Another Dimension of Care for our Disabled Brothers and Sisters
A Feature Review of
Becoming the Baptized Body: Disability and the Practice of Christian Community
Sarah Jean Barton
Hardcover: Baylor University Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Aaron Klink
Sarah Jean Barton, professor of theology and occupational therapy at Duke University, combines ethnographic investigation, scriptural exegesis, and close readings of the Episcopal church’s Book of Common Prayer to argue for the baptism of intellectually disabled individuals as both a theological requirement, and a practice that can transform Christian understandings of God and the nature of the church.
Barton notes that while some congregations desire to welcome individuals with intellectual disabilities, their baptismal practices can fail to be welcoming. Traditions that practice “believer’s baptism” (which she calls credobaptists) require individuals to make a “confession of faith” before baptism. This means that individuals who cannot make such a profession may be excluded from the practice. Barton notes that there are other practices that can demonstrate how the church’s faith is changed and strengthened by the presence of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The family members and those who work closely with individuals with intellectual disabilities learn to see the ways they express their needs and emotions, even without speaking. These emotions can be signs of the Holy Spirit’s work, and that they must be considered signs of faith that credobaptist traditions must take seriously.
Barton empowers disabled Christians, their caregivers, and pastors to communicate baptism’s impact on their faith, life and self-understanding through ethnography. Her sample is geographically limited, but denominationally diverse. She found that many disabled individuals could articulate the significance of their baptisms, which was for them a sign of Jesus’s love, a deeper connection with their congregations, and a new identity. She also argues that carefully attending to the needs of disabled individuals in baptismal practices can help congregations be more faithful to the Gospel’s call to care. I found one story in particular quite moving. There was a baptismal candidate in a believer’s baptism tradition who had both intellectual and physical disabilities. The caregiver recounted beautifully how four congregational members carried him into the font with gentle encouragement as he underwent immersion, and then lifted him out of the pool.
Within her interviews, Barton notices a handful of themes: Christocentricity, participation, and community to perform a “disability informed” reading of Scripture. It could be argued that Barton lets subjective experience take precedence over the objective witness of the text. However, Barton’s procedure validates the theological acumen of her interviewees, many who connected their baptisms with Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, where Jesus is called God’s son. Yet, this action shows that it is God who is the one who calls Jesus God’s son. Therefore, identity is a gift, not contingent on the ability to express faith. She argues that Scripture makes God’s gracious action and blessing central to baptism a fact that “holds implications that challenge ecclesial imaginations committed to elevating the possession of particular intellectual capacities among certain members of the baptized body” (95).
Barton argues that Scripture reveals how baptism joins one to Christ’s body, empowered by the Holy Spirit. All individuals, no matter if they identify as intellectually disabled or not, struggle with frailty of some kind. However, congregations must look for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all of the baptized, including those with disabilities. The Holy Spirit’s work is a gift open to all. Barton also explores how the baptismal rites in the Book of Common Prayer, the central liturgical text in the Episcopal tradition, permits and encourages the inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Barton’s decision to engage the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this chapter was a perplexing choice. Michael DeJonge has shown Bonhoeffer’s debt to Luther’s anthropology, which is somewhat different from Episcopal anthropology. Yet, she finds in the Book of Common Prayer, understandings that support the baptism of intellectually disabled individuals. For instance, the rite asks the congregation to do “all within their power” to support the life in Christ of those who are baptized, which means providing support and empowerment to those who are intellectually disabled as well. Barton argues that theologically the rite can be understood in an individualistic way, but that that understanding is the result of cultural trends, not biblical anthropology. She notes that for Paul, discipleship is collective and communal.
Barton argues that the inclusion of intellectually disabled individuals should include their participation in the corporate concession. She uses the writings of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to explain that point, but does not explore the ways Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran anthropology coheres with an Anglican framework, which is an interesting theological move. She notes that baptism removes individuals from the cosmic realm of sin, but fails to think about the relationship between cosmic and individual sin. Does she believe that our intellectually disabled brothers and sisters experience sin in the same way as non-disabled individuals? Are the intellectually disabled rescued from sin simply in a formal sense as everyone else is, but without a way of fully being able to amend their life?
A major weakness in this book is its chapter on methodology. Pastoral leaders who encounter the chapter might quickly, and wrongly dismiss the book as “too academic,” which is a mistake given the pastoral wisdom in Barton’s later chapters. I wish the methodology chapter had been published in an academic journal instead. As an occupational therapist, Barton has skills in communication and observation which are both necessary for sensitive ethnography, especially among vulnerable populations, who can lack traditional communication patterns, and often require consent from caregivers to engage.
Barton makes a twofold contribution to the theological study of disability. First, she demonstrates how careful, sensitive attention to intellectually disabled individuals and their caregivers, can help us understand how those with intellectual disabilities experience Christian faith and practice. She also provides a careful roadmap for those wishing to follow in her ethnographic footsteps. She forcefully and convincingly argues that traditions should baptize the intellectually disabled, confidant that they do receive God’s grace, and God’s call to faith even when they are not able to verbally express it. At the same time, she argues that congregations who engage in such inclusive baptismal practices will be reminded of the wideness of God’s mercy and grace, and the Gospel’s call to extend love, hospitality, and care to those with whom they are in fellowship. She invites us to come alongside Paul, the Church, and all God’s people, to think about God’s power to claim, be in relationship with, and transform individuals in ways we miss unless we’re paying attention. Barton has paid close attention, and she testifies to the power she sees. For making the witness of intellectually disabled individuals available to many, the church is in her debt, for her careful analysis, rigorous theology, and wisdom for the transformation of Christian practice so that we may welcome all to the saving work of God at the font.
Aaron Klink is Chaplain and Bereavement Coordintor at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina. As a writer and speaker his work focuses on how churches can faithfully minister to the ill and suffering and on Lutheran theology. An ordained pastor in the Church of the Brethren he received his M.Div. from Yale and a Th.M. from Duke Divinity School where he was the Westbrook Fellow in the Program in Theology and Medicine.
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