Bodies and Ethics

The prologue to the Gospel of John provides a powerful metaphor for meaningful embodiment: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, a glory filled with grace and truth.”

This metaphor goes by the name “incarnation,” the kind of word which my grandfather would have called “high dollar.”  Incarnation comes from the Latin words in carne and means “in meat.” The claim is that in the meat and the muscle, the blood and the bones, of the human body of Jesus of Nazareth, we may perceive the grace and truth of God.

The incarnation isn’t something which happened once and exclusively in Jesus; instead, it keeps happening to everyone, everywhere, and “every-when.” Theologian Wendy Farley wrote, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, “The incarnation manifests the power of the human body to bear the divine” (106).

Our bodies are holy gifts and what Barbara Brown Taylor calls our “souls’ address”:

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am.  This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped.  I live here.  This is my soul’s address.”  After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered.  Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning (An Altar in the World, 38)

Incarnation means that our identities have a flesh-and-blood address; and, among many other truths which the incarnation affirms, there is this: everything that happens to us—that is, to our bodies—matters to us and to God.

Because bodies matter, so does food.  Who has enough to eat and who doesn’t? Why are there food deserts in poor urban areas, places where there are more liquor stores, payday loan centers, and fast food restaurants than there are grocery stores?

The condition of the soil from which food grows matters, as do the welfare of the farmers who grow it and of the migrant workers who harvest it.

It matters that people struggle with food: some substitute it for love and can’t get enough of it, even when they’ve had far-too-much; others obsessively control how much food they consume because they feel consumed by emotions which they cannot control.

It matters when our bodies become broken by disease and injury, and it also matters that everyone has good and affordable healthcare (By the way, we all have a preexisting condition; it is called mortality).

It matters how the homeless are sheltered and that we work for decent and affordable permanent housing.

It matters that we create jobs which don’t demean human dignity and don’t treat the bodies of laborers as disposable cogs in a sweatshop machine.

It matters how police and prison officials treat all bodies, including black and brown bodies.

It also matters, and these are signs of grace: when we relax beside a warm fire on a cold night, when strong and tender hands massage away the knotted tension of stress from our shoulders, and when a welcoming embrace assures that we belong.

It matters that we find joy in a dancer’s flowing beauty, in a painter’s luminous canvas, in the three-point shot that ties a game at the buzzer and sends it into overtime, in the perfect spiral pass to a sprinting split-end, in the powerful strokes and swiftly gliding body of a swimmer, and in the bursting speed of a runner. I often think of the well-known words of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, “God made me fast and, when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”

Bodies matter; they are where we meet glory, feel grace, and encounter truth.

In many ways, ethics is about how we treat bodies, our own and the bodies of others. Catholic priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan was right to say: “It all comes down to this: Whose flesh are you touching and why? Whose flesh are you recoiling from and why?  Whose flesh are you burning and why?”