Nancy Eiesland, Theologian and sociologist who wrote of a disabled God
Born: 6 April, 1964, in Cando, North Dakota. Died: 10 March, 2009, in Atlanta, US, aged 44.
BY THE time the theologian and sociologist Nancy Eiesland was 13 years old, she had undergone 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips and realised 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 believed that without her disability, she would "be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God".
By the time of her death, Eiesland had come to believe God was 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.
Eiesland (pronounced Ees-lund), who was an associate professor at the 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.
Her 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 later guaranteed in her home country 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 could become disabled at any time, the disabled called those without disabilities "the temporarily able-bodied". They ventured into humour, calling non-disabled people bowling pins because they were easy prey for wheelchairs.
Eiesland's contribution was to articulate a coherent theology of disability. Deborah Beth Creamer, in her book Disability and Christian Theology (2009), called Eiesland's work the "most powerful discussion of God to arise from disability studies".
Rebecca Chopp, the president of Colgate University, who is known for her feminist theological interpretations, characterised Eiesland as "a, if not the, leader of disability studies and Christianity and disability studies in religion".
Eiesland's scholarship, published in four books and scores of articles, included a much-cited work on the dynamics of churches in an Atlanta suburb.
For ten years, she consulted with the United Nations, helping develop its Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, which was enacted last year. It 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 on the flat plains of North Dakota, growing 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 have criticised for its appeals to pity.
After she was fitted with a full-leg brace at the age of seven, 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."
At secondary school, she won a national contest with an essay on the inaccessibility of rural court houses in North Dakota, afterwards organising 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, but dropped out after her beloved elder sister was killed in an automobile accident.
Nancy and her stricken family joined the Assemblies of God and moved to Springfield, Missouri, 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 away from the denomination.
She became a student at Candler, where she studied theology under Ms Chopp. Ms Chopp remembered 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'," Ms Chopp said.
After a stunned silence, Eiesland accepted the challenge as fodder for a master's thesis, which evolved into The Disabled God. She earned her master's degree in 1991 and her PhD in 1995, both from Emory.
As she strove to define new religious symbols, Eiesland's metaphors were startlingly incisive. She envisioned God puttering about in a "puff" wheelchair, the kind quadriplegics drive with their breath.
Nancy Eiesland is survived by her husband, their daughter, her parents, two brothers and two sisters.
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