A philosophical look at disability and illness

Theologian Jacqueline Kool has written a book entitled ‘Well Intentioned. A philosophical look at disability and illness’ from Boekencentrum publishers, Zoetermeer (2002). According to her, philosophical speaking and thinking about illness and disability are not as clear-cut as it seems. The social context colors the way in which limitations are viewed. Within the context of the Christian faith, speaking and thinking about disabilities, illness and health is often based on the Bible. The ideas from the Bible can provide support and strength, but they can also be experienced as oppressive or oppressive, according to Kool. She concludes her book with practical advice. Theologian Jacqueline Kool knows from her own experience what it means to be ill and disabled. Due to a muscular disease she is a wheelchair user. During her theology training, her interest in feminist theology was awakened. Feminist theology looks critically at the relationship between men and women in the Bible, church and society. The goal of feminist theology is to free women from oppression by religious images. From her commitment to the chronically ill and disabled, she started using the theological methods of feminist theology to create liberating images for the sick and disabled.

The structure of the book ‘Well intended. A philosophical look at disability and illness’

Jacqueline Kool’s book is divided into two parts. In the first part of the book, Kool asks critical questions about the religious image of disability and illness. Thinking about illness as a form of guilt, thinking about suffering and the practice of charity to those who are ill are critically examined. In the second part of the book she provides practical advice and manuals. She gives examples of prayers and sermons that give space to the strength and vulnerability that every person experiences, whether sick, disabled or healthy.

Three different patterns in dealing with illness and disability

In her book ‘Well intended. From a philosophical perspective on disability and illness, Kool sees three different ways in which illness and disabilities are dealt with from the Bible and the Christian tradition. The three different patterns she distinguishes are illness as guilt, the courageous sick person and the object of mercy. She believes that these three patterns do not do justice to the disabled or ill. These images have a limiting effect, according to Kool, because the sick person is pressed into a certain image as if not as a human being. These images, patterns, can be experienced as oppressive.

The Christian belief about illness and disability as guilt

In several places in the Bible, illness and disability are linked to sin or guilt. For example, Numbers 12 tells the story of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who is punished with leprosy. Gehazi, the servant of the prophet Elisha, is also punished with leprosy when he asks for money behind the prophet Elisha’s back (2 Kings 5:27). In the New Testament we read about guilt sickness. Jesus says to the paralyzed man who is brought through the roof to Jesus by his four friends: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Luke 5:20). Jesus also makes the connection between illness and sin in another sick person. Jesus once healed a man who was staying at the pool of Bethzatha. To this man Jesus said, You are now well; therefore sin no more, lest something worse happen to you.

No connection between sin and disease

Kool finds it oppressive that illness is associated with sin and guilt. According to her, health, illness or disability are separate from guilt. She points to stories in the Bible in which no connection is made between sin and disease. Or where that connection is denied. One of the most important stories is that of the healing of a man born blind (John 9). When Jesus walks with his disciples past this man who is sitting begging on the side of the road, his disciples ask who has sinned, this blind man or his parents. Jesus’ answer is clear: ‘Not he, nor his parents (John 9:3). Jesus here denies the connection between sin and disease. Another story is that of the righteous Job. He loses everything, his children, his property and ultimately his health. Yet he does not sin. In health and in sickness Job remains a righteous and faithful man. There is no connection between guilt and the illness that Job gets.

Then Satan went out and covered Job with malignant sores from the sole of his foot to the top of his head. Job took a shard of pottery to scratch himself while he sat in the dust and dirt. His wife said to him, ‘Why do you remain so blameless? Curse God and die.’ But Job said to her, “Your words are the words of a fool. We accept all good from God, should we not accept evil?’ Despite everything, Job did not sin or speak an unruly word. (Job 2:7-10)


Illness and guilt in society

In our society and culture, health is the norm. You should work on this by living healthy, eating healthy and exercising enough. According to Kool, it seems as if we have our health in our own hands. This is a hallmark of a culture of manufacturability, where people can make and do everything themselves. Health can certainly be positively influenced by a healthy lifestyle, but health cannot be guaranteed. Jacqueline Kool opposes the search for a cause of illness and disability. She sees no direct connection between physical ailments and guilt or sin. Disabilities and illnesses are things that happen: uninvited and undeserved.

