Disability, Vulnerability, the Caribbean: an [un]easy association?

By Adanna James

Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.[1]

Vulnerability as common human condition

Standing in front of others in a teaching capacity is always a big risk, and the risk is amplified when the content of knowledge being presented has not emerged from the context one finds oneself in at a given point in time. This was the case as I attempted to bring the insights gained from disability theologians mostly based in a European/North American setting to persons attending the 2015 School of Liturgy in Trinidad where I facilitated a workshop on including disabilities into parish life over the summer.[2] So, was it worth the ‘risk’ that Edouard Glissant refers to in the opening lines of this blog? Did these insights inform the imaginary of the people gathered before me, their varied poetics? Most of the insights shared came from Thomas Reynolds’ reflections in his Vulnerable Communion (2008) and his thesis that we share a common vulnerable human condition and so all share in the experience of disability.[3] Reynolds draws from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (2001)  where the link is made between being born instinct-deprived, in terms of our inability for immediately getting on in the world as compared with other intelligent animals, and as a result being necessarily dependent on others to a greater degree. Also highlighted were Reynolds’ views on the protective strategies developed by us as human beings to deny our vulnerability which lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Participants were then asked to reflect on their own personal life situations of exclusion, which ranged from being made to feel unwelcome at parish events to being asked to leave a public venue without explanation, and to find comparisons between those experiences and that of persons with disabilities. Experiences of those with disabilities were shared by parents who were part of the workshop. One parent shared how she felt after a stranger physically pulled away from her son upon learning that he had autism. This portion of the workshop was also most mentioned during feedback sessions. Participants highlighted its revelatory effect, in making them aware of the deep impact their experiences of exclusion had had on them as well as causing them to see how much their own experiences had in common with those with disabilities. Our common vulnerable human condition seemed to have been acknowledged.

Caribbean vulnerability

However, something disturbed me on a profound level coming out of the workshop. I wondered how it was that persons coming from the Caribbean, a region that has been so formed and marked by the imprint of vulnerability from its origins in the genocide of indigenous populations, the atrocities of slavery, indentureship, colonization to present day vulnerabilities because of global economic crises, natural disasters etc. had reflected so little on their own personal experiences of vulnerability and disability. On an academic level there is no dearth to Caribbean reflection on vulnerability in the region. Guillermina De Ferrari in her Vulnerable States (2007) explores the tendency among Caribbean scholars to highlight vulnerability, particularly of the body.[4] In identifying this tendency, she turns to Edouard Glissant’s  categorisation of three phases of Caribbean literary production that each zoned in on vulnerability from a different perspective. The first phase, Acts of Delusion, produced texts meant to justify both land and body possession in the Antilles. This was done through landscaping and bodyscaping, presenting fantasized images of the land as empty, unknown and free from ownership and the natives and slaves as desirous of being possessed. The second category, Acts of Survival, represented the artistic production of slaves, meant to preserve identity and memory against Acts of Delusion. The third category, the Passion for Memory is where De Ferrari locates contemporary Caribbean scholarship. This phase is described by Glissant as both “compensatory and recuperative” of the vulnerability of loss, especially the loss of history. This is done through an artistic imagination that counters history and re-symbolises the deluded realities that marked the first phase of Caribbean literatures. Re-appropriation of metaphors of Acts of Delusion takes place; the land now becomes ‘unconquerable’.  Other terms like ‘resistance’ and ‘transcend[ing] limitation’ reveal the direction the re-symbolising process takes.

Resisting/Welcoming vulnerability?

As I encounter this last phase I am forced to admit of a difficulty in assimilating disability theology and Caribbean experience. Has this liberationist, emancipatory, passion for Memory turn in which most contemporary Caribbean authors find themselves made it difficult to speak of a vulnerable human condition of disability that is not to be transcended nor resisted but welcomed in order to discover the human togetherness that Henri Nouwen and some disability theologians speak of? Has the Caribbean experience revealed a different kind of vulnerability and suffering, one that can’t be “domesticated’ “integrated” or accepted as “an unavoidable part of our human condition”?[5] Reynolds battles with this idea of suffering as he uses Stanley Hauerwas to reflect on this issue, where Hauerwas affirms suffering as inevitable and states that we suffer the existence of others. Reynolds’ resolution lies in his thesis of the recognition of a mutual vulnerability in our relationships; this opens us up to love and causes us to attend to others’ specific needs. Is this a nut too hard to swallow given our actual vulnerable reality in the Caribbean? I think I’ve reached the first serious junction in my research. Ideas anyone?


