Reinhold Bernhardt.

Bernhardt proposes that we “reconceive the notion of divine power in more radically Christian terms as the ‘power of weakness’ (1 Cor. 1:25), and . . . purge the doctrine of providence of understandings of power which do not befit its character as Christian doctrine.”[9] He suggests that we actually encounter the Lord’s providential care not through feelings or experiences of strength, wealth, or power but primarily through weakness and vulnerability. To this end, Bernhardt draws on 1 Corinthians 1:25, where Paul claims that Jesus’s cross turns the world’s wisdom into foolishness. Paul writes: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (NRSV). This inversion of strength and weakness resonates with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:7–8: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Bernhardt reframes providence christologically: to encounter the Lord is to encounter Christ in his weakness and humility. God does not relate to us as an all-powerful dispensary of blessings and curses. God does not provide by willing our social vulnerability or saving us from it with wealth, power, able-bodied-ness, or normality. Rather, God provides for us by accompanying and sustaining us in vulnerability. This is what we learn in Christ. Practically, this shifts the question of providence from “How can we understand God to have caused John’s disabilities, which contribute to his immense social vulnerabilities?” to “In what ways does our vulnerable God provide for and sustain us in our own vulnerabilities?” In Bernhardt’s theology, God’s actions look less like capricious curses and more like providential presence.

Practically, this means there is no reason to ascribe God’s providential care to the success of a political campaign, a great deal of material wealth, the health and ability of a body, or the fame gained through one’s career. Rather, identifying human encounters with God’s providential presence begins by looking to the poor, dispossessed, and disabled, not the powerful, propertied, and abled. That is where God’s sustaining presence among the vulnerable is most evident. In turn, Bernhardt’s proposal helps us see how a theology of divine providence can lead us to be more attentive to the vulnerabilities of someone like John—a stark contrast from the implications of our typical notions of providence.

This providential shift has anthropological implications too. Bernhardt’s vision of providence allows us to interpret our vulnerability as Christ’s own. We are not God-like because of our self-sufficiency; we are God-like in our vulnerability. Christ’s vulnerability makes human vulnerability intelligible. Reynolds describes this inversion of providence:

Instead of being spurned or made invisible, the so-called deformed and dysfunctional become the normative fulcrum for understanding the human. Not ability but disability is basic. Why? Because . . . how we understand and evaluate bodily form ([in terms of] appearance and/or completeness) and function ([in terms of] productive and/or performative capacity) is secondary, the product of the way we experience our vulnerability in interactions with others.[10]

When we see the importance of both Christ’s and humanity’s vulnerability, we have a far clearer sense of the grandness of Christ’s power and triumph. Indeed, we obscure the meaning of Christ’s vulnerability if we forget that Christ ultimately and finally came in triumph as a destroyer of principalities and powers.

A danger of Bernhardt’s view is that we may sentimentalize or valorize vulnerability such that we avoid sharing in the suffering of those who experience disability and vulnerability most acutely. For example, I think that John is quite brave to venture out alone into the world each day. But praising his bravery is not enough to keep him safe on the street. I fool myself when I think that the solution to the dangers John faces during his walks is simply the greater cultivation of his fortitude. Such a response would valorize vulnerability such that we failed to heed Christ’s command to share in the suffering that attends vulnerability. Such a view would undermine the attention to the realities and complexities of vulnerability that Bernhardt’s view of providence affords. If we fail to share in the stress, suffering, and threat of one another’s vulnerabilities—and in particular the vulnerabilities caused by IDD—then we fail to see a basic component of our responsibility to others. This responsibility accompanies an affirmation of vulnerability as the locus of God’s providential care.

When we understand divine providence in terms of weakness and vulnerability, we also must offer a concrete means by which we learn to avoid rebaptizing disabilities as divinely ordained. God may well be with those with IDD in a more obvious way than with the powerful, but we must add that God does not retributively will the suffering of creation, which God has called “good.”

Confession is one concrete mode of theological reflection that helps us to speak faithfully about God’s providential action without following into the aforementioned dangers.[11] Through confession we invite the Holy Spirit to reveal how our speech about the Lord’s providential care fails to make sense of human vulnerability and suffering. We let the Spirit reveal our failure to help alleviate another’s suffering. We let the Spirit expose the illusion that we are strong and invulnerable just because we do not have an IDD or something similar. A confessional mode of theological reflection helps us avoid the temptation to valorize or sentimentalize disabilities by enabling faithful speech about the Lord’s providential action in the midst of human vulnerability and weakness. Through confession we are not required to find an answer for why people are vulnerable. Confession is not a means to discern systematically how the Lord acts providentially toward creation. Nor is confession a tool for weaving grand narratives or theodicies that attempt to explain why we encounter something like IDD. Instead, through confession we are trained to acknowledge that appealing to divine providence cannot explain life’s contingencies away.[12]