The courageous sick or disabled person

Another philosophical image of people with an illness or disability is, according to Kool, that of a martyr or hero. The image of the martyr shows that disability and illness are deeply sad; a life full of suffering. The martyr courageously bears his fate, illness or disability. As a hero, the sick or disabled person proves to have more perseverance than ordinary people. The sick person becomes a hero if he or she bravely gets through it. Don’t complain, just bear it. People can speak with admiration about how someone carries their illness. Both images, that of hero and martyr, can be oppressive because they require people to squeeze themselves into one of two roles. A sick or disabled person is not always courageous. The disease does not make him or her a hero. The images of martyr or hero mean that there is no equal relationship between sick and healthy people.

Disability and illness as a life lesson The disabled or sick person can be a sign for the world. People can learn a life lesson from it. The disabled or sick person has the noble task of teaching people. Illness and disability then have a pedagogical function: the reminder of physical vulnerability, decay and mortality. People who are confronted with illness and disabilities in their environment will hopefully realize that their own lives are also vulnerable. Kool believes that life lessons do not justify an illness or disability. The price of a disability is often too high for what the environment or the person himself can learn from it.

Is a disability a form of suffering ?
Can a disability or illness be equated with suffering? Kool wonders. If people with a disability or illness distance themselves from the perspective of suffering, this is often not tolerated by those around them. It is mainly the others , the outsiders, who pass judgment on life with a disability or illness. The focus on suffering due to illness or disability has two pitfalls. Firstly, automatically referring to disability and illness as suffering ignores the real life situation of the person himself. Someone with a disability does not have to feel sorry for themselves and there does not have to be any suffering. Secondly, in a religious context, suffering is made meaningful by turning it into an evangelical task. This can be done by applying Jesus’ command: ‘Whoever wants to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9: 23) to the sick person. You have to suffer if you are ill or have a disability. There is something compelling about seeing your disability or illness this way. A sick or disabled person always has the freedom to interpret his or her illness as he or she wishes. If others impose this, it can be oppressive.

The sick or disabled person as the object of mercy

A sharp division between suffering and those who are healthy often leaves two categories of people: those who suffer and those who can sympathize. Compassion and charity are high on the list of Christian good works. Examples include the flower from the church and the card. No matter how well-intentioned, it can sometimes come across as if the sick or disabled person is pathetic. In her book, theologian Jacqueline Kool does not argue for mercy in this respect, but for empathy: being truly involved and giving time and space to allow the disabled or sick person to follow his or her own process. She advocates solidarity. This is a process in which people with and without disabilities enter into conversation with each other, in an open manner, without being clouded by biased images of guilt and sin or of hero or martyr.

A liberating Biblical perspective

In her book, Kool gives examples of Biblical stories that can be healing. Healing stories in the Bible are often stories in which people with disabilities are included in the community: Jesus heals and welcomes them into the circle just like others. People who were sick were often not included. For example, sick and disabled people were not allowed to enter the temple. People with leprosy were expelled from the community in Bible times. The healing made them full participants in society again. Jesus focused on re-engaging people with disabilities and illness with God and his people. He looked for them and touched them. There are also other Biblical stories that provide a positive image for people with disabilities. For example, the heavy tongue of Moses. Moses had trouble speaking. He experienced this as a handicap when he had to persuade Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. Yet God wanted to use him with his difficulty in speaking (Exodus 4).

The practice of a philosophical view of illness and disability’

The book ‘Well intended. A philosophical look at illness and disability by Jacqueline Kool shows how a person who is disabled or ill can experience well-intentioned care. Images and ideas about illness and disability emerge consciously and sometimes unconsciously from the Christian faith and from the Bible. Kool brings these images into the spotlight and wonders what these images, patterns, mean for a sick or disabled person. This provides insight for those who deal with illness and disability from a philosophical perspective. The book ‘Good intentions’ is recommended reading for church workers, elders, pastors, preachers and pastoral workers. It is of added value to repeatedly reflect on the question: How do well-intentioned words and actions come across?

Advice for communicating with the sick and disabled

Kool has a number of practical advice for people who come into contact with the sick or disabled through a church or religious community. An important point for her is that people with disabilities and people without disabilities are more similar than they are different. She states: ‘You can therefore assume that what you like in dealing with others also applies to people with a disability or illness’ (p. 166). Another piece of advice she gives is that it is important not to talk over the heads of people with disabilities. Do not speak to the person being guided, but to the person himself. The disabled person likes it when he or she is addressed. And ensure that church buildings are accessible to people with wheelchairs.

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