What do crip time and sacred time have in common? And what can they reveal to one another?
In 1910, two girls we will call by the pseudonyms Ethel and Anna were living at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn. The girls were thirteen and fourteen years old respectively, and they had very little control over their institutionalized lives. They were expected to perform unpaid labor, sometimes seven days a week, and disciplined if they failed to adhere to the institution’s strict schedule. Yet in this deeply dehumanizing environment, Ethel and Anna recognized and pursued each other’s humanity.
In notes to one another, they arranged times to meet and recounted the “spells” they had experienced when they were apart. The spells were frightening and occurred in quick succession, as many as six in one morning. A spell could knock Ethel to the ground if she was alone; she described burning her hand when she caught herself on a dormitory radiator.
Ethel and Anna snuck these notes to each other, trying to avoid the medicalized ministrations of the superintendent and his staff: “[N]o body know a bouth [sic] it only you,” Ethel wrote to her friend. The two girls did not seek to prevent or cure each other’s spells, but rather, each sought the presence of the other. Comfort and courage came from time spent together. “I would like you to be with me,” “keep your eye on me,” “may I lay on your lap,” they wrote. In their companionship, Ethel and Anna ruptured the institution’s expectations of work and productivity. They made time, carving their own space of relation and care.
In this powerful, defiant friendship from more than a century ago, we find “crip time” and witness its sacred, life-giving implications. In the disability community, crip time is an awareness that bodies and minds operate at their own pace and in their own ways, a playful shorthand for disabled lateness, and also a wry comment on the ableist barriers that compound slowness. Disability studies scholars like Alison Kafer, Ellen Samuels, and others have also expanded the concept, using it to critique and challenge ableist expectations around disability and time. Kafer’s work, for one, contrasts crip time—which is relational, flexible, and inclusive—with the dominant “curative time,” which perpetuates the dangerous and harmful assumption that “any future that includes disability can only be a future to avoid” (2).
Curative time emerged as the reigning cultural paradigm in the nineteenth century, bolstered by the march of industrial capitalism and the rise of medical authority. It remains hegemonic today. Technologies from prostheses to prenatal genetic testing promise to erase disability—and even disabled people—in both the present and future. Disabled people are often denied essential government benefits and forced to conform their bodies and minds to the rhythms of discriminatory workplaces. Medicalized frameworks of intellectual disability categorize people based on their progress through a schedule of human development, and explicitly “other” and isolate those who do not conform to its expectations. Even the nations and lands we inhabit are built on curative time: we are the inheritors of a settler-colonialism that justified the theft of North American territories by deeming Indigenous peoples to be “prior” and thus intellectually, culturally, and sometimes even physically disabled, required to catch up to “civilization” or to perish.
Crip time, by contrast, bends and even rejects capitalism’s expectations of speed and improvement and productivity, and instead pursues disability justice. In this way, it has deep, instructive connections to sacred time and compelling implications for the faithful.
In his 1951 book The Sabbath, Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord” (3). The Sabbath, whether for Jews or Christians, is a time for community, and communal resistance, “a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature” (28). Nearly every religious and spiritual tradition shares some concept of a sacred time, a space between and beyond the profane and linear. Though theologies and practices vary, many Christians commit to sacred times of relation, mutual care, and patience as a form of devotion to God’s promise of justice, believing that this promise is their work to carry out, too. In the Sabbath lives a wider, eternal perspective and sacred release from daily rhythms, obligations, and productivity, an invitation into the transcendent.
Simplistic theology has all too often “othered” disabled people, casting them as models of Godly suffering or hidden sin, theodical ciphers, or illustrative examples in an eschatology that yearns for a future Kingdom in which, as the prophet Isaiah describes, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6). A superficial approach might conclude that sacred time should have something to do with cure and that we should hope for a future without disability. Counter-readings by scholars like Julia Watts Belser, though, helpfully remind us of the need to focus instead on inclusion, justice, and resistance against violence and subjugation.
Christians wait faithfully for the restoration of Creation and Christ’s return, and they know too that God waits for them. Peter wrote, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). Flexing in time, waiting and being waited for, the Christian God seems to know crip time. And the faithful might know it, too: they might ponder how their own practices of sacred time can treasure the sanctity of relation beyond medicalized capitalist-technological imperatives and heed the call to challenge and upend curative time and the damage it does.
Disability justice belongs in the marrow of Christian practice. Nancy Eiesland has called for a church that “opens itself to the gifts of persons with disabilities” (586). Stanley Hauerwas also points out that “[t]he church is not a collection of individuals, but a people on a journey who are known by the time they take to help one another along the way” (60-61). Cripping the Sabbath and sacred time means rejecting a culture of cure, and instead pursuing collective liberation by means of transcendent relation, a practice of sharing and accord.
This kind of Christian time is a sacred echo of how many in disability studies have described their sense of crip time. Adam Davidson, drawing on his experience caring for his disabled son, writes of a crip time that is deeply relational and defies any easy notions of progress. The words Davidson uses to define his family’s crip time are “Stasis, Maintenance, (Un)productive, and Presence,” and they imply, as Hauerwas does, that time spent together is the point. Critical disability studies and Christian theology alike invite us, even command us, to embrace human dependence and interdependence, interrelation, care, and patience. We value these things not simply as charitable counterweights to the individualistic, uncaring, and impatient imperatives of capitalist society, but as the foundations of a different worldview altogether.
“Crip time is time travel,” writes Ellen Samuels, and disability history knows this well. Like the faithful, historians read and reread stories past to better understand ourselves and others, to keep memory alive, and to illuminate the path to justice. This does not mean simplistically instrumentalizing the lessons of history to curatively “fix” our present or future. This is a social, political, and even spiritual practice, a devotion to justice through patient remembrance that disrupts curative, capitalist time by honoring disabled lives and crip time.
As disability historians, we bear witness to the many cruelties that have been imposed by curative time, but we have also been humbled by examples of the power and resilience of crip time. Our research shares these stories: we learn and tell of Indigenous nations that nurtured mutual care and cultural survival despite the violence of a settler-colonial dispossession that strove to disable their bodies and ways of life. In the shadows of the American colonial archives, we glimpse the intimate lives and quiet survival of foreign workers injured in the construction of the Panama Canal, sacrificed for military and commercial power. We witness communities that loved one another and sought justice in defiance of their incarceration in spaces at the margins of curative time: “leper colonies,” asylums, reformatories, and training schools. We learn of young people—like Ethel and Anna—who defied the cold logic of eugenics, the coercive expression of curative time that sought to rid the United States of people deemed “feeble-minded.”
But what became of Ethel and Anna, and their companionship, in the years that followed their notes? We have few traces. Ethel, who arrived at Elwyn in 1909, survived Spanish Influenza, suffered many more burns, and remained there until her death in 1930. Anna’s history is even more fragmented; we simply do not know what happened to her after 1912. The archive of disability is troubled by such violence and exclusions and absences. But it is also a sacred space, intact just as it is. Its very survival is a cripped one that defies the disability erasure of curative time, pulsing then and now with stories to hold in reverence.
We should not leave disabled pain and suffering and discrimination, intimacy and joy and love, in the past, or banish them from the holiness of sacred time. Despite our many unanswered questions about Ethel and Anna, there is power in witnessing the crip time these two girls sought and shared, the moments they made and held in their fleeting exchange of letters. By remembering them, we nurture human interdependence, and merge past, present, and future in an alternate time that we might recognize as both sacred and cripped. As with Heschel’s Sabbath and Davidson’s experience, what we create together as we rest in the beauty, grief, and grace of this deep relation moves us toward a greater justice.