In a couple of weeks time I will be marking the one year anniversary of my most recent and life-changing surgery. It is a strange memorial, a marking of what was and what is, and what is yet to come; it is also a marking of gratitude to those whose actions stood in the way of death. It has taken a great deal of time for my body to become well again and yet it remembers its illness and trauma, not just in a brain-thinking way but in a very visceral and physical way. Whether through new limitations, scars or changes in my body, my body remembers. My body is the primary witness to my experience and as such it tells a narrative which is given voice by memory. Arthur Frank when writing about illness and embodiment suggests that, ‘observing what stories say about the body is a familiar sort of listening; describing stories as told through the body requires another level of attention.[i] It is that level of attention, of hearing the stories told through the body that is a significant task for the Church as we enable others to re-member the body, to bring their bodies and the communal body back together into wholeness.
I have come to recognise how important our bodies are in our knowing of God and our mediating of God in the world. The Christian story is located in bodies, it starts in the beginning when God creates the earth and situates in it animal and human bodies with which God interacts. The Christian story is situated in our understandings of Christology in which we know God through the embodied life of Christ. We recently celebrated Christmas in which God takes on human form – God both gets a body, is literally ‘in-carnated’ as the Word ‘becomes flesh’, and affects the bodies of others; Mary’s body expands and she takes up more room in the world as she is pregnant with Christ, both she and Joseph have bodies which travel first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt, they share the birth of their child with the physical bodies of others, shepherds, travellers and animals. Mario Aguilar writes that, ‘…till very recently the body has been repressed. After all, the body constitutes an expression of God, it acts as a mediator of God’s life and it constitutes a visible sign of those who are members of a particular community.’[ii]
So, what does it matter that our bodies tell stories? Why do I bother with bodies in my working out of theology?
27th January 2019 marked Holocaust Memorial Day, a remembering of the violation of human bodies by other human bodies in the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust as well as those killed in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. When I contemplate the Holocaust, and the liberation of the concentration camps, I bring to mind images of incredibly thin, starving people; bodies which showed the story of abuse and death. Bodies with a story of survival despite the abuse of corrupted medical skill, unlike my own body story of survival because of the care of medical skill. Likewise, when I think of the Rwandan genocide, images of masses of bones surfaces, the very physical representation of death. It matters that our bodies tell stories because these are the stories that tell of a God who dwells in suffering flesh and who is wholly invested in living despite being curated by death. The stories of people’s bodies are powerful things which point the world towards active change, the body of a holocaust survivor bears testament to the suffering perpetrated because of an ideology which runs so contrary to a God of love and light. It teaches us through its story of what we, as people of faith, will always speak and act against; using our bodies to tell a story and incarnating protest and justice. This is why I bother with bodies in my working out of theology – bodies matter to God, they tell the story of a God of light, love and justice, they effect change in the world.
We are ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’[iii]
[i] Frank, Arthur, W. (1995), The Wounded Story Teller: Body, Illness and Ethics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.2
[ii] Aguilar, Mario (2012), Theology, Liberation and Genocide, London: SCM, p.89
[iii] 2 Corinthians 4:10 NRSV