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Elizabeth Browne

Challenging Biblical Stereotypes of the Blind
by Elizabeth J. Browne

From the Editor: Dr. Elizabeth Browne is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois and a frequent contributor to these pages. As a professor of theology she recently wrote a book that grapples with the Biblical portrayal of blindness. This is what she says about the project:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves that we are underlings.

Julius Caesar, Act I

Biblical representations of the blind have often caused unChristian rumblings in my very soul. How often have I sat, shrinking with embarrassment and, I confess, a little anger, as the sacred words are loudly proclaimed from the pulpit for all God's children to hear?

How often have I prayed for invisibility or for some kindly spirit to whisk me away from those accusing stares I felt were fixed in my direction? I could imagine people thinking, "If she really believed, she could see, too!"

How often Bible passages relate tales of blind beggars, not employed, not even in ancient sheltered shops, but right out there on the public roads, begging, shouting, pleading, abused, pathetic examples which caused me to question the significance of these embarrassing stories. We know them too well, and I imagine that many of you have also flushed with embarrassment at the stereotype presented throughout the scripture passages for all pious people to hear and to believe.

There is Bartimeus, the beggar, shouting out from his vantage point at the side of the road, "Domine ut videam!" "Lord, that I may see!" as the onlookers tried in vain to shut him up. I want to shut him up too, but I know that, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars," nor in the Bible, but in ourselves that we put up with this sacred stereotype.

Do not misunderstand me. I am deeply committed to my Christian faith, a believing churchgoer, and now proud to be a teacher of theology at Loyola University in Chicago.

Never suppose that these biblical stereotypes are dead, not even for a moment. They are very much alive and active in both religious and secular societies today. But how to deal with them? How best to confront these biblical words, these pathetic stories, and give them the true significance I know they contain? In order to bring some semblance of truth into the well-established folklore about blind people, I determined to take a serious look at the words of sacred scripture in order to evaluate its message objectively, with reverence, of course, but bringing to bear my own and others' experience and wisdom.

Remember the story in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, about the man born blind?

As the disciples walked along with Jesus, they passed by a blind man (begging, of course) and asked, "Who has sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?"

My own parents had to endure the silent condemnation of relatives and neighbors when I lost my sight, and I am sure those who condemned them were sure that their judgment of my parents had a solid Biblical foundation.

So when I began graduate studies in theology, I began seriously studying and reflecting on sacred scripture. I encountered the harsh words of the book of Leviticus:

Aaron, none of your descendants throughout their generation who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face, or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scab or crushed testicles; no man of the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord's offering by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. (Lev. 21:16-21)

These words of the Bible said clearly that certain individuals should not even approach to offer worship. And, shockingly enough, this admonition has been the guiding spirit of religion as well as society (from that ancient, primitive law even unto our own modern times) and was not removed from the Canon Law of the Roman Church until 1983. Note, removed, but never recanted.

This opening salvo almost caused me to stagger back in disgust at this Biblical proscription. Where do I go now, I thought, as I tried to make sense of what I was doing in graduate theological studies. This is not for the likes of me, nor for any other like me with various taint or blemish.

Everyone from time to time feels that God is not listening, is turning away, but that is just our momentary feeling and nothing more. God does not regard blind people or women or any other marginalized person with disdain. I knew this, and a poem of John Donne seemed to say it for me.

Though thou with clouds of anger do disguise Thy face; yet through that mask I know those eyes, Which though they turn away sometimes Never will despise.

Enough! I must now begin to dig, to research, to analyze, and to reflect. My question became, "If persons are blemished in any way, are they automatically, spiritually, theologically excluded from religious consideration? That seems to be the resounding opinion of all those people in all those churches who fix their piercing gazes on the blind who sit, squirming, in their midst.

If she really believed, really had faith, she could see.

The unspoken words—and accusations—that resound loudly in our souls are that we must not have real faith, a really strong enough belief to allow the saving grace to flood into our blemished natures and bring back sight, which would make us truly children of a good and all perfect creator.

