“Agency”

There are many ways to examine this passage. Today we are doing some exegesis from the point of view of the marginalized. Many people see this healing tale as a more progressive way to look at disability and in some ways it is. While in others it is not.

The question I want you to examine when you study this passage is who has agency? Who has power? To be completely honest this passage is a mixed bag for those with disabilities. Let us start at the beginning: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” This was a common question to ask in Biblical times. This man was blind, he was different, he was other, he was set apart from society, a beggar on the streets. Of course, all these things would be equated with sin. The question was whose sin, the man’s or his parent’s.

Now, before we get to Jesus’s answer, let’s jump ahead to today. Most people today do not go around outright equating disability with sin, but the questions asked are no less rude, intrusive and deeply inappropriate. The most common one is “What’s wrong with you?” Notice the question is not what happened, or why are you this way but “what’s wrong with you? Why are you defective?”

I read an article by a disabled person who said his go-to response to that question became. “Nothing’s wrong with me, by the way, how’s your sex life?” At first that may seem like an odd response, but his point was if you get to ask me something so deeply personal, I get to ask an intimate and inappropriate question in return.

Common sense would ask why you are asking disabled people these questions, especially when you have just met them. The answer has to do with agency. When you have a disability, you are not often given agency, you must take it. Able-bodied adults ask these types of questions (children are another story; they get a pass) because deep in the able-bodied adults’ subconscious they think they have a right to know everything about the disabled person because they are in a position of power and in asking these questions they are assuming that they have the agency in the situation. Often it is not done out of malice but out of fear. If the able-bodied person can get to the root cause of the disability they feel that they can prevent it from happening to them.

Now, while Jesus’s answer deviates from the “disability equals sin” model—a point in this passage’s favor—it’s still not all that helpful. Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned . . . but this happened so that the works of God might be revealed in him.” Now, at least, we have a direct quote from Jesus saying disability doesn’t equal sin. On the other hand, making someone disabled to show God’s power is a complex answer that doesn’t leave room for agency for the person with a disability. It also makes God the cause of some suffering—and we know that only good comes from God. God is with us in our suffering but doesn’t cause our suffering.

In the next line Jesus meets the blind man and puts mud and spit on his eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool. The man does this and is cured. His blindness goes away. Of course, he goes and washes in the pool. If someone puts mud and spit in my eyes the first thing I’m going to do is wash them out. Notice, unlike in most of the healing stories, the man does not ask to be cured. Jesus, like many people today, assumes that the man would be better off sighted. Non-disabled people assume that disabled people would be better off without their disability. Being disabled is often seen as a tragic existence. I’m not going to lie; in some cases it’s true. I would be better off without my debilitating pain. On the other hand I wouldn’t change my height for anything. It’s all a matter of perspective. I’m not accusing Jesus of ableism. I’m accusing the biblical writers and interpreters.

As we begin the passage the man has no agency. As the story progresses so does his agency. When asked if he was the blind beggar, he replies yes but his neighbors don’t believe him. The religious folks don’t believe him either. They even go so far as to ask his parents whether he was born blind, and how he now has come to see. These two things are also familiar to me as a disabled person. Often my authority or experience are overlooked and questioned based on my disability status. One example is knowing more about my medical conditions, and still not being listened to at the doctor. It also occurs when people talk to my companions instead of me and thus infantilizing me.

So I listed mostly negative points with this passage, and overall there are quite a few of them. But there is a turning point here: when the pharisees ask the man’s parent’s if he was blind and how is it that he now sees, their response is thus: “We know he is our son and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” The line right after says the reason his parents said this was because they were afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue by the pharisees. But what if there was another reason? What if his parents were trying to give him agency? I can’t count the number of times my parents, my friends, or my colleagues have had to say the same thing. One day I was at the grocery store with my boyfriend and this lady asked him how old I was. He replied, she’s an adult ask her yourself. He must have repeated that five times. He was trying to give me agency. Unfortunately, like the pharisees, she would only hear what fit her narrative of who or what I was instead of the truth. She saw me as a child or as cognitively impaired and nothing could change her mind. From here on out the man born blind speaks with more agency and even a bit of sass. His reply to their continued pestering is: “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Clearly the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with Jesus, so this reply was like a slap in their faces. His final response to them is to stand both for himself and Jesus. The man answers, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

This would be a good place to end the passage, but unfortunately, the writers tack on a bit more. The response of the Pharisees is to hurl insults at the man and to reinforce the “disability equals sin” motif. They answer him, “You were born entirely in sin, and are you are trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

The final section of John 9 focus on using physical blindness as a metaphor for spiritual blindness. This is a common metaphor still and it’s problematic because it equates a physical condition that one has no control over with a sinful act. It’s also uncreative and, again, it takes away agency. This time it also takes away the responsibility of those who refuse to see versus those who are unable to see.

God gives everyone agency and free will, why should that not extend to those with disabilities or mental health issues? When you leave here today grab hold of your agency and make sure not to steal someone else’s. If you see someone taking someone else’s agency call that person out. Do your best to educate yourself, instead of accosting someone who is different to get answers. If the situation calls for it, help others to grab hold of their agency too. Do all this in Christ’s name. Amen.