[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Glissant is a poet/novelist from Martinique, a French dependent in the Caribbean and is one of the Caribbean’s leading postcolonial authors. He is most known for his Poétique de la Relation 1997 and le Discours Antillais 1997.

[2] The Trinidad School of Liturgy is held every year and gathers together representatives from parishes throughout the country including other islands for one week to be educated on aspects of Catholic liturgy.

[3] See Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

[4] Guillermina De Ferrari, Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Fiction (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

[5] Reynolds quotes here from theologian Stanley Hauerwas. See Vulnerable Communion,109-111.




Templeton prize awarded to Jean Vanier: From Politics to Love, L'Arche and belonging

Lieve Orye

We live in a society that makes work of joining up while forgetting the work in joining with.


In March, good news spread around the different l’Arche communities in the world. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize.  It will be formally presented to him at a public ceremony at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on Monday, May 18. L’Arche communities are important for showing concretely “the central role of vulnerable people in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society”, as the Templeton Foundation website phrases it. Quite often one can find the l’Arche community mentioned in discussions of theological ethics and in theology and disability discussions. Michael Banner, for instance, in Ethics of Everday Life (2014) mentions these communities as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ and notes that ethnography of such a community would help us understand the possibilities of a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship (58). Banner also sees them as communities that embody a regard for the suffering other. The one who suffers is not to be a passive recipient of care but is recognized as an active giver whose gifts one must learn to receive (102-3). Here as well Banner insists that it would be necessary to subject L’Arche to the critical ethnographic gaze, to study carefully and closely how it provides a new social topography, a counterpractice to ambivalent humanitarianism (104).  Some key issues are given here: countercultural ‘alternative kinning’ and a plea for ethnography, or rather, a plea for ‘learning from and thinking with’ the concrete l’Arche communities.

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

‘Alternative kinning’ seems to me a topic high on the agenda in theology and disability and even in theology and ethnography discussions, though it is not often put in these terms. In a previous blogpost Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s reflections on disability and inclusion and/or pluralism were briefly discussed. She as well emphasizes the importance of studying how these take shape in practice and, based on her own participant observation in a multiracial church that also welcomes people from group homes, she sees how practices of inclusion and pluralism still leave the other easily marginalized. She suggests the addition of a new category: “’receiving from the other’ as a crucial element of  real (ecclesial) welcome”. John Swinton (2012), who nominated Jean Vanier for the Templeton prize, says something very similar when he makes a plea to exchange the language of inclusion for that of belonging, or maybe better, to embed the first in the second. “To belong”, he notes, “you need to be missed”(183). The language of disability categorizes and allows the categorizer to stay with and hide safely behind that language and its distancing position; the language of disability and inclusion describes thinly allowing the describer to keep control of the relationship and avoid the call that can be heard as well as the weight of responsibility that can be felt in the thickness of reality. Such language only gives thin terms that lead only to thin inclusion. The step forward, for Swinton, lies again in ethnography, more particularly in Clifford Geertz’s often mentioned distinction between thin and thick description. Where thin description gives only the bare bones of a phenomenon, thick description strives to see the whole of a thing (180). Thin descriptions allow the describer and the reader to keep reality sanitized, removing the real call, the real involvement, the real guilt, but also the real gift, the real encounter. Swinton’s call for a thick description expresses the wish to really see and to belong with the other, realizing that one’s own belonging cannot be full belonging if others are merely included.

Let me thicken this with two pieces of anthropological material to show how the issue of thin and thick description relates to the issue of inclusion versus belonging.

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

At the start of his Balinese fieldwork Clifford Geertz found himself and his wife ignored by the villagers who seemed to be looking through them as if they were not there. He tells in his writings how they felt “as ephemeral and insubstantial as a cloud or a gust of wind” (Lee & Ingold 2006:67). But when, during a police raid on a cockfight they had come to watch, they turned and ran with the rest of the crowd, the situation changed abruptly. Rather than remaining privileged anthropological visitors who simply could have identified themselves to the police, they had accompanied the villagers in their flight. Afterwards, their fieldwork opened out successfully, Geertz noted. Jo Lee and Tim Ingold see this as follows: “With the run, it seems, the anthropologists suddenly came down to earth, were able to make their bodily presence felt, and could thenceforth participate with the villagers in the ebb and flow of everyday life” (idem). Running with the villagers meant that Geertz’s movements and those of the people he was with were grounded in shared circumstances. Walking with them allowed him to get to know them and learn from them.

