Disability Conference part 2

Some more ideas coming out of the disability conference that I was at last week. If this doesn’t make any sense, then you may want to read the other blog entry relating to this conference, or drop me an email.
Today I am writing about theology, disability and Bible translation. These thoughts are being developed out of an exposition of the encounter between Jesus and the disabled woman in Luke 13 which was probably the best session of the entire conference. It was given by a Brazilian woman, Iara, who is a pastor, a gifted speaker, an insightful theologian, and has a physical disability.

Iara brought a totally fresh perspective to the text, my inadequate summary goes like this: She started by painting the context from the perspective of the woman, who probably had a form of scoliosis, which generally starts at about age 12, i.e. also around the time that a Jewish girl would have been preparing for marriage. So this girl probably couldn’t have married. Marriage signified status, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; but instead she becomes an outcast, with no status; in the narrative she is not even given a name, identified only by her disability. Contrast this with the moment where Jesus calls her a “daughter of Abraham”, making her the only woman in the Bible who is given this title. To be a daughter of Abraham signifies belonging, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; a restoration of all that she has lost, and inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

Listening to Iara reminded me of a quote from Martin Goldsmith at All Nations College. He said “It’s not that our theology is insular in any way, it’s just that the only theologians we study are Westerners…” To which we might add white, middle class, middle aged, non-disabled, male… The Bible is so rich with different characters, voices, and perspectives, how much richer our experience of studying it becomes when we can hear from those voices and perspectives, rather than the familiar homogenous approaches of always.

Anyway, from here, we found ourselves dealing with technical issues. In the translations we were using, disability is conflated with sickness, both in the text, and in the title added by the editor. The conference therefore decided to write a letter to the Bible Society on this point, which I don’t agree with. The reason why I don’t agree is that this letter is a reaction to one passage with one editorial problem. They have not asked themselves whether there are related issues to be addressed throughout the Bible, and what really needs to be done about this. This means that over time, they are likely to find themselves re-sending this letter each time they find an unhelpful piece of editing, and over time they will probably see some similarity in the responses they receive… “Your comments have been noted”, code for “and we plan to take no action whatsoever”. I think in their rush to say something/anything, this conference has missed a real opportunity to have an impact, to become comprehensively involved in making disabled voices heard throughout the wider processes of translation and editorial of the Bible.

Bible translating and editorial are the subject of much scholarly debate, and I’m not about to add very much to that here, but I’m pulling out the issues which I see as being specifically related to disability.

On editorial. As an oversimplification, editorial additions such as titles, are outside the text of the Bible, and therefore an editor has freedom to say what they want. Obviously it helps if titles added by the editor have some relation to the content, although this is not always the case! Where an added title uses unhelpful terminology, this could be due to the version being outdated, where language has changed over time, (this highlights the need to be producing new translations to take account of evolving language). Or it could be due to the editor not being aware of the issues, and thus in need of some education or access to a team of consultants. An example of this is in Marks gospel, chapter 2, where the story of the disabled guy being lowered through the roof is given the added title “Jesus heals the paralytic” even in most modern versions in both English and Spanish. People who are older than I am might remember a time when “paralytic” was a helpful term to describe someone with a spinal injury, I don’t remember that ever being the case. In fact we have a friend in the UK, who happens to be a wheelchair user, who the first time she read the story in Mark 2, honestly believed that it was referring to a drunk, because she and I have never used the word “paralytic” to mean anything other than “eight pints too many”.

On translation, as another oversimplification, translators have less freedom than editors. The job of the translator is to act as a bridge, to be accurate to the ancient text, and to render it into language which is clearly understood by the contemporary reader. SIL (Wycliffe Bible Translators) say that:

The ideal translation should be…

  • Accurate: reproducing as exactly as possible the meaning of the source text.
  • Natural: using natural forms of the receptor language in a way that is appropriate to the kind of text being translated.
  • Communicative: expressing all aspects of the meaning in a way that is readily understandable to the intended audience.

Going back to the guy in Mark 2, he is referred to as “the paralytic” within the body of the text as well as the title. When I pointed this out, I was reminded that it is more complex to change the text than the title as we have to be true to the original documents. I totally agree, and my knowledge of Greek is pretty limited, so I would need help to figure this out. We need to look both at the Greek, and at the social context of the time. If the word in the original was also outdated, inaccurate, and offensive to its audience of New Testament times, then “paralytic” is exactly how it should be translated in order to preserve the same impact. If however, it was merely a neutral term used to describe the guy as having a spinal injury, then “paralytic” would be the wrong word, an inaccurate translation because it is negatively loaded in a way that the original text is not.

