Anvil journal of theology and mission
A man with a mission: Mark 1:40–45 and “mission with” disabled people
By Naomi Lawson Jacobs
Nicki is a wheelchair user. She is also a former church planter, with experience of leading churches and a heart for those on the edge. For years, she has been seeking a church where she can use her gifts and be of service to others, in the church community and beyond. When I interviewed Nicki for my research on the experiences of disabled Christians, she remembered how one church had perceived her:
I told them that I worked full-time and that I did normal things, but it was like they didn’t hear it. It was so against what they assumed about me that they couldn’t take it on… Even when they knew that I didn’t need them to do it, it was almost like they felt like they had to be a good Christian and take care of me.1
She shared a simple, powerful cry to participate in her church and reach out to others with God’s love:
When we get our new building, the first thing I want to do is join in and do normal – just basic, normal stuff in the service. I want to share communion. I want to take the offering. I want to just go and ask someone if it’s okay to pray with them or share something with somebody, just so that people realise that I’m not different.
Nicki cannot yet participate this fully in her church and its outreach. Church buildings and attitudes have disabled her, including the attitude that she is only in church to be looked after. When churches see disabled people solely as objects of mission, they cannot see us as fellow Christians with ministries of our own. They cannot see us as a blessing to their community – only as a burden.
But the Holy Spirit is at work beyond the church gates. Out here, on the edge, mission and ministry are happening among communities of disabled people, who have often found churches inaccessible, inhospitable or exclusive. In this article, I will reflect on one biblical model for disabled people’s mission to each other, and to churches. Then, reflecting briefly on the history of mission and its impact for disabled people, I will ask what it would take for churches no longer to reach out in mission to disabled people, but to share in a new vision of mission with us.
A resistant reading
The Bible and the Christian tradition have had a profound impact on disabled people.2 In churches and theology, the Bible has long been interpreted using a “normate hermeneutic”.3 As we read the Bible, we read our own ableist cultural attitudes into the text. Instead of allowing the nuanced silences in the stories to speak, readers tend to centre our own perspectives. Non-disabled readers are unlikely to think about the disciples as disabled – even though the disciples worked in a dangerous industry and lived under occupation – because they imagine the Bible’s central characters as having bodies and minds like theirs, and only notice disabled characters who need help or healing.4 Churches rarely ask about the impact of their theology or biblical interpretation on their attitudes to disabled people’s access, participation and outreach. Reflected in the mirror of ableist readings of the Bible, disabled Christians are easily reduced to objects of pastoral care – and mission. As Fiona MacMillan puts it, “In a Church which professes the Gospel paradox of strength in weakness, [disabled people are] often objects for pastoral attention rather than agents of change.”5
And yet, many disabled Christians resist these marginalising interpretations of the Bible. We are looking for more authentic biblical models of our lives as disabled Christians, often inspired by disability liberation theology. “Biblical texts are living traditions,” says disability biblical scholar Holly Joan Toensing, “that are challenged and renewed by lived experience of ongoing generations of Christians.”6 By reading the Bible in ways that reflect disabled people’s experiential reality, we can all reflect more honestly about how the churches have responded to disability – through disempowering concepts of mission, for example.
In this first part of this article, I’m going to reflect on Mark 1:40–45, using the story as a “way in” to help us think about disabled people and mission. This will be a resistant reading,7 in which we allow the silences in the biblical text to speak, as we listen to the people it has silenced. The man with leprosy in Mark 1 has a new vision of mission to tell us about. Then it will be the turn of today’s disabled Christians to speak, as I share a few stories from my research. Disabled Christians are calling churches to a transformed vision of outreach and ministry. In a kingdom where Jesus rewrites the story, this vision could turn the churches’ approach to mission upside down.
The mission of a man with leprosy
In Mark 1, a man who has leprosy seeks out Jesus. No doubt the man has heard rumours of this teacher’s power and authority, even this early in Jesus’ ministry. But this man is no passive recipient of mission. He takes initiative, boldly telling Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”8 In some versions of this story, Jesus becomes “indignant” – angry. We are not told what he’s angry about. But we know that Jesus answers boldness with boldness. “I am willing,” he says, and touches this untouchable man, whose stigmatised skin disease would have led fearful people to keep him at arm’s length. Once the man is “made clean”, Jesus gives him instructions not to tell anyone, but to go and offer sacrifices to the priests, presumably at the Temple, who can declare that the man is clean. In double disobedience of Jesus’ order, the man does not go straight to the Temple to allow the priests to judge whether he is worthy or unworthy. Nor does he follow Jesus’ instructions not to tell anyone. Instead, he goes out to “talk freely, spreading the news” about Jesus. As a result of the man’s fruitful witness, Jesus is mobbed by so many people, he has to retreat to the wilderness – to the “lonely places”, as the NIV has it.
