ON DEC. 10, 2015, shortly after then-candidate Donald Trump suggested a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins wrapped a hijab around her head, snapped a selfie, and posted the photo on Facebook. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” wrote Hawkins in the post. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
It was a costly act for Hawkins: Three months later, following a controversy about whether she had violated the evangelical school’s statement of faith, she was no longer a tenured professor at Wheaton. But Hawkins doesn’t regret what she did. As she sees it, true solidarity—she calls it “embodied solidarity”—always comes with a cost.
When it comes to bodies and the church, Christians often start with St. Augustine. Though the esteemed fourth century bishop of Hippo spent a full decade debunking the dualistic heresy that material bodies were evil, he remained famously skittish about fleshy influence on the soul. By Augustine’s reading of scripture, bodies weren’t inherently wicked, but they sure were weak—especially female bodies—and you had to watch ’em or God-only-knows what kind of sinful depravity might creep in. He often quoted the Book of Wisdom: “the corruptible body weighs down the soul and the earthly tabernacle presses down the mind that muses upon many things.” And you don’t have to be a church-history expert to trace the devastating legitimacy Augustine’s ideas gave to misogyny and other forms of body-based oppression in Christianity.
Yet as Christians in every generation have countered, we can’t write bodies off so easily. After all, smack dab in the middle of our confession of faith is a savior who suffered bodily, was crucified, and rose again. What’s more, this same savior was known for saying that love is laying down your life, and how we treat others is ultimately how we treat God. “‘Suffering with’ requires our entire bodies,” Hawkins later explained. “Suffering from a distance is not solidarity. Theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all.”
Sojourners asked six Christian writers and theologians: What does your body tell you about God? Not bodies in the abstract, but your body: pimples, dreadlocks, muscles, belly buttons, wrinkles, thighs, and all. And though it might sound like an exercise in navel- gazing sure to make Augustine roll over in his grave, the responses we received say a lot about the carne part of incarnation: the radical solidarity of a God who took on flesh. —The Editors
A Living Paradox
Sometimes, the best we can do is cope.
I understand redemption because my body has been redeemed. My body, broken and impaired due to a wonky gene and fragile skeleton, was made whole and capable when it nurtured three babies through pregnancy and breastfeeding. The paradoxes of Christianity—the reign of God is coming and already here, loss is gain, and foolishness is wisdom—make sense to me because I live a paradox: Everything good in my life is in some way connected to the body I have. I wish I had a different body.
Lately, my body is teaching me something about suffering and stillness. My body hurts. My joints, made of faulty raw materials and worn out by 48 years of living, ache and pop. Old injuries flare up for no good reason. (Question: “How did you get this stress fracture, Ellen?” Answer: “I walked my dog.”) My pain and the good that comes through it and in spite of it, my grief over wounds that will never heal and my dogged persistence in living well anyway—I am learning how to take it all in, the hurt and the healing.
Attentive stillness, otherwise known as “coping,” is not our culture’s way of dealing with pain. We like stories of overcoming, not stories of coping. We’ve even made the ultimate body story, of God’s brutalized son dying on a cross, into a story of overcoming—the eternal story of God and humanity reduced to four spiritual laws, the blood debt solving the unsolvable problem.
For me, the cross is about a God who is with us when we suffer in a way that only someone who has also suffered can be. When I am in pain, God is with me. As I suffer, God suffers. There is no overcoming here, but the pain becomes a bit easier to bear. Bearing pain—coping—is what we learn to do when we realize that some pain cannot be overcome. Some pain just is.
Which is why I have no use for a Christ whose body is a costume that God put on to be more relatable: I need incarnation, a Christ whose body is so necessary for my salvation that in the central act of worship, I bite down on it, chew, and swallow.
Messy—and Wonderfully Made
God is present amid the divine messiness of creation.
I’ve been thinking about God and bodies for a long time, likely since high school when I memorized Psalm 139. I knew I was fearfully and wonderfully made, yet my experience of my body and my imagination of God were not that magnificent. I felt called into ministry, but as a gender nonconforming person in what society considers a female body, I was not eligible to follow in the path of my male counterparts.
In a world that likes the either/or logic of male/female, my body is messy. I am a queer person embodying a transgender reality, which means I identify as neither male nor female but as a nonbinary person. And it took me a while to really embrace this messiness.
Growing up, I felt confused about denominational politics, but I never felt confused about what I knew to be true from scripture: God is present in all things. And this is still true today: The messiness of my body reminds me of the swirling chaos above which, as the writer of Genesis notes, the Spirit of God hovers. God is present amid the divine messiness of creation and proclaims it wonderfully made.
How I learned that “body neutrality” is an illusion.
My wife and I felt exhausted but confident at the end of our first day walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route across Spain.
The next morning my ankles didn’t work.
Thus began a monthlong migration: of us, westward; of pain, around our bodies. When I taped my feet into fixed right angles at the ends of my legs, the tendonitis that had flared there shot up to my knees. I braced my knees, the pain fled to my back.
It’s easy to spiritualize the bodily experience of the Camino, the “walk,” as a metaphor for life. The drive toward lightness in all you carry. The pacing necessary to persist through tendonitis.