Now I’m about to get into a philosophical area that I don’t know anything about, so please read this next bit as a question which I would like to dialogue on rather than a fully formed opinion… I am wondering about the interface between the text and the translator, and how they impact on one another. The reason why I am wondering this is because in the Bible, Jesus goes out of his way to include the excluded, and he reserves his harshest criticisms for the establishment and hierarchy. For someone to have done enough studying to make a contribution to translating the Bible, it would seem to me that even if they started life in an “excluded” group, the process of attaining that level of study signifies becoming assimilated into the establishment and hierarchy (this is as much the case here as in the UK, especially since Latin Americans will often do their doctorates in “the West”). Hence, I am caused to wonder how far Bible translators are really able to identify with Jesus in being a voice for including the excluded, and therefore what impact this has on the translations which we hold in our hands today.

All of which leads me back to the point that I made in the first place, which is that we need to be hearing from the full richness of the voices in our midst; in theology, in translation, in all aspects of church and mission, and until we find ways to do that, we will continue to confine ourselves to an impoverished gospel.

Disability Conference

This week I was at a continent-wide conference on disability organised by EDAN, who are an ecumenical network. I think they’re something to do with the world council of churches. There were about forty people there, from around the continent. That tells me two things. One, disability is an under-thought-about area here. Two, like most conferences, this one suffered from an over-inflated sense of its own importance.
There were some great people there, it was fantastic to see some of the work happening in Cuba particularly, which seems like it’s a million years ahead of most of the rest of the world in this aspect. In fact the best thing about this conference was being with disabled people, and hearing from disabled people in leadership, particularly disabled women in leadership.

The question that I didn’t manage to answer at any stage was “what are we here for?” For example, we spent quite a lot of time formulating, and arguing about the semantics of various “statements” of belief and intent. I wonder what the ratio will be of the person-hours that went into those documents, to the person-hours that will read them in the future. I also wondered what relationship this conference has to our day to day lives. How does the fact that I was here this week impact on me or anyone else at 4.30 next Monday, or 11.30 next Thursday? I think that’s probably my general feeling about conferences; we’re so hooked into acting as though our little gathering was of global importance, that we end up not having the impact that we could have had if we’d had a more realistic appraisal of our sphere of influence. The irony is that if we weren’t so busy acting as though we can change the world, then we might actually be able to change the world.

I’m currently mulling around lots of thoughts and ideas, so I guess that’s what I was doing there, whatever else was supposed to be the official purpose. These are some of the things that I am thinking about… they’re not very developed yet, which is why this is on the blog rather than an article on the website. I’ll probably turn it into an article at some stage, particularly because I’m about to write a lot of stuff in English, which will exclude many people from reading it, who ought to be given the right to respond. Our plan in the medium term is to have our website available Spanish to make it more accessible to our friends and colleagues here.