Inwardly, I thought, "Nonsense." Maybe all those people from countless congregations that listened to the same stories were inwardly convinced that, if only I had faith, if only I really believed, I too would be cured. I began to question inwardly, "Just what do they mean `cured'?" Whatever they thought, I was determined to ferret it out and forever silence its ugly message.

Eventually I would become a teacher of theology and be able to take the time to explore Biblical sources, the time to analyze their essential meaning, in order to determine their foundation and basic significance, both theologically and sociologically.

In my class I necessarily assign the entire Scriptures as a required text; however, using this text, I have come to grips with the embarrassing, negative, and unacceptable attitude toward the disabled, toward women, toward foreigners, and others which permeate both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Just how does one explain these biblical images which are so offensive to us? Just where did all this come from, and why have these negative stereotypes persisted throughout religious and secular societies, unquestioned, unexamined?

Too many outsiders have tackled this problem for us but have only added to the persistent false stereotype of blind people. Books and plays and movies and articles have presumed to explain just who we are, so now I decided that it was my turn to consider the place of the blind in the Bible and in society.

Basically, the quest came down to this ultimate question: Is blindness in the Bible a theological question or a sociological one? If theological, then we are indeed consigned to a lesser status; we are not fully children of a loving God. We are imperfect creatures and cannot reflect God's perfection. But, if these passages are sociological, cultural, then we can explain them in light of the primitive eras in which they were written. They can then be perceived to be as outdated as slavery, as unlawful as child labor, as simplistic as the beliefs in the flat earth theory of an unenlightened era.

This is the quest I undertook, and this quest would eventually lead me to the writing of a book, The Disabled Disciple, the fruit of my serious questioning about the place of blindness in the Bible; in religion; and, ultimately, in society. In my book I begin to develop a new and different understanding of blindness—on the model of liberation theology, which by its very essence confronts and then seeks to overturn structures that are antiquated, destructive, and false.

Of course, as members of the National Federation of the Blind, we are familiar with such confrontational tactics and would easily understand my forthright approach to this subject. Now, since nobody on the staff of the Braille Monitor is clamoring to review my book or, perhaps, because they have not yet heard of its existence, I thought I would write my own announcement of its publication, hoping to be as objective as possible, so that I might inform fellow members just what I have done and, more important, why I have done it.

My approach to this important question is, of course, far different from the proliferation of books concerned with the inclusion of the marginalized in all areas of society. It flows from the experience and expertise of someone who is actively working to live and to achieve true inclusion in every area of life, not merely the religious.

In my book I look at the origin of the stereotype of the blind from earliest time, from the words of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures to the role of blind beggars in the New Testament, as well as public statements of the Roman Catholic Church, its law, and its persistent false stereotype of blind people. I also consider many aspects of the secular laws and what effect all these have had on the status of blind people today.

In the end I can only conclude that attitudes about blindness, in the Bible as well as in religious tradition, are not theological but sociological phenomena. This is an essential distinction which must never be overlooked. This is the solid foundation of a true understanding and appreciation of what blindness truly is and the goal toward which we should all continue to work. The publication of my book has been announced on the Worldwide Web, and several reviews have declared The Disabled Disciple: Ministering in a Church Without Barriers by Dr. Elizabeth Browne a "must read: for anyone interested in a theology of inclusion"; "the work has more than disinterested validity; it brings a personal knowledge and concern to this important discussion. [The author] brings to the subject a lifetime of personal experience, dedication, and involvement to this essential goal of mainstreaming, socially, academically, and religiously throughout her life."

Published in March, 1997, by Ligouri Press, The Disabled Disciple has 123 pages, eight chapters, a reader's postscript, an appendix, guidelines, excerpts of documents, including laws, and much more. It is obtainable by requesting it from your local religious or secular book store, or from Ligouri Publications, (800) 325-9521, for $12.95. It will also soon be available from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. I hope that those who read it will give me their honest opinion.

This is what I have done, and if the muse and my publisher continue to look favorably upon my humble efforts, I shall continue to pursue them in the near future. Until then, remember:

The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars (or in the Bible), but in ourselves if we are underlings.