What does it mean to be a ‘human being’? Learning from the disabled

Sarah Shea Ip
Assistant Professor (Practical Studies)
MCS 2004

Translated by
Sophia Chan
MCS 2001


When we consider the question of ‘what is a human being’ today, we usually see the ideal picture of ‘a successful person.’ Such connect ion is termed ‘best - case anthropologies’.1 What we perceive of a ‘normal person’ tends to be ‘without handicap’, while the disabled are the ‘exception’. Similarly, serving the disabled would be regarded as a ‘special ministry’ reserved only for brothers and sisters with a ‘special calling’, as if it has nothing to do with the main congregation.

Recently, theological reflections on disability have been trying to find an anthropology that does not attempt to eliminate disability,2 returning to the Christian tradition and reverse the norm, by proposing an anthropology that is based on weakness. They point out that such thought is more consistent with our faith than ‘best-case anthropologies’, challenging us to learn from the disabled ‘what it means to be a human being.’ This article will talk about one of those writings and expound its implications on our society which emphasizes ‘winning at the starting line’.

Bonhoeffer’s theology has always been highly respected by scholars and believers worldwide, while his relationship with disability is less studied. In 2012, Bernd Wannenwetsch published an article “My strength is made perfect in weakness: Bonhoeffer and the war over disabled life” 3 which attempts to fill this gap. He was excited to discover that defending the dignity of disabled life appears to be more than yet another “topic” for Bonhoeffer. Rather, it represents a focal point in which numerous key insights developed in his theological work coincide (p. 353), especially his visit to a hospital in Bethel, Germany (p. 354).

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer gathered with several theologians of the Confessing Church at the hospital in Bethel and drafted The Bethel Confession to safeguard the orthodoxy of the church. One Sunday while worshipping at the hospital, Bonhoeffer was shaken by what happened: a person had a seizure and fell. After the gathering he wrote a letter to his grandmother, saying how in a time of spiritual confusion he discovered in Bethel that some still knew what the church was, and were clear as to what the church should and should not be. Further, in Bethel he first realized that weak and disabled lives could reveal certain realities that people often intentionally neglect: that human beings are indeed basically defenseless (p. 354).

Wannenwetsch quickly points out that the insight received at Bethel had a far-reaching impact on Bonhoeffer’s subsequent thinking and teaching. Bonhoeffer often warned of the corrupting influence that idealist ideologies exert on theological thought (p. 354). Unlike us, Bonhoeffer would not ‘single out’ the mixed abled/disabled worship community, or regard that congregation as ‘especially’ loving. On the contrary, Bonhoeffer insisted that the church should be ‘altruistic’ in the first place, and the Bethel hospital did not carry out a ‘special’ ministry but rather it revealed the reality of man and church, the reality of universal Christian brotherhood (p. 355). Such brotherhood’s significance is not in the moral value of ministry out of mercy, but from a cognitive approach, which he later described as ‘seeing the great events of world history from below’, from the perspective of the suffering (p. 356). Such perspective helped people break off from the idealism as sought after by Nazi Germany, and made them realistically accept their own weaknesses, and denounce the sin of eliminating disabled life.

Today there might not be massacre of disabled people, but it does not mean that we have forsaken the ‘best-case anthropologies.’ When society emphasizes the concept of ‘winning at the starting line’, disability is still regarded as a ‘misfortune.’ In an era of ‘winning before conception’, children with disabilities are looked upon as a ‘tragedy’.

My mentor Brian Bock teaches Moral and Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, while his wife is a nurse in obstetrics and gynecology. Their oldest child Adam has Down syndrome with severe disability. When Adam was five months old, he caught a flu and after examination the doctor reproved the mother, saying, “Why haven’t you had the genetic test done? Did you not know that he will never attend normal school?”4 The doctor’s displeasure indicated his annoyance at the couple’s ‘negligence’ and could not understand how they could have failed to follow the ‘reasonable’ procedure to prevent a child to live and be destined to ‘lose at the starting line’.

I must clarify that I am not using the above illustration to negate the values of prenatal tests and medical technologies, nor am I criticizing women who undergo termination of pregnancy. The object of my critique is not individual behaviors but the cultural values that shape and influence people’s thoughts, actions and attitudes, and those thoughts that lead people to blindly believe that mentally-disabled has no value in this society.

Advanced reproductive technologies seem to be providing us with means of preventing ‘disastrous disabilities’, giving parents ‘choices’, to ‘screen out’ offspring that ‘lose at the starting line’. These options make Christian couples like Brock seem unreasonable, because they believe that children are a heritage from God (Ps 127)5 and not consumer goods, and make them look irresponsible when they refuse to have unnecessary prenatal DNA tests or refuse to ‘choose’ because of their faith. Swinton points out the ambiguous stance people have regarding disability: On the one hand we accept the disabled, but on the other hand we highly recognize DNA screening, as if to say ‘we would all be better if you had not been born’.6 This reflects how we are still clinging onto the ‘best-case anthropologies’.

While in London, a sermon that Bonhoeffer preached in St Paul’s Church in 1934 speaks even to Christians today:

“…what is the meaning of weakness in this world, what is the meaning of physical or mental or moral weakness? … Have we ever realized that ultimately our whole attitude toward life, toward man and God depends on the answer to this problem?” (p. 361)

It is as if Bonhoeffer is encouraging us to look at the brothers and sisters in weakness. They are like a mirror reflecting our confession of God and our understanding of people and the world, in an age of striving to ‘win at the starting line’, and reminding us where we err in our belief. The key lies in whether or not we are willing to walk alongside disabled brothers and sisters, to see what they see and hear what they hear. Are we willing to stay close to the biblical truth and embrace an anthropology that is not disability-free or without weaknesses?

The Bible calls on believers to “run… the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1) but the Bible is not talking about an elimination race, nor does it look for the best physical condition in us. Believers run for the gospel which they have received and gain victory as they hold fast to the Word.


  1. The term ‘best-case anthropologies’ is taken from Disability in the Christian Tradition, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1.
  2. John Swinton’s article summarizes the manifold development of the theology of disability since the 1980s including many writings on theological anthropology: John Swinton, “Who is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disabilities; Challenges and New Possibilities”, International Journal of Practical Theology, Vol. 14 (2011): 273-307.
  3. The article is cited in Disability in the Christian Tradition, 353-390. Quotes from this article will not be further footnoted, but the related page numbers are given in the main text.
  4. Brian Brock and Stephanie Brock, “Being Disabled in the New World of Genetic Testing: A Snapshot of Shifting Landscapes”, Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, edited by John Swinton and Brian Brock (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 35-36.
  5. Brock & Brock, Being Disabled, 39.
  6. John Swinton, “Introduction: Re-imaging Genetics and Disability” in Theology, Disability and the New Genetics, 6.


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