This man is marginalised by the text, and that can make it a challenge to listen to the silences in his story. He is unnamed – the ultimate sign of someone who is “only” a side character – which is unlikely to encourage readers to identify with him. We know almost nothing about him, and though we can infer quite a bit about his situation, that means drawing on some contested contexts. And, like all the disabled characters in the Gospels, after this man is healed, he seems to disappear from the story.9
To open up the silences in the story, we start not with the disabled man himself, but with Jesus. In that strange reference to Jesus feeling “indignant”, there is a key to the lived experience of the man with leprosy. Some manuscripts have Jesus feeling “compassion” for this man, but many biblical scholars think “indignant” is the earlier meaning.10 What did Jesus have to be angry about? Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, Jesus was angry at Satan for causing illness, or even angry at the leprosy itself.
But this is a resistant reading. We find new answers when we centre the perspective of the man with leprosy. This is a story about purity and impurity – all the language is about cleansing, not healing.11 Here is a man who has been excluded from society, stigmatised as a result of his impairment, which led him to be perceived as impure.
The Jewish purity system, laid down in Leviticus and other texts, is likely to have kept many disabled people out of the Temple. It might have pushed them to the edges of community life, too. Even worse, this system kept them poor. If people with leprosy recovered, and hoped to be restored to religious and social community, they had to bring sacrifices to the Temple before they could be declared clean – and those sacrifices cost money. As Sam P. Mathew puts it: “The rich and the powerful always interpreted the purity laws to their advantage. Thus the purity system became instrumental in oppressing the poor and marginalising the people.… Those persons who were considered lepers were oppressed socially, religiously, economically and psychologically.”12 I can hardly imagine Jesus’ indignant rage at this unjust system, which had kept this man isolated and destitute. The priests had the authority to do something about this – to declare the man clean. They did not.
For disabled people, Leviticus is another powerful representational text. There is lively debate among biblical scholars as to how the purity laws were followed, and there were probably diverse views about ritual impurity in first-century Judaism.13 But once an idea has been written down in the Bible, it has representational power in our culture. Disabled people are stigmatised in, and by, this passage of Scripture. Anthropologist Mary Douglas says that, in Leviticus, people and things that are irregular or out of place are represented as impure. As the place where God dwells, the Temple must be kept free of the pollution of impurity.14 Disabled people have “leaky bodies”, inspiring fears that we will contaminate nondisabled people, so we are shut out of the holiest places.15 Whatever the actual religious and social situation for people with leprosy in first-century Palestine, this Gospel story represents the exclusion of people with leprosy. For the man in Mark 1, exclusion from religious community and society is a lived reality. So it is for many disabled people today. Churches and society push to the edges those people who confront us with the reality that we all so often deny – our frailty, our mortality, our humanity.
Jesus is different. His mission has already taken him outside the Temple gates, to be with outcasts, poor people and disabled people – those on the edge. And, unlike the priests, Jesus is willing to do something about this man’s profound social oppression. As the Messiah, Jesus has the priestly authority to cleanse the man and restore him to community. But then Jesus does something unexpected. He tells the man to go to the priests at the Temple, and offer those expensive sacrifices required by the Mosaic law. We might be tempted to wonder why. But this is a resistant reading, and what the man does next is far more interesting.
Because the man who once had leprosy ignores Jesus. In a power move that speaks of resistance against unjust authority, the man refuses to go and show himself to the priests at the Temple. Why would he go back there, and pay to offer sacrifices, only to be judged and declared “in” or “out” of religious and social community by the same priests who have shunned him, stigmatised him and cast him out?
