Disability Devotional: Violet Ricker & Isabella Novsima

 McCormick offered a new course this J-Term, giving students the opportunity to study ancient healthcare policy, contemporary interpretations of the healing miracles, and Christian understandings of health and ability. In “Disease and Disability in the Bible,” students discussed the power dynamics of who determines “the other,” who chooses what is considered “sick,” and the ways in which Jesus radically included all people.   Students Violet Ricker and Isabella Novsima were inspired by the class to further the conversation around disability and faith through a Lenten devotional series.

Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac — So many problems with this portrayal

Violet: As a first year student interested in the church’s role in advocating for improved mental healthcare, I wrote my final paper on the existence of demons, their potential ability to control a person, and how communities and Jesus reacted.  Previously, when the topic of demons came up, I used the argument that ancient understandings of health were so limited that there could be any number of practical explanations for the conditions of these so-called “demon-possessed” people Jesus is said to have physically healed.  However, I realized in this course that my argument faltered when it came to my views on mental illness and the now-popular theory that demon-possession in the Bible refers to our modern understanding of mental illness. The danger in believing mental illness can only be cured with an exorcism or some other form of miraculous healing has proven dangerous and in some cases fatal when people have attempted to “throw out demons” as Jesus did, rather than working within medical systems and with trained psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists.  

Secondly, this concept is problematic because it holds that a mental illness, defined by NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] as “a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect their ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis,” is actually itself a demon and understood theologically to be evil rather than neutral. Let me state it clearly: mental illness is not a demon, is not the result of sin, and is not the result of a lack of faith.  Mental illnesses are natural, treatable, and best managed in the loving support of a community.  

When we read the demon-exorcism miracles as part of Jesus’ radical ministry of welcoming all people, especially those who have been marginalized and oppressed by those in the power structure, we can look for a deeper understanding of what Jesus and the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke may have considered to be a demon or evil.  If demons don’t manifest as mental illness, what form do they take?  I think the real demons are stigma, marginalization and exclusion.  My [Violet] paper argued that Jesus’ exorcisms (in addition to whatever else they may have been) are calls for us to fully include all people regardless of any physical or mental condition they experience.  In Jesus, there is no stigma.  

Isabella: Did people with intellectual disability exist in Biblical Times? This is a rhetorical question because of course they did. Regardless of the different terms and understandings used at that time, people with intellectual disability lived in the ancient world. However, their existence is not explicitly mentioned and is deemed as insignificant in ancient texts in general, and Biblical texts in particular. Most of the time, people with disabilities are mentioned as part of a grand narrative with a specific purpose, and that purpose does not serve disability as a major issue.

In our modern context, diverse terms are used to classify and label people with this particular condition, such as folly, idiot, feeble-minded, people with learning disability, people with mental retardation, and people with intellectual disability. Even though some of these terms are politically incorrect, all of this terms have been employed to stigmatize people with intellectual disabilities. Even today, people with intellectual disabilities are not “present” in our lives, because the narrative almost never been counted as part of the community, and the stigmas attached to their conditions create many labels that unconsciously exclude them from our communities.

Empty wheelchair on cliff edge, desert

Isabella & Violet: With these ideas in mind, we’re excited to introduce this devotional series on the theme of God’s radical welcome, specifically around people or people groups who have been excluded or marginalized in some way (perhaps based on a physical or mental condition). We look forward to learning from the McCormick community during this season of Lent, and contemplating what it means for us to throw out the demons of stigma, marginalization, and otherness. At the same time, we contemplate the meaning of Lent through the simplicity taught by people with intellectual disability.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community wrote, “Martin Luther King said that people cannot stop despising others-as well as other groups of people-unless they begin to accept what is despicable in themselves. What is it that we all despise in ourselves? Isn’t it our radical poverty, our utter helplessness in many situations, our need of others, our mortality, and our capacity to hurt others? I cannot say that I have accepted all that is despicable in me, but I am more aware of my need for transformation.” May this season of Lent transform us.

Violet Ricker
Isabella Novsima

Isabella Novsima is a second-year Masters of Theological Studies student at McCormick.  Her particular academic interests revolve around disability studies and liberation theologies.  Violet Ricker is a first-year Masters of Divinity student at McCormick, and the leader of its National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter.  Both students are actively involved in the organizing of McCormick’s Mental Health & Advocacy Conference in April.