Talking about eunuchs in the classroom can be awkward. I can still vividly recall the very first course I ever taught and the student in that course who raised her hand to ask innocently, “This Bible verse says something about eunuchs. What’s a eunuch?” As a brand new teacher, I fumbled my response quite badly and embarrassed us all in the process!
Since that day, though, I have come to a newfound appreciation for the eunuchs of the Bible for the ways in which they can shed light on God’s vision of radical inclusion for people with disabilities. Thus, in the second part of this series exploring how to move beyond the ableism that often pervades our culture and our institutions, I suggest that the eunuchs of the Bible might offer Christian educators a helpful starting place for recognizing and celebrating the students with disabilities whom we serve.
Perhaps one of my favorite visions of inclusion in the Bible is the prophetic vision in Isaiah 56:1-8. In this text, the prophet imagines the gathering of “all peoples” on God’s “holy mountain” (Isa. 56:7). Specifically, the prophet declares:
Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3b-5, NRSVUE)
In other words, for these figures who could have no hope of propagating a family line of descendants, the divine voice promises that such eunuchs would be memorialized forever.
On its own, this inclusion of eunuchs is admirable. However, when read in light of the larger scriptural witness, it is even more incredible. In Deuteronomy 23:1-6, the Deuteronomic law stipulates what sort of individuals are to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord. At the top of this list in 23:1 is anyone with abnormal genitalia. (The verse itself is a bit more graphic than what many e-mail filters might permit me to reproduce here. I encourage you to look it up for yourself!) However, these very individuals who are explicitly excluded in Deuteronomy 23 are very specifically included here in Isaiah 56. In other words, a bodily difference that once warranted shunning is now recognized and celebrated as a part of this prophetic vision of flourishing.
Isaiah 56’s model of recognizing and celebrating disability is one that might inspire our own recognition and celebration of the diversity of our students with disabilities. As I suggested in Part 1 of this series, Christian higher education would benefit from adopting a cultural model of disability that recognizes that it is our broken and fallen cultural constructions of who gets to count as “normal” that needs to be healed, not individuals who already reflect the imago Dei. In Isaiah 56, the eunuchs are not first “healed” or “repaired” before they are welcome in God’s house. Rather, the house becomes a place where cultural expectations are redefined. Eunuchs, once excluded and disabled by their societies and cultures, are now accepted as whole and important within God’s reign. Culture itself is redefined.
The example of radical inclusion in Isaiah 56 paired with a cultural model of disability offers an inspiring model for Christian educators who are seeking to recognize and celebrate students with disabilities. Read from the perspective of a cultural model of disability, Isaiah 56 might suggest that Christian educators are uniquely positioned to draw upon their faith tradition in order to celebrate disability.
There are manifold implications for adopting such a view of disability. First, this approach might mean that Christian educators carefully interrogate their use of language and assumptions that prioritize ableist perspectives. For example, as I shared in Part 1, my use of “look” and “see” language when speaking with a blind student revealed my own privileging of visual acuity over the unique gifts of this student who could read in a way that was entirely foreign to me as a non-Braille reader. Adopting a cultural model of disability that takes its cues from Isaiah 56 means that as a Christian educator, I can better instantiate God’s vision of inclusion by working to eliminate the unconscious ableism that pervades my language.
Beyond that, Christian educators can also find ways of recognizing and celebrating students with disabilities by examining our curricula for ways in which we might better incorporate the voices of disabled scholars. By normalizing the research of disabled experts in our respective fields, we can redefine the broken and fallen culture of normalcy that may otherwise default to ableist assumptions.
Finally, might be able to recognize and celebrate disability by pointing students to Christ’s own example. That is, as we point to the Savior who practiced a radical inclusion of disabled individuals and normalized a wide range of human bodies, we are able to invite our students to recognize their own bodies, whether disabled or not, as bodies that are beloved by Christ.
Thus, Christian educators are in a unique position to be able to recognize and celebrate wide ranges of human difference as it relates to disability. By adopting a cultural model of disability that recognizes it as a cultural construct rather than as an individual failing and by taking our cues from the biblical text, we are empowered to move beyond the ableism of a broken culture around us and begin to embody the vision of full human flourishing and inclusion as it emerges in Isaiah 56.