Embracing An Embodied Humanity: A Manifesto

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My body has always scared me. I have a distinct memory of laying in bed one night, my heart pounding and my palms sweating. I was probably around eight years old, and I was convinced I was dying. I had been told that my lips and hands would turn blue if I was having a heart attack, so I pulled out my trusty flashlight and handheld mirror (conveniently stored under my pillow) to check. They were pink, but I was not reassured. My heart continued to pound loudly, a sound that reverberated in my ears. My body was trying to communicate something to me, but the physical sensations it was using to do so were so foreign and unwelcome to me that I truly thought my moments were numbered.

I grew up and became a nurse, and while the fear I have of my body these days is much less irrational and out of control, the mistrust is still there. I have learned the art of repressing most messages my body tries to communicate. Hunger? Not to be trusted. I am only allowed to eat at specific times! Physical cues of deep internal emotions? Shut them down. After all, fear, anger, and even elation are unacceptable. Desire of another body? Depraved! And yet, the very faith tradition in which I was raised worships a God who put on flesh and became an embodied human being—A man who satiated his hunger with good food and flipped over tables in anger. A man who sweat with exertion and incredible pain. A man who touched women, even and especially women who were marked as scandalous by the society in which they lived. A man who wept (or more accurately, “snorted like an angry horse”) over the death of his friend. When I read about Jesus now, it is impossible for me to ignore just how deeply embodied and human he was while walking on this earth. I wonder if he was perhaps even more human than most of us living today (in a culture that does everything it possibly can to shape, cut out, and contain the human body).

It is this journey to understand my embodied humanity that has led me to wild and wonderful places in the last couple years. I have beheld a wide and mysterious diversity of bodies who have embraced, led, forgiven, and challenged me. I have also become increasingly aware of the ways in which we police and exclude others whose bodies look differently than our own. It has always been this way, hasn’t it? The embodied Jesus was ultimately crucified because he dared to embrace, eat beside, walk with, and touch the bodies of men, women, and children who did not fit in the cultural or religious tradition of his enemies. He challenged a status quo that called some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” He dared to love and embrace all kinds of human bodies equally, calling out the essence of the Divine in each one. And his enemies ultimately nailed his body to a cross because of it.

There are thousands upon thousands of churches in this country who gather on Sunday mornings claiming to worship and follow this God-become-man, all the while calling some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” The irony in this is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore. We don’t know what to do with bodies that look and act differently than our own, and maybe they scare us a little. But rather than sitting next to those bodies—touching them, holding them, laughing with and learning from them—we draw lines between us and them. We ask them to conform themselves to our likeness, and if they refuse, we push them outside and slam the door behind them. We refuse to listen to them, to genuinely try to understand how their bodies are experiencing this world. And how can we honestly pretend to understand their perspective or experience if we won’t even shut up long enough to listen?!

Part of my journey toward a greater understanding of my own humanity has been awakening to the deepest parts of me I have repressed. I am more than just my mind and spirit, the parts of me I was taught to trust implicitly. I am a human body, a body that feels magnificent sensations. A body that loves deeply with her hands and cradles life to her chest. A body that experiences hunger, arousal, and gut-churning sadness. A body that laughs deep in her belly and sometimes sobs rivers of snot.

And guess what? I am a sexual being too. Frankly, the religious community I have served, loved, and been raised by over the last 15 years has never known what to do with this aspect of my humanity. In my experience, sexuality has been (and is) treated as a secret club you are not allowed to join until you enter a heterosexual, monogamous relationship sanctioned by the church with a “stamp” of approval (usually an expensive public party). If you are not in that “club,” you are expected to ignore the fact that you are a sexual being. The very few conversations surrounding sexuality that I have been invited into in a church context have all revolved around what I need to do to repress arousal, cover my body, or figure out how to join the “club” (by becoming, well, NOT single). This narrow view of sexuality reduces an embodied essence to a physical act. If this is my experience as a white, heterosexual, cisgender female (read: part of the privileged power-holding “elite”), I shudder to think the Church believes itself qualified to direct societal standards of sexuality for bodies who do not look like or experience life in the same way ours do.

I am just now embarking on a journey toward understanding the ways in which the Imago Dei—the essence of the Divine—resides in my embodied humanity. But already, this journey is opening my eyes to the exquisite beauty of bodies that do not look like my own or experience the same kinds of hurts, longings, or hopes that I do. Already, I am realizing I need to shut up and listen. I am learning that it is not my place to exclude a body without having held it, to judge a body without having experience the joys and sorrows it has lived through, to tell a body what to do or not do without having cherished and walked through fire alongside it. It is not my place to say some bodies belong and others do not. Because perhaps the one human being who could have made that distinction instead spent his years on this earth tearing down and removing every barrier and distinction that was erected with the intent to exclude. When others moved away from bodies that looked, acted, or thought differently than their own, Jesus pressed in. When the religious elite picked up stones, Jesus said “I do not condemn you.” When tradition barred some front entering the presence of the Divine, the Divine put on embodied flesh and instead entered the lives of the excluded. 

I want to follow the example of the Jesus who willingly walked away from privilege and belonging and made community with the outsiders…holding their deepest sorrows, touching their physical wounds, eating good food in their homes, and calling out the Divine essence in each of them. And to be completely candid, I no longer have any time or patience for a theology, political party, or elite club that declares the bodies of a privileged few worthy of love, protection, and belonging and all other bodies unacceptable, unwelcome, and unworthy of being seen and heard. I have come to know a God who calls my physical body—yes, the very one that has always scared me—very good. And I believe your physical body—all her joys, sorrows, and deepest longings—is very good too. Even and especially if you look and experience life differently than I do. 

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