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"Empyrean" by Gustave Dore
Body Politics

From Perfectly Safe to Palliative Care: Disability Justice after Eschatology

Scratch beneath the surface, and eugenic logic flows deep and wide. It is one thing to be moved by pity and engage in charity, or even to be moved by justice and seek to dismantle structural barriers that impede disabled people from flourishing. But it is quite another thing to imagine . . . how and why we might “conserve” disability against the possibility of a curative future.

This is not a story about de-conversion, but a narrative about existential movement and becoming. Specifically, I wish to think about the movement from belief anchored in the Other World to what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have called “our most difficult task”— “believing in this world, in this life” (75). Disability has been a key in this story. 

Eschatology (n. the study of “last things”)

One. Intoxication.

Eternity smells of musty church foyers. My family was (half still remain) zealous evangelical Christians, and my childhood was furnished with the aroma of church. The smell is belonging; the safety of belonging; the safety of being unified within a spiritual body. I inhaled this aroma most days of the week, and it always foretasted an encounter with God. 

In that church sanctuary I developed a taste, then appetite, for the eternal. As a child, I was privy to the insider knowledge that non-Christians suffered in despair because only the “foolish builders” (Matthew 7:26-7) construct their lives upon shifting sand rather than what is solid, unchangeable, and permanent. It was thus as a shrewd investor taking safe, metaphysical odds that I surrendered my being to Being—singing with tight eyes and wet cheeks: “I want to hold the hand that holds the world.” I knew that what moments I apprehended the fullness of Being were again but a foretaste of the Christian promise, since “[n]ow I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and yet the feeling of knowing, unequivocally, your place, with fellow believers, in the cosmos, that judgment awaits, and that an eternal state of perfection exists beyond that is . . . intoxicating. 

So I learned to worship and obey, the only fitting service to Being. I became inebriated by day, my perception of the world clouded by metaphysics that wrapped my being safe in the promise of the Other World to come.

Two. Horror. 

Sleepless, seven years old. A self gasps to existential life in the dark with the sudden realized horror of eternity. Can I bear its stasis? Do I want to live forever? I intuitively understand annihilation to be the alternative to immortality, and yet both options horrify equally. Perfect life repeated without end, or absolute nothingness? 

At twelve, I stumble into new eschatological horror one morning reading my Bible: “The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear” (Isaiah 32:4). Christian eschatology had always offered a curative promise. The eradication of evil, harm, poverty, sickness, disease, and disability from the human condition is essential to the pitch that I, myself, had already spun to many friends. Everything will be remade as it ought to be. But now, against the cosmic weight of redemption, new questions dare. 

What happens to my stuttering tongue if eternity exists only for perfection? Who really belongs in the Other World? Is it really safe? I was told God made me in his image, and yet was never asked if I want to be changed “in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The lesson was clear. I begin to hear weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

I would expect serious theologians to interrupt me by this point. After all, I hear the outcry of my former teachers readying their red pens to scrawl “GOD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS!” or “INAUGUARATED ESCHATOLOGY!!” all over the page. The latter concept I learned midway through my undergraduate degree and is well articulated by N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar for whom the Christian story is a five-part play. Against (what I was told to be) the childish theology of my childhood, inaugurated eschatology insists that the Christian hope is not to leave this world and fly to heaven; rather, the hope lies in restoring creation to God’s original design. The Christian, I learned, is thus located in the penultimate act of a grand cosmic narrative, engaged in the inauguration of its grand conclusion.

This was a metaphysics to get behind. While “disability justice” still remained for me an unconceived concept, inaugurated eschatology was a dash of cold water that restored much dignity to the material world and to human action. It was here that, for me, the political and theological first met. To learn that God had invited us as partners to the plan of establishing his kingdom on Earth meant that immanent struggles for economic and social Justice mattered and did so on a cosmic scale. 

And yet, even this eschatology was guaranteed (or poisoned, depending on one’s perspective) by a cosmic ace up the sleeve. Jesus had already won and was returning one day to claim his domain

Three. Hangover. 

November 2016. I am fetal in the basement, a grown child of thirty-three. The worries that had first squirmed to life some twenty years ago are leveling the remains of my firm foundation; I clutch my dog, sobbing the entire night into his fur:

No one is coming to save us.

No one is coming to save us.

I finally join the human condition. Despair, what I would eventually recognize to be the despair of metaphysics itself, was my guide. Over the previous decade I had somehow exchanged a single transcendent signifier for many. While Jesus was no longer returning, I had transferred faith to Reason, Self-Interest, Progress, Democracy, or even Capital to set this precarious world to rights. Embarrassing, yes, but at some level I still believed the world basically fixed itself. Now, sober with no going back, the utter contingency and frailty of it all lies bare. 

No one is coming to save us.

In the days that follow, my eyes no longer slip across “climate change” headlines, and I am freighted, for the first time, with the facticity of a dying biosphere. I openly weep with grief that feels incommunicable as I walk the city. There is suffering already and great suffering to come; no one is coming to save us. 

Questions long-overdue form in this despair: do virtues like Love, Truth, or Justice have any value if not underwritten by a transcendent power? 

Four. Earthseed.

These days I meditate on scriptures of a fictional religion. Lauren Oya Olamina (the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower) is the precocious, disabled, daughter of a Black Baptist preacher whose community, in the mid 2020s, hides behind thin walls in Southern California teetering on social collapse. Aware that her father’s God is ill-suited for a collapsed world, she creates Earthseed. Olamina plans and stocks material supplies for the world-to-come, and Earthseed represents her existential preparation with unapologetically emergent and immanent theology. The first lines read:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God Is Change (3).

