As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We[a] must work the works of him who sent me[b] while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9 Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10 But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11 He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12 They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
John 9 1-12
In 2008, I was admitted in a hospital with a critical illness. One of my Indian friends called me up to check on me and the first question she asked was, “what have you done to get this illness?” This annoyed me and further increased my pain when I was already suffering with my ailment. My friend exhibited a casteist mindset where the idea of karma (a Vedic concept of virtue, which means actions based on cause and effect, where the present is determined by the past) is a bedrock on which caste system thrives and sustained. In my friend’s perspective, she assumed that I might have done something wrong in my past resulting in my suffering. This incident reminded me of Job and his friends in the Hebrew Bible, and also brings to light the story in John 9 where the disciples ask the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Having experienced caste-based exclusion and discrimination, I struggle with the concept of sin.
Before, I engage on the politics of ‘who sinned’ from the text of John 9, allow me to say that this text needs sufficient theological care, caution and sensitivity to the people with disabilities and particularly to the people who are visually disabled. I need to tell it out that disability and sin are not in any way related and any such theories needs to be contested tooth and nail. This text calls for a confession from people who have related disability with sin and challenges the readers to be (in)sightful towards a liberative praxis for all people of God. Therefore, this text invites us towards a justice-oriented reading, liberating the readers from the binaries of ability and disability and calls to work towards justice for people with disabilities. Having said that, here I wish to engage this text from my own personal experience as a Dalit woman from India who have experienced caste discrimination and exclusion.
The story in John 9 is a story of Jesus healing a man born blind. It is obvious that the passage could be very well reflected from a disability standpoint. Sin and disability are major issues in both the Jewish and modern contexts. Though reading this passage from a disability perspective is important, I may not be able to do so here because it is not my area of expertise, and thus I may not be able to do justice to the topic. As a result, please allow me to reflect on the concept of sin (rather than disability or oppression) through the lens of my own personal experience as an Indian woman.
The story begins with the disciples’ question: “Who sinned?” by which the disciples assumed and pre-judged that this man’s suffering is a result of his or his parent’s sin. Like in the casteist mindset, the disciples too assumed that the man born blind had done something wrong or had sinned and therefore, he was born blind. However, Jesus was not driven by what was typically assumed, rather works counter-culturally for the sake of offering life. In this story, the man born blind did not ask for sight, nor his parents come forward pleading to grant sight to their child, but rather, Jesus out of his love for the other, offered sight by anointing the man’s eyes with mud mixed with saliva. Jesus could have given some of his interpretations on sin to his disciples and carried on his journey with them with business as usual, when they asked him ‘who sinned?’ However, in response to his disciple’s query, Jesus not only affirmed that it was neither his sin nor his parent’s sin that he was born blind, but also dismantled the layers of sin that oppress people with burdens of prejudices by offering sight to this man. Along with other people with disabilities, this man born blind in this text is marginalised by the society and the religion (Lev 21:17–23). Not only does the powerful majority define the standard of what is normal, but also makes it a norm to understand it as normal. The political theology of this text is that Jesus opens the eyes of the disciples and of the readers of this text who are prejudiced against people on the margins based on karma. Jesus invites them to give up their judgemental attitudes and show love for the other.
In Hindu philosophy, the principle of karma plays a very large role in their beliefs of reincarnation and the caste system.Karma refers to one’s actions and the necessary effects of that actions. In the Indian context, according to Karma, a person is understood to have been born into an ‘untouchable’ caste or as a Dalit, because of the accumulation of heinous sins he/she has committed in the previous lives. Caste is linked to a specific occupation and has its own rules. It also believes in the cycle of rebirth, which means that one will be reborn into a new life when they die. You inherit your caste from your parents and nothing can change it. However, karma plays a big role: your actions and obedience to the rules of your caste during this lifetime will determine your next birth and your social position in that life. Therefore, Dalits have to do menial jobs and be servants to high caste to have a better life in next birth in the next life. The different castes range from the priests at the top to the untouchables at the bottom, and karma philosophy suits better for the dominant people of the caste system. So those born ‘outcaste’ means they have done something wrong in their previous birth and their current life is the result of the sin of their previous life. Karma’s role is so significant because it determines if one moves up or down in the caste system in their next life. This burden of sin made the ‘untouchable’ impure that he/she became a ‘polluted person’ and his/her mere presence defiles the ‘purity’ of the high-caste born, and this defilement of purity will affect the karma of the high-caste born. As a result, the caste system does not want the defilement of ‘twice-born’ high caste people and therefore continues the practice of untouchability of certain people to maintain their purity.
