On disability and the laying-on of unwanted hands

A black and white picture of a group of white men laying their hands on the head of a white woman or girl who is wearing a vertically striped dress and facing away from the camera. A man in the right of the picture is holding an acoustic guitar.
A “laying-on of hands” in a Pentecostal church in Kentucky, 1946

I saw this article by Damon Rose, whose podcast (I think before the term was invented) BlindKiss I used to listen to back in the early 2000s, about disability and the urge of some religious people, particularly Christians, to ‘heal’ them when they are going about their business is a common annoyance for many disabled people, seemingly regardless of impairment as long as it is visible, such as anything requiring wheelchair use, blindness (in Damon’s case) or a visible skin condition as the Australian activist Carly Findlay has written about from time to time. He mentions a story told by an Anglican vicar who is a wheelchair user, who has had similar encounters with parishioners who expected to be able to heal her:

Reverend Zoe Hemming, vicar of St Andrews Church in the village of Aston in Shropshire, is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”

The reason being, of course, that in the Bible Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) cured many sick or disabled people and in one case brought a man, Lazarus, back from the dead, and commanded his disciples to do the same. Damon Rose talked to Lyndall Bywater, “a Christian who writes and teaches about prayer and is herself blind”, who puts it in a context in which being disabled meant being unemployable and poor and in some cases barred from worshipping at the temple. She believes that if Jesus was preaching now, he would not regard disabled people as needing pity or instant cures as they did at that time.

As a Muslim I have an alternative explanation: these were miracles intended to prove Jesus’ authority as a prophet and Messiah. They were also examples of karama, or manifestations of God’s grace at the hands of a holy man. If Jesus (peace be upon him) told his disciples that they might do the same, this applied to them alone, not to any Christian at any time. We do not believe that Jesus healed the sick or brought back a dead man to life: Almighty God did. He does this at the hands of His prophets in order to prove that they are genuine and to strengthen the faith of believers. On other occasions, people are not simply healed in an instant at the hands of prophets. There is a story involving the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that a woman came to him asking him to pray that she be healed of her seizures, which were causing her to become uncovered. The Prophet offered to pray for her healing, but offered her a promise of Paradise if she would endure them. She agreed to do so but asked that he pray that she not become uncovered, which he did. These conditions are not curses but tests; if we are patient in the face of them and maintain our faith, we are promised a great reward in the Hereafter. And throughout the history of Islam, there have been many blind people who have been greatly valued as scholars, including a few who are numbered among the great imams known as renewers.

I was brought up Catholic and also attended Anglican church services as a child. I do not remember ever being told that I could perform miracles if only I believed enough, or if only the person I met did. The Christians who behave in this way are often “low church”, members of charismatic or ‘Evangelical’ churches. All too often, the people they insist on trying to heal were not looking to be healed that day; they were going about their business when someone got in their face, and when they were understandably annoyed at being disturbed by a total stranger, the stranger called them ungrateful or faulted their lack of faith. Church leaders really should be telling their flocks that they should not be annoying disabled people in this way and that if they want to pray, they can do so quietly anywhere, because God can see and hear them, and pray for people who are obviously suffering or want prayers, and if it’s someone who is getting on fine, then pray for their general betterment and not for an undesired ‘healing’ of an impairment they may have come to accept.

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