  1. The introductory session was about violence and disability in the bible. It was a solidly developed overview, I appreciated it very much. We took a wide definition of violence, defining exclusion, making people invisible, not allowing people to speak for themselves, acting as though people didn’t exist, as acts of violence. I kept coming back to these points during the conference, especially because I was rather concerned that people with learning disabilities were notable by their absence. Not only were they not there, but they were also rarely mentioned; at one point we were given statistics, divided into people who are blind /deaf / with motor disabilities. I expect that people with learning disabilities weren’t barred from coming, but they hadn’t been invited, and they weren’t there, even in the statistics, and their voices weren’t heard. This is the same in the UK, people with learning disabilities find themselves excluded both from the “mainstream” of society, and from the very organisations which claim to be a voice for inclusion. By its own definitions, this conference was committing an act of violence in acting as though a group of people didn’t exist. That the conference itself didn’t spot this I suspect is related to the stereotype that violence is only really violence if it is committed by white on black, man on woman, or non-disabled on disabled person.
  2. In the same session, we made the point that when we say we are working for inclusion in one context, if we are not prepared to admit it in other contexts for fear of what the “rest” might think of us, then we are committing an act of betrayal, which is another example of violence. I was jolted back to this point on the final day, when another of the missionaries present stated that although they agreed we should use gender inclusive language of “people” rather than “men” to talk about pastors, they still used the word “men” in their newsletter “because of the circles that we move in”. I’m trying to see both sides of this. It might be a supreme act of irony that their supporters are unknowingly supporting an inclusion that they would not believe in. It might be a pragmatic approach for a greater good, as in Rahab shielding the Israelites (Joshua 2). But in the context of our opening session, it feels quite a lot like a travesty, an act of violence, a betrayal of women everywhere, of women leaders in particular, and especially of the two disabled women pastors who were there at this conference, by rendering them nameless, invisible, pretending that they don’t exist.
  3. In the middle of what was otherwise a good lecture, the speaker (non-disabled) stated that “the purpose of disabled people is to test the faith and the humanity of the Christian community”. If the speaker had been a disabled person, I wonder if they would have posed the question as to why non-disabled people exist, and what answer would they have come up with? Despite all our professions of equality, it seems like the conference still wanted to embrace some hierarchy; the purpose of non-disabled people is to be conformed to the image of God, the purpose of disabled people is to test how far the rest of us are conformed to the image of God.
  4. One encouraging moment was a presentation on developments in Cuba. In particular I was struck by a photograph taken at a conference of disabled people in leadership. The thing that struck me most was the number of people in that photograph – a good thirty or forty people, with disabilities, in Christian leadership. If that conference had taken place in the UK it could have been held in a phone-box, with space to spare. In fact it could have shared the same phone box with a parallel conference for women leaders in mission, and still had space left over, but don’t get me going on that one. Unfortunately, the situation in Argentina, and I guess most of Latin America, isn’t as forward thinking as Cuba. One of the things that I learnt this week is that there really is almost nothing happening here in Cordoba. I thought that I just hadn’t yet met the right people, but from what I have found out this week, in this city of a million people, there actually isn’t anyone to meet. I am trying to see ways forward, and to experience this as an opportunity rather than a problem, but if I’m honest my first reaction is “here I am Lord; send someone else….”


We had a very positive checkup at the Hospital Privado yesterday. Doctor Campos was pleased with the progress that Martin is making, and doesn’t need to see us for another month now. When we reached the “any questions” bit, Martin asked “when can I ride my bike?” the patient doctor clapped his hand to his forehead, and raised his eyes to the heavens. Then he responded, well you shouldn’t, but you can. Martin hasn’t tried it out yet, but he is eying it, and making plans…

“The open secret”

Blaise Pascal, Mathematician in Pensees (1660) “Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?”
Luke 17:20 “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is”, or “There it is”, because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Hearts and flowers?

The romantic life of a missionary… Today we spent the morning in a queue in the immigrations office, only to be sent to collect some more bits of paper from another office across town, who then sent us to get our original bits of paper translated again because our translations done in England don’t count, despite being stamped as legal by the Argentinian consulate in England. This afternoon found me piecing together in chronological order the phone calls and emails which occurred between ourselves and our insurance company prior to Martin’s operation. I guess it’s all part of the experience. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to see how any of this stuff relates to the kingdom of God, certainly feels way removed from the “boldly going” of Hudson Taylor and the others that they taught us about at college.

Prehistoric Legend

This weekend I made a monumental discovery. There are huge turtles in the duck-pond in the park. To understand the size of this discovery, you have to picture the scene a little…. This is a city the size of Birmingham. In this city, there is one smallish park shared between all these people. In the smallish park, there is a smallish man-made duck-pond, which also serves as a boating lake. It is filthy, it can be located by smell. And yet on Sunday morning, I saw five or six huge turtles like floating casserole dishes, covered in green slime, sunning themselves just under the surface of the soup-like water. It’s hard to believe anything could survive in that environment. I guess a creature hardy enough to weather the last ice age shrugs its shoulders at rusty bicycles and the odd shopping trolley.

The workman cometh

Fixing our bed is a bonding experience. Unfortunately the bed itself is lacking certain elements in the way of bonding, but “fixing the bed” has resulted in a succession of people from church making their way to our house. We have got through gallons of juice, coke, coffee, “mate” (indescribable Argentinian herbal infusion), and bucket loads of biscuits all in the name of “fixing the bed”.
On Sunday afternoon Josecito, wife Silvia, and two of their kids came round. He started the job, but unfortunately he didn’t have any tools. It is possible to do quite a lot with a bit of wire in Argentina, but fixing the bed proved to be beyond the limit. Josecito works three hours out of town in the week, and when he left, he managed to take some of the bolts from the bed with him.