The Camino’s primary lesson for me wasn’t to spiritualize materiality. It was to bring material me to the fore. My body had never caused me any real trouble: healthy, white, male, and young; average in looks and size; bearing the care that comes with economic class. My body never held me back, made me afraid or vulnerable. It had never been a prison. The greatest advantage my body had given me was the illusion of its own neutrality, invisibility.
But now my body was a problem—in the most eye-rollable of ways, of course. I was spending first-world levels of money to enjoy spiritual leisure time, and it hurt my ankles. Boo hoo, right? We got to Santiago. I got better.
Here’s the simple, privileged truth that I couldn’t learn until I tried to take a step and my feet refused to bear my weight: My body isn’t a mere vehicle with my true self in the driver’s seat. I am my body. Dust quickened by God. The matter matters.
It’s the tension between self-sacrifice and self-assertion.
There’s a photo of my mother a few months after she gave birth to me. Her face is fresh and young and her eyes are bright. She is slightly hunched over, with me on her back wrapped in a podaegi, a simple square blanket traditional to Korean mothers. Many years later my mother still sits and walks with her shoulders drawn with the remnants of pregnancies, children, and all the worldly burdens mothers carry for us. She has tired feet and crow’s feet. When I look in the mirror, I see the same weight and burden that remain from my own pregnancies, but also shreds of desires and dreams, many unfulfilled. My feet hurt, too, and my back aches.
But my eyes are always drawn to the whereabouts of my daughter, Anna. I marvel at her straight back and her feet buoyed by a carefree, innocent existence. I want to hold her in that space for as long as possible.
As I vacillate between these images, my mind turns to God-Incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who invited us to let him carry our burdens. Who said we would need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life. Who talked about the ways he would lay his life down for us.
That’s what I see in bodies of mothers, women, and girls: a eucharistic and cannibalistic sacrifice of bodies that live, move, and breathe through work that sustains other life—a beautiful kind of submission. At the same time, I see violence and death, the result of human systems that sometimes leave women little choice but to give of their bodies, whether whole or in pieces. It’s the tension between self-sacrifice and self-assertion that women of color describe as “the bridge called my back.”
The hand of the Holy Spirit nudges me forward with the words of Isaiah tattooed on my back: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” The way we lay down our lives may look like our backs stooped by carrying a child, backs buckled under the weight of bearing hope, or backs engaged in the everyday acts of motherhood, radical signs of strength and creativity that usher others from death to life.
Hidden in Rolls of Fat
For years I believed I had ruined the image of God in me.
I love swimming in open water. I wade jiggly thighs into the sea, and my large arms, swoops of fat hanging down, arch over waves and pull my body through the current. Afterward, I sink down onto a beach blanket. The sand does not creak under my weight as chairs often do. The sun is not too small to reach every expansive inch of my dimply, stretch-marked skin.
For years I believed I had ruined the image of God in me, hidden it in rolls of fat that cascaded down my body. Yet my body, with its soft embrace and immovable stance, reflects parts of the image of God not as easily seen in slimmer bodies. I am soft and solid; slow(er) and deeper; highly visible and easily ignored. When I believe that my body reflects the image of God, then I dig into these descriptors in search of what more I can learn about God’s heart.
These attributes are often ignored or derided when culture names thinness as holy. In learning what my body reveals about God, I find a savior who knows what it means for people to miss the holy in pursuit of the socially acceptable.
I also become more aware of the way others’ bodies have been dismissed as not good enough to bear the image of God. Fat-accepting theology demands that we proclaim and embrace the truth that God’s image is not too small to be found in every body, no matter its size, color, gender, or ability.
The Goodness of Gathered Flesh
What we do with our bodies matters.
My black body was tired after a full day of teaching. When I got home I hugged my wife, gave high fives to my boys, and picked up my 3-month-old son. Whenever I sit and hold him, my two boys swarm, putting their heads a few inches from his face, so I must repeatedly ask them to back up. It’s good being with them, even when they give me grey hairs. It is really good. We touch, embrace, and interact with one another in ways that I treasure. The intimacy of our bodies together teaches me that our human flesh is good.
Unfortunately, I had a meeting to attend that night, which disrupted our moment. Religious leaders were mobilizing in our neglected, majority-black city of Harrisburg, Pa., considering how to better organize our communities. I was a co-facilitator of the conversations, so being absent was not really an option. Other people, who also needed to muster energy to get into that church basement, were counting on my bodily presence.
I arrived early, and there were already 15 bodies huddled outside the church in the cold winter weather, drawn from all over the city to join each other in this space. I greeted people as we waited for the doors to be unlocked. It was good to see familiar and strange faces, each person desiring to embody justice, mercy, and humility in their neighborhoods.
Once inside, we talked with one another, encountering the truth-telling, uninhibited joy, and extended grace that are only known through the goodness of our gathered flesh. Not all the insights that were shared were revelatory; some information could have been discovered more efficiently with a book or a Google search. Yet something is lost if our distinct bodies are never together, collectively participating in our Creator’s liberative activity for justice and peace.
Our bodies are differently abled. We cannot all pursue justice the same way. But that night I was reminded what we do with our bodies matters. The spaces our bodies inhabit, and the bodies our bodies come alongside of, actually matter, since God has created and set them apart for holy use.