Not only is the universe in endless transformation, but, as Ada Jaarsma explains in Kierkegaard after the Genome, “development itself develops” (55). Change is not a personal god, nor is it moral, nor, especially, something to be worshipped. Rather, Olamina teaches us to attend to, learn from, and, at times (with forethought and luck), shape god. Our response to god is everything. To brace ourselves against becoming, Olamina teaches, will leave us god’s “prey” and vulnerable to resentment. Earthseed offers another path.  

Why is the universe? 
To shape God. 
Why is God? 
To shape the universe (78)

This paradigm shift would spin the God of my fathers in his grave if only He could move. Change, attentiveness, adaptation, interdependence: Earthseed is an ethos and makes a compelling philosophy—and yet Olamina insists it be a religion.

In tandem with this wobbly flight back to the world, I have been welcomed into a community of disability scholars and activists. I entered through the side door of eugenics: somehow, after spending my life in Alberta, Canada, it only came up in grad school that my province had operated a eugenics program from 1928-1973. In this period the Alberta government institutionalized many people whom medical experts had assigned eugenic labels like “feeble-minded.” They involuntarily sterilized nearly three thousand of these people. In meeting and talking with eugenic survivors, my stuttering tongue found a community forged in a horrible legacy. And, in meeting crip/queer scholars/activists on campus, it found a politic that could not only imagine but desire a crip future.

At the political heart of CDS lies a relentless counter-eugenic impulse, such that the concepts of “crip futurity” and “curative eschatology” are mutually exclusive lines of flight. The theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson uses the term “eugenic logic” to describe the pervasive hold of eugenics on our collective imaginaries. 

Eugenic logic tells us that our world would be a better place if disability could be eliminated. Enacted worldwide in policies and practices that range from segregation to extermination, the aim of eugenics is to eliminate disability and, by extension, disabled people from the world. . . . Why—eugenic logic asks—should the world we make and occupy together include disability at all?

Garland-Thompson, “The Case for Conserving Disability,” 339-340.

Scratch beneath the surface, and eugenic logic flows deep and wide. It is one thing to be moved by pity and engage in charity, or even to be moved by justice and seek to dismantle structural barriers that impede disabled people from flourishing. But it is quite another thing to imagine with Garland-Thomson—against the weight of eugenic logic—how and why we might “conserve” disability against the possibility of a curative future. 

Moreover, eugenic logic and its counter stretch easily into the metaphysical beyond. “Why should the Other World we make and occupy together include disability at all?” The dominant, curative, refrain of Christian theology resounds: “it shouldn’t!” But the question, again, turns on what futures we can imagine and desire. Put otherwise: it turns on what futures we can and want to inaugurate. Alison Kafer pens this urgent need in Feminist, Queer, Crip: “To put it bluntly, I, we, need to imagine crip futures because disabled people are continually being written out of the future, rendered as the sign of the future no one wants” (46). The apparatus of disability erasure is extensive, and yet Christian theology has surely played its role in making disability an obstacle to a perfect world, an imagined Other World that is always just-around-the-corner.

It was a dear friend, a crip, who guided me from despair. I was six months mortal and scared—unsure what to do with the possibility of species extinction on the table. Seated on our couch, they highlighted the ableism that was animating my despair: “Aren’t suffering and short life the very things eugenicists use to justify killing disabled people?” My friend was inviting me to live, as I’ve come to think of it, in “the lower case.” If life is worth anything, it must be worth living even if short and even with suffering. Counter-eugenics is an ethos that seeks to affirm life, Nietzschean style. Amor fati.

In the lower case, virtues can only be measured by their immanent value. Post-metaphysical justice or love can expect no cosmic return; they must be worth their salt here, now. In the lower case, the possibility represented by climate crisis is not, as my adolescent self so desired, “The End of the World,” but ongoing ends to multiple worlds. Stated again, we are not living in “End Times,” but a time of ends. With or without us, there are other worlds to come, and what futures we might inaugurate depends, in part, upon our collective capacity to witness god in our midst and respond to its power. 

Becoming is what bodies do: humans grow and can become disabled; the biospheres of planets mutate and are capable of death. Instead of simply reproducing the present in despair and driving ourselves upon eugenic shoals, McRuer asks in Crip Theory “what might it mean to welcome the disability to come, to desire it? What might it mean to shape worlds capable of welcoming the disability to come? In such terrible times, is it even possible to ask the question that way?” (207; emphasis mine).

To take up the questions of crip world-building in the context of post-metaphysical, immanent eschatology is to contend and partner with god, which, Olamina explains, is a trickster that both shapes and is shaped. While dominant streams of Western thought have fixated on the Other World, minor refrains have instead partnered with god in search of an immanent life.  

From perfectly safe to palliative care. Is this world really a palliative ward? Perhaps. Perhaps not yet. Unquestionably, in these times of climate crises, triage will protect the most privileged and leave the already vulnerable outside the “safe” walls in a move of desperate sacrifice. But either way, these are still the wrong questions. Assume the world is in palliative care. Now how ought we to live? How ought we, must we, care for each other on shifting sand with no one coming to save us? 

Cripping the Kingdom

The very characteristics that disabled people value about their embodiment are targeted as bodily states that will be ‘fixed’ in the resurrection. If the Kingdom of God is a place that eradicates disability, however, it may also eradicate our hard-won disability pride.

From Perfectly Safe to Palliative Care: Disability Justice after Eschatology

Scratch beneath the surface, and eugenic logic flows deep and wide. It is one thing to be moved by pity and engage in charity, or even to be moved by justice and seek to dismantle structural barriers that impede disabled people from flourishing. But it is quite another thing to imagine . . . how and why we might “conserve” disability against the possibility of a curative future.

Crip Time, Sacred Time, and Holding History

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.

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