On Wednesday morning, Ana and Chiquito came round with a bag of tools. But they weren’t fixing the bed, they were just leaving the tools for someone else to come later. But Josecito had taken the bolts from the bed, and he’s not back in town till Saturday. So I had to go and buy some new bolts ready for when Oscar came round to fix the bed.

On Wednesday evening Oscar came round. He drilled some holes, and chiseled out some grooves, and prepared all the pieces. When we tried to put it together, the middle bit, i.e the base, dropped out through the side pieces, limiting its usefulness as a means of suspending the mattress. So we took it all apart again, and left it against the wall so that he could come back tomorrow.

On Thursday evening, Oscar came round again. He drilled some more holes, and put a patch over one of the bits that he’d chiseled out yesterday, and fitted some dowling plugs between some of the pieces. And then it went together. It’s a little precarious, he has promised he’ll come back and re-inforce a couple of the slats, but we did sleep on it without incident last night.

On Saturday and on Sunday, they do no work at all,
So it was on a Monday morning that the gas-man came to call.

We haven’t dared tell anyone that the cold tap in the kitchen has stopped working…

And of course, if we weren’t such English plebs, we would just roll our sleeves up and get on with applying a bit of wire like everyone else.

The Snake in the Kitchen Incident

Well that’s kind of it really. A snake in our kitchen. Only a little one, more worm than snake sized, but undisputedly a snake. With a little snakey head. Took me by surprise, I didn’t even know there were snakes in the city of Cordoba. I mean I suppose I knew technically that there might be, even the UK has snakes, but snakes in the UK don’t normally go around disturbing innocent folk at lunch. I tried to put it outside with a dustpan, but it didn’t seem to like that idea very much, because it hid in the skirting board. And it’s still there as far as I know. I looked it up on the internet, and I don’t know what it is really. Probability suggests that it’s not harmful, but I’m still hoping it finds its way outside before it does too much growing.
The dog helpfully made herself scarce. And Martin’s been asleep most of the day. We were out with some friends at a BBQ last night to celebrate his resurrection from the Hospital Privado, which was good fun at the time, but probably falls into the category of running before walking if we’re honest, so today he’s been perfecting his ability to remain in a horizontal position.

Honourable Discharge

Monday 9th October… Not only were Dr Campos and his friend obliging enough to come and find us downstairs in the cafe this morning, but we even had our consultation there around the table, holding up our x-rays to the light from the window while we sipped coffee.
They showed us the x-rays which we’d had taken yesterday, they are very impressive, showing the operation site with the bone-graft, and titanium plate. We weren’t really sure how it all fitted together, but now we can see the bone graft where his vertibrae used to be, and the titanium plate about 8cms long, running over the top of everything down the front of his neck, held in by three screws like medical mecano (cousin of Frankenstein…)

The medics are very pleased with how it has gone, looking at him as an artist might admire their own work. Apparently this is a bigger version of the operation that they normally carry out as it involved replacing three vertibrae where it would usually only be one. They also said that they have never come across anyone who had the nerve to the larynx on the wrong side before. Someone else has already suggested that this might be Martin’s IT wiring.

Martin’s walking is much better, a sort of stiff legged waddle. The hip is causing him the most pain where they took the bone graft. Dr Campos said “we’ll leave him with a sore hip that as a reminder to look both ways before he crosses the road”. Makes us think of Jacob in the book of Genesis (32:25 if you want to look it up.)

And with that, they let us go. We had to go and sign out in admissions, where we were kissed and hugged by the office staff there (only in Argentina… we love it!)

So here we are at home, where the dog was delighted to see Martin. We have to go back to outpatients on Friday to have the stitches removed from the neck and hip, and he will be wearing the neck-brace for the next three or four months while it all solidifies. The next job is to get the bed fixed, we’re currently in “mattress on the floor” mode, after our orange-box bed collapsed a few weeks ago. Someone was going to come and fix it over the weekend, but timing is often kind of fluid around here. Mañana…..