I suffer from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic disease which affects the spine. In my case, bony outgrowths extended outwards from the edges of the spinal joints and eventually bridged across from one joint to the next. My vertebrae are fused together at the top of spine, so while a normal back is S-shaped, mine is fused like a question mark.
So I am a hunchback, with such characters for company as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor, and Shakespeare’s character King Richard III, who described himself in words I echo:
“I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
and that so lamely and unfashionable
that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”
I don’t hear many dogs barking, but I do hear insults shouted from passing cars. It is always a temptation to lash out at the world as Richard, who is “determined to prove a villain,” does.
I am also ordained to ministry, although Leviticus 21:18-23 states that no one who has an imperfection may serve in God’s sanctuary, including anyone who is a hunchback. People have reminded me of this verse in the past, even though this whole part of Leviticus is tied to ideas of purity and impurity that no longer hold.
Other, kinder, folk have asked me if I find inspiration in the story of Jesus healing the woman who was bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). I do, although I confess that when first struck with this disease I wondered why Jesus couldn’t heal me too. But the key biblical image for me is John 9, Jesus healing a blind man. Jesus and his followers see the man, and they ask him, “Who sinned that he was born blind, him or his parents?” This idea of disability of punishment for sin was common in biblical times, and it remains today. I’ve heard it applied to me, and recently read on Twitter how God punishes women who have abortions by causing children to be born with disabilities.
But Jesus tells his followers that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned. I find myself returning to the start of this chapter in John, to read again how Jesus breaks this link between sin and disability, and then brings a person with a disability into full participation in the community.
Jesus also says in this passage, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in (this man).” I wonder about this. If I don’t believe that God inflicts disability as punishment, could God still cause disability as part of the divine plan? I suppose God could. But perhaps God uses disability that results from genetics or accidents for God’s purposes, so that somehow the power and love of God can be shown. I hope that’s the case for me, “that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass.”