Today’s disabled people know all about this kind of exclusion from church and society. Like the Temple, many modern churches reject people whose bodies and minds do not fit their norms. When disabled people are pushed to the edge, churches do not need to change to make room for a more diverse range of bodies and minds. We call this system ableism – an oppressive structure in which normative bodies and minds are valuable, and different bodies and minds are disposable.16 This system keeps disabled people marginalised in many ways that resonate with Mark 1. Today’s disabled people might not be required to pay priests to declare us clean, but we are still an impoverished community. A third of disabled people in the UK live in poverty, and many of us face a dehumanising, humiliating fight for the benefits we need to survive.17 In Jesus’ words “show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices… as a testimony to them”,18 some disabled people will hear echoes of society’s constant demand that we prove that we are “disabled enough” – or human enough – to be treated with dignity.
That’s why I find it so powerful that this man does not go to the Temple. Instead, he does everything he has been told not to do. He goes out to “talk freely” about Jesus – κηρύσσειν, meaning to proclaim or preach. It’s a word sometimes used for Jesus’ own preaching, and for that of his disciples, proclaiming the kingdom of God. I imagine the man running to tell his own disabled community about Jesus first – all his friends with stigmatised illnesses, who have lived on the edge with him. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, I imagine him telling them, “Come and see a man who…” – a man who is angry at the way the community of people with leprosy has been treated by priests and Temple authorities. A man who is willing and able to restore the outcasts to society, without demanding a profit for the powerful. No wonder Jesus is mobbed by new followers. No wonder Jesus has to retreat to the “lonely places” – where, I imagine, he meets yet more lonely outsiders who have been pushed to the margins of society.
When we leave the man who once had leprosy, he’s a Man with a Mission. But this is not a mission of the priests or religious leaders. They are back at the Temple, waiting for people to come to them, to be judged as clean or unclean, valuable or disposable.
No, this is a mission of the marginalised, to the marginalised. Jesus is inspiring a movement of outsiders, who want to live in his upside-down kingdom,19 where the powerful are dethroned, and those who have been cast out are restored to a diverse community. Where all bodies and minds are valued by God. Where Jesus sees the way disabled people have been stigmatised and impoverished and pushed to the edge, and he gets angry. And then he does something about it. For the man who once had leprosy, the Man with a Mission, that foretaste of the kingdom changes his life. He has a gospel to proclaim.
The mission of the churches
When churches think about mission, they tend to think about mission to. This charitable, pastoral approach to mission has a long tradition in church history, as churches reached out to people who had been thrown on the rubbish heap of society. They set up schools for those whom society would not educate, hospitals for those whom society would not treat, and soup kitchens for those whom society had left destitute.20 When the world considered people untouchable, churches reached out to touch them, sharing the gospel through words and hospitality alike.
But this history has a dark side. Christian pastoral care and mission have marginalised and disempowered disabled people. When the powerful reach out to those on the margins, it is easy for them to believe that they have everything to offer, while the objects of their charity only have need. What began as mission can easily become paternalism and colonialism.21 Postcolonial theorists have described the mission of western Christians to the majority world as “the politics of rescue” of the white saviour.22 Disabled people, too, have been used by Christian mission to motivate charity, as Christians imagine they are saving the “wretched of the earth”.23 Thanks in part to this history of mission, a powerful “disability business” now defines and controls the lives of many disabled people.24 Like the Temple priests waiting to judge the man who once had leprosy, these professional services decide whether disabled people are “deserving” enough for help, rather than working with us to create equity for all. A Christian model of outreach to the “needy” has shaped this disempowering system.
In my decade spent interviewing disabled Christians, I have heard many stories of people whose churches saw them as the object of ministry and mission, rather than people with ministry of their own – and even with a mission to the churches. Earlier, we talked about Nicki’s disempowering experiences in churches that wanted to serve her but could not imagine how she could serve them. Then there was Deirdre, who has a chronic illness and can rarely leave her bed. She longed to offer prayer ministry to the church where she remains a faithful member, at a distance. Deirdre not only had the gift of prayer, she had the rare gift of time to pray. But Deirdre’s offer to be part of the church prayer rota was never taken up. Her gifts went unused. There was Victor, a committed member of his church, who wanted to lead an Alpha group. His church leadership worried about how, as a blind man, he would serve dinner during the evening. In their failure to imagine a more inclusive, cooperative vision of Alpha, this church’s real failure of imagination lay in being unable to see Victor as a potential leader. For Nicki, Deirdre, Victor and many others, their churches could only see disabled people as objects of mission and ministry.