Once the practice of untouchability was established through scriptural authority of karma, it became very easy to implement sanctions in the realm of social, economic, and political life in the society by excluding the outcastes. Unfortunately, the churches in India have become prone to the practice of caste system and marginalise people in the name of caste within the church.
While the idea of sin and disability are connected to the Jewish idea of divine punishment, neither the Bible nor the tradition offers a clear perspective on these concepts, nor can I from a Dalit womanist perspective subscribe to it. Though the Hebrew Bible speaks of the sin of Israel as a community, it is unfortunate that it has been limited to breaking away of one’s personal relationships with God. We mostly understand sin as something personal that we do against God and therefore need to be reconciled with God in order to be saved. However, salvation is complete liberation. Though the term salvation itself denotes liberation, modern understanding of the term salvation leads to the conversion of one’s soul and omits liberation from physical and other aspects of oppression. I would like to emphasise here that salvation in terms of liberation in all aspects includes a wholistic liberation.
Sin is not only personal it has other dimensions too. If sin destroys relationships with God and other people, only God’s redemptive love can restore them. This will be accomplished only by rebuilding our relationships with one another and with God. Without God’s redemptive love and communion with one another, sin cannot be eradicated. This leads to the conclusion that only salvation from sin addresses the root causes of social injustice and other forms of human oppression, reconciling us with God and our fellow humans. Liberation from sin depends on how we define sin. The act of Jesus in providing sight to the man born blind in this text changes the perspective of sin. For the society for whom disease/disability or any other suffering is a result of sin, Jesus’ act gives a different meaning to what a sin is.
Sin is anything that affects and exploits human relationships and nature. Sin relies on domination, exclusion, oppression, and exploitation. Sin is driven by prejudice, judging the other and it is life-negating. By absolving the man and his parents from the blame of sin, Jesus paved a way to the liberation of the man who was marginalised in society because of his disability. For Jesus, sin is something that reflects one’s failure to love one another. Denial of loving one another brings injustice in this society, which is often an emphasis of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible.
For Jesus, the actions of religious leaders who excluded this man from the society and pushed him to the margins, to beg for survival amounts to sin. The sin of the people brought injustice to this man. Jesus deconstructs the whole notion of retributive theory and the understanding of sin. Sin is not a personal act against God only. Sin is relational; anything that affects the relationship with fellow human beings is also a sin that affects our relationship with God.
In this narrative for Pharisees, the religiously powerful, the disabled people are sinners, people who violate the Sabbath rule are sinners. Therefore, for them, Jesus is a sinner because he broke the Sabbath law. For them written rule was more important than offering life. The disciples are not exempted from the traditional way of thinking when they initiate the discussion by asking whose sin it is.
However, as much as it’s important to define what a sin is, it’s even more important to see the people who are affected by the sins of the dominant. The victim of the sins of the dominant, in this case, include the man born blind; he is the victim of the society which he belongs to. To transform the society, this act of healing (i.e., to rebuild the broken relationship back to fellowship) took place in the public square.
To rebuild the right relationship with the other, is how this story in the text progresses. The man born blind encounters the disciples and by then Jesus not only started the process of giving him sight but also responded to the disciples by saying neither the man nor his parents are sinners. This is the first step in the liberation process, which is to undo what has been done in the name of sin and punishment, which is to free the man as a person from the burden of societal prejudice. This is complete liberation from all forms of oppression caused by religious and social factors.
Then the man encounters the neighbours and the public and establishes himself, reclaims his identity as a person, “I am the man” whom they know as a blind, beggar, and now with free of that blame sin. Because of his blindness, this person was de-humanised, and therefore when he was healed, he has to come out in the public saying, “I am the man,” for Jesus offered that dignity of life in him.
Finally, the man meets the Pharisees who represent the dominant group of the society. This group often sets the norms for the society to follow and has maintained the dominant status quo. Now, seeing the man who has been liberated from all those chains of oppression, they started blaming Jesus for being a sinner.
The concept of sin is a product of the dominant. Where there is compassion and love, there won’t be any sin. Sin exists in the denial of love and compassion. Where there is justice, there God’s work is seen. It is the absence of love and denial of fellowship with one another that defines sin. Being Christ’s disciple is building a just society by loving one another and creating a safe space for everyone to live in. The Church should be a welcoming place where everyone feels liberated and not judged based on differences or otherness.