Or to put it another way, we cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them. To participate is not to walk into but to walk with – where ‘with’ implies not a face-to-face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind (Idem).

Such participation as joining with is what makes the vast difference between thick and thin description, not the detailedness, nor the articulatedness of it. That such thick description is a challenge becomes clear when in going back home, the ethnographer often soon forgets in his writing up and in his theorizing the walking with and being together or reduces this to a mere means that allowed for the construction of ‘knowledge about the other’.

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

Such forgetting or reduction also lies behind the language of inclusion. I would say with Ingold, - who in The Life of Lines (2015) discusses the vast difference between seeing the world and being human in terms of an assembled, joined up collection of blobs and seeing the world and human becoming primarily in terms of ongoing lines that join and correspond and carry on – that the language of inclusion involves a joining up of people, attempts an assembling of people and things in terms of their interests and needs, whereas the language of belonging involves a recognition that people join together, walk with each other, receive each other as gift. With Swinton and Ingold, we can say that when lives are joined, not joined up, one will be missed. For Vanier, it is the power of loving one another and the sharing of gifts that overcome difference and exclusion. Swinton adds that you belong when your gifts are longed for and that “such longing is not discovered through politics or argument, but only through the gesticulations of God’s love towards human beings as they are embodied within the lives of those who have come to know and love God and who long for the love of God to become the pivot point for the redemption of the world” (183-184).

To understand properly what L’Arche as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ is about, we first have to learn to see the world, human becoming and participant observation not in terms of joining up, intersubjectivity, interaction and inclusion but in terms of joining with, or as Ingold calls it, ‘corresponding’. Within this ongoing world, through participant observation, we might then learn from and with L’Arche communities how in their Christian going on God is present. For Swinton, there is a difference between a thin, self-centered love and a spiritual love that signals the Kingdom through small gestures – gestures, I would say, that again and again invite and take up the invitation to join lives, for the duration of a moment, for the duration of a joint activity, with the promise to be willing to see what comes next in growing together. As Christians, we are called to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus to find ourselves. For Swinton, such a way of looking at one another through Jesus offers us a thick description of what it means to sit with the marginalized, to befriend the stranger, to offer hospitality to those radically different from one’s self. These words tell us of a thick reality in which the principle of joining up, the principle of likeness, is exchanged for the principle of joining in grace.


Banner, M. (2014) Ethics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ingold, T. (2015) The Life of Lines. Routledge: London.

Lee, J. and Ingold, T. (2006) “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing,” in Locating the Field. Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds.), Berg: Oxford, pp. 67-86.

Swinton, J. (2012) “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16(2), 172-190.

The photograph was taken in Montreal, 2009. Sans Oublier le Sourire is a French Canadian organization that promotes participation and belonging for its members.

SST Conference Nottingham 2015: Church, Otherness and Interruption

By Lieve Orye


“Thinking the Church Today” was the central theme of the Society for the Study of Theology conference at the University of Nottingham last week. During three buzzing days theologians from all over the UK, but also from Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium discussed what Church is or should be today, how it should be reflected upon, and how it could be understood as both continuity and discontinuity.

Church, dialogue and interruption

Lieven Boeve, founding member of the Anthropos research group, and first speaker at the conference, set the tone with his paper ‘Interrupting Scripture, Interrupting Church’. His was a rich paper in which the historical-dynamic, dialogical concept of Revelation as developed at Vatican II was taken forward encouraging theologians to continue the Vatican II practice of rereading doctrinal texts in view of perspectives developed in the context of the day. A key point was that in continuing this dialogue on how to understand Revelation today even its dialogical nature had to be thought differently. The suggestion was to reconceive it from the perspective of otherness and difference which brings more into focus the asymmetries in dialogue. The human person cannot be understood as first a being in itself that in a second step decides to relate and engage with the other. Rather, Boeve noted, we find ourselves always already in relationship, addressed by the other and being asked to answer. He noted that the previous strategy of dialogue as ‘mutual and critical correlation’ between faith and modernity that was based on the presupposition of continuity no longer functioned when such overlap eroded. In response, strategies of discontinuity had been advocated by theologians, some of who questioned even the very desirability of dialogue. As a third alternative Boeve proposed to reemphasize the necessity of dialogue but to reconsider its nature through the notion of ‘interruption’, a notion that involves both continuity and discontinuity. What is interrupted continues but continues differently. It involves the intrusion of an otherness that halts the narrative, draws attention to its narrative character and forces it to open up towards the other. Both Revelation and Church can interrupt. But also, both self-securing concepts of Revelation and Church can be interrupted.


