Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Strained Relations - Disease, Disability and Christian Flourishing in Antiquity

A gospel robed in hospitality, hope, and healing has the power to change history. 

*Burning eyes,
     *Shaking fevers,
          *Constant vomiting,
              --Flaming bonfires incinerating victims.

The imagery of the apocalypse.

No, not a dystopian sy-fy short – but the descriptive reporting
on the debilitating conditions in the third century city of Luxor. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage recorded the prognosis: if death was not imminent (about two-thirds of the population died in Alexandria, Egypt), people could expect to be blind or deaf.

Candida Moss, PhD wrote a CNN piece on the discoveries made in a recent archeological dig.  She is the coeditor of Disability Studies and Biblical Literature along with SITD lecturer Jeremy Schipper. In the article Dr. Moss hints at a claim that the Christian response to disease and disability may have had a large affect upon the spread of Christianity, perhaps even greater than early persecution.  Reading through a disability-privileged perspective, she highlights Cyprian’s comments on deafness and blindness – two key words which have a rich history in the Biblical literature and an ethical mandate of compassion and inclusion.  (Jeremy Schipper reminds us that these disabilities range across a spectrum – from poor eyesight to complete loss of vision, or hearing impairment to total deafness).

Early Christians tended to view this epidemic, death, and disability not as a judgment for evil (the epidemic effected all equally), but a confirmation that the pagan gods were powerless to stop it.  As one of the few religious systems that accepted death and believed in an afterlife, they joyfully spread the gospel even with threat of martyrdom.  Their non-discriminating systems of care for those sick and with onset disabilities became early models of hospitality and helped spread Christianity as a caring religion with an eschatology of hope.

Current evangelical church expansion efforts can derive a lesson from the early church.  Placing concern for the socially unwanted, underprivileged, and unsuccessful at the heart of a church plant will yield inexplicable results: A gospel robed in hospitality, hope, and healing has the power to change history.