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Nancy Eiesland, at 44; wrote of a God who is disabled

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / March 27, 2009
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NEW YORK - By the time the theologian and sociologist Nancy Eiesland was 13 years old, she had had 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips, and she realized that pain was her lot in life.

So why did she say she hoped that when she went to heaven she would still be disabled?

The reason, which seems clear enough to many disabled people, was that her identity and character were formed by the mental, physical, and societal challenges of her disability. She felt that without her disability, she would "be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God."

By the time of her death at 44 on March 10, Ms. Eiesland had come to believe that God was in fact disabled, a view she articulated in her influential 1994 book, "The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability." She pointed to the scene described in Luke 24:36-39 in which the risen Jesus invites his disciples to touch his wounds.

"In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God," she wrote. God remains a God the disabled can identify with, she argued: He is not cured and made whole; his injury is part of him, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for healing.

Ms. Eiesland, who was an associate professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, died not of her congenital bone condition nor of the spinal scoliosis that necessitated still more surgery in 2002, but of a possibly genetic lung cancer, said her husband, Terry.

Ms. Eiesland's insights added a religious angle to a new consciousness among the disabled that emerged in the 1960s in the fight for access to public facilities that was later guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The movement progressed into cultural realms as disabled poets, writers, and dramatists embraced disability as both cause and identity.

Pointing out that anyone can become disabled at any time, the disabled called those without disabilities "the temporarily able-bodied." They ventured into humor, calling nondisabled people bowling pins because they were easy prey for wheelchairs.

Ms. Eiesland's contribution was to articulate a coherent theology of disability. Deborah Beth Creamer, in her book "Disability and Christian Theology" (2009), called Ms. Eiesland's work the "most powerful discussion of God to arise from disability studies."

Rebecca S. Chopp, president of Colgate University, is known for her feminist theological interpretations. In an e-mail, she characterized Ms. Eiesland as "a, if not the, leader of disability studies and Christianity and disability studies in religion."

In four books and scores of articles, Ms. Eiesland's scholarship also included a much-cited book on the dynamics of churches in an Atlanta suburb.

For 10 years, she consulted with the United Nations, helping to develop its Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, which was enacted last year. The convention describes the disabled as subjects with rights, rather than objects of charity. It explicitly endorses spiritual rights for the disabled.

Nancy Lynn Arnold was born in Cando, N.D., and grew up on a farm. Operations to remedy her birth defect began when she was a toddler. Her parents also took her to faith healers. She wrote that she was a poster child for the March of Dimes, a charity that some advocates for the disabled criticize for its appeals to pity.

After she was fitted with a full-leg brace at age 7, her father told her: "You're going to need to get a job that keeps you off your feet. You'll never be a checkout clerk."

In high school, she won a national contest with an essay on the inaccessibility of rural courthouses in North Dakota. She organized a letter-writing campaign on the issue.

She enrolled at the University of North Dakota, where she campaigned for ramps into the library and accessible parking spots. She dropped out after her beloved older sister was killed in an automobile accident.

Nancy and her stricken family joined the Assemblies of God and moved to Springfield, Mo., where the church has its headquarters. She enrolled in Central Bible College, which trained ministers, and graduated as valedictorian in 1986. She became an Assemblies of God minister, but gradually drifted from the denomination.

She became a student at Candler, where she studied under Chopp. Chopp remembered Ms. Eiesland's complaining that for all Christianity's professed concern for the poor and oppressed, the disabled were ignored.

"I looked at her and said, 'That is your work,' " Chopp said.

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