Church and persons with disabilities: Receiving (from) the other

Both 'interruption' as well as 'otherness' were words that found a frequent echo during both formal and informal conversations at the conference. Let me mention one that provoked ample discussion within my reach of hearing. The third plenary paper by Mary McClintock-Fulkerson in many ways took up this question of Church and otherness, interrupting the rather abstract reflections in terms of exclusion, inclusion and pluralism using her ‘thick’ ethnographic description of welcoming people from group homes in UMC Good Samaritan. Visiting this church, meeting these people ‘with disabilities’ for the first time, she found herself, one could say, 'interrupted', questioned in her own openness toward the other. This interruption, and her fieldwork, helped her to see ‘inclusion’ and ‘pluralism’ as concretely given shape: inclusion took the shape of people from group homes being welcome in the Sunday service but on the condition of being as much as possible ‘like us’ – wandering around and making noises were seen to be disruptive and were discouraged. Pluralism took the shape of a special service, each Thursday evening, where people of the group homes could ‘be themselves’. McClintock Fulkerson argued to continue theological reflection on welcoming the stranger differently: Inclusion nor pluralism are in themselves good concepts to think with if we wish to honor all creatures, people from group homes included. That is, inclusion, welcoming the stranger, is important but how to go beyond a welcome that is conditioned by the standards of ‘the normate population’? Pluralism on the other hand does not set such standards and takes the needs of different groups seriously. But, by providing different services according to the needs of particular groups these are not really challenged to change. It remains easy to consider the ‘special needs service’ as ‘not really worship’. The interruption is neutralized. Allowing herself and theology to be interrupted, McClintock Fulkerson suggested adding a new category: “'receiving from the other’ may well be a crucial element of real (ecclesial) welcome”. She told us that she finds her theological categories questioned and challenged: how do you theologically take seriously people who will never be able to understand Christology or the Trinity, who will never have ‘the correct beliefs’, who even seem to communicate very differently and for whom “church” seems to “work” very differently? How do you honor the Imago Dei of people with disabilities? A first new way toward creativity in our practice of welcome, she noted, is humility. This means acknowledging that there is grace that the church does not control or even know. Second, we need new categories informed by disability studies that help us recognize that ‘disruptive’ behaviors are in fact a different form of communication, and from sociology, to help us understand ourselves as habituated into specific bodily proprieties and sensitivities. Thirdly, we need to look for a theological genre that is not simply doctrine but that nevertheless can result in a different critical theological lens to “discern how or if a faith practice has a discernible normative effect”, even when that faith practice is very different from what we are used to.

Structural problems, no structural solution?

The SST conference itself was in fact an effort in ‘receiving the other’, in being more welcoming to women. A women’s reception to start up the whole event, an extra tag to sessions that addressed issues of gender and diversity and a panel discussion “Gender, sex and systematic theology: present realities, future aspirations” were the major means to do so. In the panel session gender equality or the lack of it, the structural reasons for inequalities as well as personal experiences were discussed by a diverse group of scholars such as Margaret Adam (St Stephen’s House, Oxford), Jenny Daggers (Liverpool Hope University), Mary McClintock Fulkerson (Duke Divinity School), Karen Kilby (Durham University) who had been voted vice-president of the Society in the annual general meeting the day before, Katja Stuerzenhofecker (Universities of Manchester and Chester) and the President of the Society, David Brown. As in several other sessions I went to a major problem in all these matters seems to be that the effort to bring the issues, the differences, the problems to the surface, the development of categories, data and comparisons, also immediately seems to set the scene for making these issues unsolvable. I think Claire Hein Blanton, a young PhD student from Aberdeen, said it well in a conversation over dinner later on: “it is a structural problem that might not have a structural solution”. For me, this becomes very clear when the situation of people ‘with disabilities’ is addressed. It is not enough to devise new categories that would allow in theory to recognize their ways of experiencing the divine. As McClintock Fulkerson would quickly note, our bodily proprieties of fear and uneasiness are not that easily overcome. This can only be done by what is hardly ever addressed in these discussions, the need to take time and to be with each other, doing ‘work’ and acknowledging the ‘work’ done by the other to engage, to attune, to give and to receive. Rather than new theological categories that make 'theoretical' room for the other, we need theological language that redirects our attention to such concretely 'receiving the other'.