Instead, these disabled people longed to participate in their churches, through service, leadership and shared mission. Nicki knew she was a valued part of a church when she was able to serve her community through the youth group, connecting with young people in difficult situations. Another participant, Jane, believed that disabled people should be in church not just to receive outreach, but to play an active role in church life. Jane described this as mutual participation: “being helped and helping – reciprocal use of what skills we all have to crowdsource the desired result.”25 Being church together means being part of an interdependent community, where we all minister to each other. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, we are all given unique gifts, and the parts of the body that “seem to be weaker” are indispensable. If the eye says to the hand, “I don’t need you,” the body is incomplete.26
A mission for justice
But this vision of a missional kingdom is about more than inclusion. It’s about justice.
When we listen to the story of the Man with a Mission, we come to understand why inclusion is not enough. Too often, disabled people are invited to churches, but not truly welcomed there just as we are.27 In mission to disabled people, when churches assume that disabled people are only here to receive, they may miss the ways disabled people are already being church together. “Come to the places from which you have been cast out,” churches say, “so that we can minister to you.” Why would disabled people respond enthusiastically to this invitation any more than the man healed from leprosy was willing to go to the Temple to be judged? The echoes of missional paternalism are evident. And when churches reach out in in mission to disabled people, they do not always ask why there are disabled people on the margins of society to reach out to at all. Like the priests in Mark 1, not enough churches are asking the uncomfortable questions about how they contribute to disabled people’s marginalisation, casting us out to the edge. That’s when we see how a sole focus on pastoral care can distract from questions of justice.
But this is a resistant reading; shift your perspective. There is church out here, in the wilderness. Disabled Christians are seeking communities where we are valued just as we are. When we can’t find that in the inaccessible buildings and inhospitable cultures of institutional churches, many of us are forming these communities for ourselves, ministering to one another and reaching out to the churches. In the UK, two examples are YouBelong and Disability and Jesus. Both have a mission to reach disabled people online, while working with churches to help them become more accessible. At the Living Edge conference on disability and churches,28 we have spent the past decade reimagining a more just and inclusive church, through events uniquely led by disabled Christians for disabled Christians. In my research, I heard stories of prayer and fellowship groups where two or three disabled people gathered, and of disabled Christians ministering to each other in the corridors and kitchens of churches, when they could not get into the sanctuary. Here, on the edge, we call to each other: “Come and see a man who is angry about oppression and injustice, and wants to restore us to the church – through, and with, each other.” This is a mission to the churches as much as to those outside their gates. The Jesus of the upside-down kingdom is a Jesus that non-disabled members of churches might need to meet.
What does this mean for the institutional churches, and their tradition of mission to disabled people?
One of the great insights of liberation theology is that God is on the side of the oppressed. In the Mark 1 model, mission is about justice. Like Jesus, those in the churches may need to start by getting angry, asking why disabled people have been pushed to the margins – even if the answers are uncomfortably close to home. Just as Jesus often did, they may need to ask questions, and truly listen when disabled people share the gift and resource of our answers. Those willing to follow us to the “lonely places” may see that that God is already at work here, in mission by disabled people, to disabled people.
As churches learn to listen to our silenced stories, they may be confronted with some difficult questions. How can they empower disabled people’s mission and ministry where it is already happening, out on the edge? How can they enable the access, participation and leadership of disabled people, not just in our own communities, but in the churches where many of us have yet to be made welcome? This is mission, but it is not disempowering mission to disabled people. It does not position the outsiders as those who receive and the powerful as those who hold the keys to salvation. Instead, this is mission together with disabled people, in an upside-down kingdom of God.
Disabled people have a gospel to proclaim. If churches are willing to join us on the edge, they might learn to see disabled people not just as objects of ministry, but as fellow Christians with gifts and revelations to share with each other and the church. A blessing, not a burden. The church is renewed from the edge, Sam Wells tells us.29 Together, we can be enriched by a new vision of mission with each other.
About the author
Dr Naomi Lawson Jacobs (they/them) is a disabled, neurodivergent social researcher, writer and trainer. Naomi completed a PhD on disabled people’s experiences of churches in 2019, and aims to use their research to support a growing disabled Christian movement, where a new thing is taking root on the edge of the church. Naomi’s book on disability, churches and social justice, cowritten with Emily Richardson, is due out in 2022. Naomi can be found on Twitter @naomi_jacobs, at home in Islington with spouse and cats, and sometimes even in church at St Luke’s, West Holloway.