For friends like John, I confess that I do not always know how to meet the needs that his vulnerabilities entail. I confess that I do not always know in what sense his or my vulnerabilities can be called gifts or the results of providential care. And I confess that I engage in discursive modes of theological reflection that, despite my best intentions, have the dangerous potential to render someone like John’s vulnerabilities disabling. Yet in confession I am reminded to whom and for whom my words are accountable—at once to the Lord and to friends like John. I am reminded that discerning the meaning of our vulnerabilities or disabilities is something that John and I must do together, in mutuality. In confession, the Lord trains our eyes upon the past, not the future. We learn to see not how the Lord ordains or intends vulnerability, but rather how the Lord has already been actively redeeming human vulnerability, weakness, and suffering in our midst, inviting us to participate and share in this work.[13]

[1] I base my understanding of “disability” on the work of Nancy Eiesland who writes: “‘Impairment’ refers to an abnormality or loss of physiological form or function. ‘Disability’ describes the consequences of the impairment, that is an ability to perform some task or activity considered necessary. This corresponds with the most generally accepted definition of disability as a ‘form of inability or limitation in performing roles or tasks expected of an individual within a social environment.’ ‘Handicap,’ on the other hand, generally denotes a social disadvantage that results from an impairment or disability. Thus an impairment does not necessarily result in a disability, and a disability need not be a handicap, so defined” (The Disabled God [Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994], 27). For a quick primer on intermittent explosive disorder, see “Intermittent Explosive Disorder definition,” Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/intermittent-explosive-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024309.

[2] Wesley Lowery, Kimberly Kindy, Keith L. Alexander, and Steven Rich, “Distraught People, Deadly Results,” Washington Post, June 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/06/30/distraught-people-deadly-results/.

[3] See “Forest Haven: Joint Oversight Hearings before the Subcommittee on Education, Labor, and Social Services, and the Committee on the District of Columbia, House of Representatives, Ninety-Fourth Congress, second session, on Legislative and Oversight Jurisdiction over Forest Haven, District of Columbia Institution for the Mentally Retarded” (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976); Joshua Zeman, Cropsey, dir. Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio (Antidote Films (I), Afterhours Productions, Ghost Robot, Off Hollywood Pictures, 2009); Alison Stewart, “Remembering an Infamous New York Institution,” NPR, March 7, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87975196; Jack Fisher, Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years after Willowbrook (City Lights Pictures, City Lights Productions, 1996), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcjRIZFQcUY&list=PLVvgapxToLhhnTwFQHu8DOq2TpcPMwKQO&index=1; Katherine Boo, “Forest Haven Is Gone, but the Agony Remains,” Washington Post, March 14, 1999, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/march99/grouphome14_full.htm; and Murray Waas, “Bleak House,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1994, http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-03/magazine/tm-41569_1_forest-haven-bleak-house-institutional-abuse/2.

[4] Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 88.

[5] See Charles M. Wood, “Providence,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 91. Wood provides important conceptual definitions of providence, while Reynolds helpfully elucidates how such presumptions take shape in Vulnerable Communion, 29–30: “One of the fundamental convictions of Christians is that the physical world is a created order that mirrors a divine archetype. Creation is good. Rosmarie Garland Thompson pinpoints the logic here in stating that when the visible world is posited ‘as the index of a coherent and just invisible world,’ we are encouraged ‘to read the material body as a sign invested with transcendent meaning.’ So the world as it is reflects a divine intention.”

[6] Reinders, Disability, Providence, and Ethics (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 13; and Eisland, The Disabled God, 70.

[7] See Eisland, The Disabled God, 70–75; Reinders, Disability, 11–13; and Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 62, 35–43, and 187.

[8] Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 42 and 60.

[9] Wood, “Providence,” 96.

[10] Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 105.

[11] I have been delighted to find that I am not alone in thinking that confession would be a helpful practice and mode of theological reflection for habituating more faithful speech about disability, vulnerability, and divine providence. See Brett Webb-Mitchell, “Confession: A Journey toward Reconciliation between the Church and People with Disabilities,” Liturgy 23, no. 2 (2008): 49.

[12] Reinders, Disability, 14–15.

[13] Wood describes how a doctrine of providence and confession are related in a participatory way: “Doctrine is confessed whenever the wisdom informing Christian life is enacted—whenever, so to speak, we see that wisdom in operation. Specific doctrines—of creation, providence, grace, and so forth—are confessed in this sense whenever they make a manifest difference in the way their possessors sort things out, make decisions, and respond to their circumstances. That difference constitutes Christian witness. It may be direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, but in one way or another it bears a message about the God known in Jesus Christ. Even when it is most explicit and verbal, this witness may bear little resemblance to doctrinal formulation. Nevertheless, in it doctrine is being confessed. . . . The force of doctrines comes in their confession: a confession that occasionally takes the form of direct doctrinal statement but is more commonly a matter of making the Christian witness manifest in appropriate words and actions, in the face of whatever threatens to obscure the truth it serves” (The Question of Providence [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008], 9).