Do you see the blind guy? He wasn’t always blind. Can you imagine every conversation, for the rest of your life, being preceded by questions and statements of that nature? And those questions must be accompanied by the inevitable explanations. Here’s how the story of my disability transpired, he would say. There was probably a long version and a short version. What you heard might have depended on the day of the week or hour of the night. Who knows?
It’s hard to tell the story of someone with a disability of without it being exploitative. Because the blind, deaf, or challenged person isn’t the one who is usually telling the story; a person with a perspective not available to the central character retells the events, actions, and emotions. Everything is going to sound and look different when a person without a disability tells their story. A blind or deaf person, even someone who regains those abilities after years of darkness or silence, will have a completely different sensory experience.
My question is, when we read John 9, whose story are we reading? Are we reading the one we impose from above or one that is told from within? There is the story of the man who is healed, the story Jesus wants confirmed, the account of the parents of the blind man, and the Pharisees version of events. In the melee that follows, does the blind man’s story matter to anyone, or is he a pawn in the larger religious battle between Jesus and the Pharisees? What is the political and social value of a miracle when your culture’s social blindness is more important than your literal blindness?
The disciples believe, like some people in our churches today, than sin is passed from parents to children. If a child is troubled, it’s because mother and father were cursed. Of course we don’t come right out and say it in so many words, but we do say it, in fewer words and backwards glances. Will gossip confirm what theology is unwilling to say, is this man blind because his mother or father were low down, rotten, dirty, no good sinners? Look at the theology, the religion underlying the disciple’s question: those children who are pure, healthy, and alive must come from parents who are free from sin and spiritual impurity. That’s the first exploitative implication in this passage. If we are blessed, it must be because God made us so. If we let this belief become the dominant view in our religious life, anyone who is weak, sick, or disabled is viewed as sinful, less than, and inferior before God and man. For Jesus to be zeroing in, time after time, on the weak, sick, and disabled, this must be a tremendous problem in 1st century Palestine. What is the problem: telling God’s story from your one sided; I’m loved because I’m blessed perspective. The problem is denying that God blesses the weak, sick, and the disabled. The problem is identifying sin as something we pass on through our chromosomes. The problem is seeing God’s love as something which gives people power over another.
Where is he from? The Pharisees are big on “origins”. They claim to be Moses’ disciples. Incredulous that a sinner from unknown origins could perform such a miracle, they lose their tempers with the man’s parents. “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.” Power needs a location. The British needed to tell the Indians and Africans, the Queen resided in London. From there, armies of white men would come to rule the subcontinent. From a place, even a faraway place, power could rule and subjugate many people.
Locations matter to those using exploitative stories. If you’re going to build your power around a narrative of lies, it must be centered on a locus of control. The Pharisees controlled Moses’ history, the texts, the story, the places of worship, and all the elements of Israel’s past. They made myth into reality. Like Nelson at Trafalgar or David and Goliath, the story of empire became intertwined with the one approved version of God’s interaction with human history. God had a definitive location, on Sinai, with Moses. The Pharisees had a roster of all in attendance. Jesus wasn’t there.
Jesus decolonized the very idea of sin. He broke the imperial, exploitative hold the religious authorities maintained on God’s location. If no one knew where God was from, no one group of people could make moral claims on God’s behalf. God was no longer a distant colonial power making decisions for subjugated peoples through religious administrators. Now, God was from everywhere, lived in each village, spoke all the languages, and addressed the spiritual and physical needs of all people. Contrary to prior religious practice, Jesus gave gifts (i.e. sight) instead requiring gifts be offered to the distant God (i.e. religious/spiritual taxation). Jesus’ actions subverted the colonial model at every turn. As the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is obviously, a program of complete disorder.” Jesus brought complete disorder to the established colonial order centered in Rome and the religious (colonial) order based at the Temple.
“You were born completely in sin,” the Pharisees say. No matter what he’s done or how he’s lived his life, his lack of sight has marked him as being “completely in sin”. Even as the blind man is healed, filled with the ability to see, distinguish colors, and perceive depth, the old presuppositions will not let go. We will not grant you independence or cede to you the possibility of God’s love because our stereotypes about sin are more powerful than the realities we are witnessing. If we, as the Pharisees, admit we are wrong, our power over the lives of others vanishes. This is not about being wrong. It’s about losing control. We won’t know who we are if we can’t name and shame sinners. Labeling people as wrong, especially across generations, has become our stock and trade. How will we survive without the power to condemn others in the name of God?
Blindness is a two way street. Blindness is both physical and spiritual. One of the Pharisees asks the best question of all, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Surely, we’re not missing the point, are we? Surely, we’re not caught up in judicial council decisions, are we? Surely we’re not rearranging Methodism’s deck chairs while the planet Earth self destructs, are we? Not us. We’re way too self-aware to fall into this trap.