Stephen D’Evelyn On Paralysis: Jesus touched the man

Today’s Pray as You Go podcast featured the account of the paralytic man whom Jesus raised after the religious authorities questioned whether he could forgive sins. The podcast reflected on forgiveness, guilt, and paralysis. One may hear much of religion’s imposition of false guilt or of a particular religion’s or within christianity a particular church’s tendencies concerning controllign behaviour and people’s emotions.
This Bible reading also describes an encounter between Christ and a disabled person. As often when I come across these accounts, today I wondered about why Jesus healed the man. Disability rights campaigners–and there is much here that is central to Christianity, I think–argue for the infiite value of the individual person, to echo Rowan Williams, in their particularlity. So it might seem that healing was merely homogenizing that paritcularity.

But perhaps the particular nature of paralyusis warrants attention. The podcast made what seemed a glib analogy between paralysis and feeling paralysed. This indeed may well downplay the real physical suffering of a person who cannot move easily or the injustice that prevents her from accessing society on equal terms and participating in culture fully.

I am not paralysed and would not want to presume to speak for anyone who has been or is paralysed. Yet reading — or rather listening to– the opening pages of William Desmond’s book Desire, Dialectic, and Otherness: An Essay on Origins (Second Edition), I cam e across a passage that seemed to open up a valuable perspective:

‘Though we have been saturated with suspicion since Hegel, we are not condemned to a paralysis of silence forever.’ (Kindle location 54)

Perhaps paralysis is a matter of being silenced. Here Desmond’s passage hints at the socail model of disability–the paralysis of silence shurts a person off from communication, communion.

When we feel we have been prevented from doing things, we naturally feel suspicious. The dis-abling power of society can be a matter of soaking us in suspicion. We thus find it hard to open ourselves up or give ourselves wholly. Yet Desmond’s thought implies that we may still overcome those boundaries and walls that have appeared and keep changing like the near-invisible glass doors on a new biological sciences building I visited recently with another visually impaired staff member at the university. There are ways to find a voice, and not just ‘my’ voice or ‘our’ voice, but all manner of voices whom we join. Our suspicion gives us an edge but need not define the contours of what we are.

Paralysis creates community in the touch that melts a stare that would possess or belittle or a shout that would intimidate. Touch dissolves distance between us as individuals but also between us as selves determined to overcome barriers and the generous energy that enlivens the world.

As he comes to the paralysed man, Jesus is beyond divisions and barriers, among the crowds, at street level, not at a distance or above everyone. The paralysed man is being carried–necessarily–and in a way is like an object. Yet Jesus down there among all the people specifically addresses this man. How many times have we had an able-bodied person talk past us to those with us — does want anything? Jesus does not do that but reaches out specifically and as an equal with the paralysed man, addressing him and granting him recognition and dignity.

As we come to each other in states of mindful disability, we find ourselves as not alone and as newly aware -not just aware but connected, sensing and sensed, seeing and visible to the great ever-changing diversity of the world alive. And the world may just find itself sitting there beside us.

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