More from this issue
1 All participants cited in this study were interviewed for my primary research. Some of their stories are told in my thesis; others will be shared in a forthcoming book on disability and the church. Participants chose to use either their first names or pseudonyms, as approved by the SOAS University of London ethics committee. Naomi Lawson Jacobs, “The Upside-down Kingdom of God: A Disability Studies Perspective on Disabled People’s Experiences in Churches and Theologies of Disability” (PhD diss., SOAS University of London, 2019), https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/32204/; Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson, At The Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches [working title] (London: Darton, Longman & Todd: forthcoming).
2 It is always important to point out that “disability” is a modern category. The texts of the Bible, which speak to us from across ages and cultures, have different ways of categorising those we would now call disabled. Still, the Bible has helped to shape our modern category of disability. I have not attempted to define disability here, as it would derail the article, but I recommend reading disabled people’s own writing on disability oppression in society, e.g. Michael Oliver, The Politics of Disablement (Basingstoke & London: Macmillan Education, 1990); Sins Invalid, Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The Basis of Movement is Our People, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: Sins Invalid, 2019). For scholarship on the Hebrew Bible’s categories of disability, see Rebecca Raphael, Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature (London: T&T Clark, 2009).
3 Kerry H. Wynn, “The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability within the Yahwistic Narratives” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 92.
4 Janet Lees, “Enabling the Body” in This Abled Body, ed. Avalos, Melcher and Schipper, 162.
5 Fiona MacMillan, “Calling from the Edge,” Thinking Anglicans, 9 February 2018, https://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Calling-from-the-Edge-9-February-2018-Final.pdf.
6 Holly Joan Toensing, “‘Living Among the Tombs’: Society, Mental Illness, and Self-Destruction in Mark 5:1–20” in This Abled Body, ed. Avalos, Melcher and Schipper, 133.
7 Resistant readings centre the readings of marginalised groups, while acknowledging that interpretation is influenced by our social and historical perspectives. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
8 All quotations are from Mark 1:40–45 (NIV).
9 Sharon V. Betcher, “Saving the Wretched of the Earth,” Disability Studies Quarterly 26, no. 3 (2006).
10 Seth M. Ehorn, “Jesus and Ritual Impurity in Mark’s Gospel” in For Us, but Not To Us: Essays on Creation, Covenant, and Context in Honor of John H. Walton, ed. Adam E. Miglio et al (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020), 223.
11 Ibid., 217–33.
12 Sam P. Mathew, “Jesus and Purity System in Mark’s Gospel: A Leper (Mk. 1:40–45),” Indian Journal of Theology 42, no. 2 (2000): 102–03.
13 Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss, “The Origin and Interpretation of ṡāraʿat in Leviticus 13–14,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 4 (2011): 643–62. Although some biblical scholars believe this purity system never existed, others think that, by the first-century Judaism of the Gospels, at least some disabled people were pushed to the margins of society by the stigma it created.
14 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1966).
15 Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism and (Bio)Ethics (London: Routledge, 1997).
16 From a video conversation between disability activists Patty Berne and Stacey Milbern, “My Body Doesn’t Oppress Me, Society Does,” Barnard Center for Research on Women, 8 May 2017, https://bcrw.barnard.edu/videos/my-body-doesnt-oppress-me-society-does/.
17 “UK Poverty 2019/20,” Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 7 February 2020, https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/files-research/jrf_-_uk_poverty_2019-20_report_4.pdf, 8; Frances Ryan, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People (London: Verso, 2019).
18 1 Mark:44 (NIV).
19 Some of my disabled research participants talked about the “upside-down kingdom of God”, in which society’s ableist values would be transformed and Jesus’ values would reign. Their theology was probably influenced by Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, revised ed. (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011).
20 Amanda Porterfield, Healing in the History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
21 These mixed impacts of church pastoral care and mission for disabled people have been written about by deaf and disability liberation theologians. See Hannah Lewis, Deaf Liberation Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007); Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).
22 Sherene H. Razack, “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 15, no. 2 (2000): 91–130.
23 Betcher, “Saving the Wretched of the Earth.”
24 Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 777–95. See also Gary L. Albrecht, The Disability Business: Rehabilitation in America (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992).
25 Used with permission.
26 1 Cor. 12:21 (New International Version).
27 Lamar Hardwick, Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021).
28 The Living Edge disability conferences are a partnership between Inclusive Church and St Martin-in-the-Fields church, now in their tenth year.
29 Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 29.