Sunday January 24, 2016
Body-Shaming the Black Body of Christ: A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a
This is a sermon for you if you’ve stood in front of a department store mirror near tears because, too fat or too skinny, clothes don’t fit your body.
This is a sermon for you if you’ve ordered clothing online or from a catalogue so as to avoid standing in front of that department store mirror.
This is a sermon for you if you’ve ever been followed around a department store because of the color of your body.
This is a sermon for you if you never bought clothes in a department store, instead wrapping hand-me-downs and thrift store finds around your poor body.
This is a sermon for you, if you’ve ever been called too fat, too skinny, to short, too tall, too dark,
If you have known the shame of feeling that your body is not welcomed, not beautiful, not safe.
This is a sermon for you if you have a body.
This is a sermon for us, since we are Christ’s body.
Let us pray…
The Church is One. Always and forever. Nonnegotiable and indivisible. Others can’t cut you out, and you can’t amputate away other Christians you find repugnant.
And yet, the Church is Divided. Denominations and divisions, sects and schisms and splinters and movements and allegiances. We are here at Christ Lutheran, and not at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, St. Mark’s Coptic Church, Eliot Congregational Church, Fisk Memorial United Methodist Church or Natick Church of Christ.
The Church is One and Divided, both true at the same time.
In our Scripture reading, St. Paul is counseling the Church in Corinth experiencing this unity and division. Don’t let anyone ever romanticize the early Church for you as gloriously simple and unified. It wasn’t. The early Church in Corinth was complicated. Corinth had a muddled past- it was the place where Rome sent the surplus, undervalued population- think the Britain sending convicts to Australia. But then, Corinth became trade hub for the Empire, and some people got rich, really rich.
In this urban outpost, a small Christian community is emerging, but there are lines of division. Where are two or three are gathered, Christ is in the midst, sure. But when two or three are gathered, divisions emerge.
In Chapter 11, Paul calls out the divisions. It turns out that when it is time to gather in these small house churches, some are eating while some are going hungry. Paul lays into the Corinthians, accusing them of showing contempt for the Church of God, and humiliating those who have nothing (1 Cor 11:22).
What those Corinthian Christians were doing wasn’t wrong by the cultural standards around them. The wealthier ate first, and the poorer served. They weren’t necessarily individually bad people, just following the cultural norms of the system around them.
But Paul says, No, the Christian community must behave differently than the wider culture, and this difference must be public. This ethic around unity is not just for the good of the Church, but for the integrity of their witness.
Into this division in the Church, Paul introduces the metaphor of the body. Here, among these divided people, a minority community amid a dominant majority culture, Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor 12:12)
Bodies are complicated. They are visible and vulnerable. They ache and thrive, move and slip, fail and repair. Bodies are thick metaphors to explain the Church, or a nation, or a body politic. In Paul’s time, other communities were using the metaphor of the body. The metaphor wasn’t new, but his significance was. When the Emperor used the metaphor, he is the head and everything else was subordinate. But Paul flips the metaphor to say, that each part of the body is integrally important. Paul says, “The head cannot say to the feet, I have no need for you. On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22).
I’ve never thought much about my little toe. But I know a woman, always impeccably dressed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in blue jeans or a hair out of place. She had the best shoes, too. Shiny and delicate, shoes that you didn’t think could even allow for movement, works of art, really. And then, through a curious series of events, she needed to have her left pinkie toe removed. Just that tiny little toe on the left, less than two inches of a part of the body that barely did anything but serve as a canvas for the tiniest spec of red nail polish. But when that toe was removed, she could barely stand upright. Her entire balance was off. Walking was something to be taught, relearned really. The beautiful shoes were gone, traded for practical footwear and daily trips to the physical therapist, an embodied lesson in the importance of a seemingly insignificant part of the body.
You know this: You know the 3 am knock on your door from a child with an ear ache, that ends up keeping the whole house awake. You know the cramping that sneak attacks every month, landing you flat on your back, clinging to a hot water bottle for just an ounce of relief. You know the migraine headache that makes your whole body pulse in agony. You know the unseen anxiety that paralyzes every decision, that ties your stomach into knots, that sends your heart racings in ways you cannot control. You know the tiny tick bite that seems to grind every movement of every joint. You know the devastating possibility of shingles infecting everyone on the floor of your nursing home. We know the pain of one part of the body that wounds the whole.
Right now, there are parts of the body of Christ that are suffering. I think St. Paul is asking us: do we have the ears to hear?
The hard truth is that the American mainline Church has not fully or adequately acknowledged the depth and breadth of suffering of black Christians in the body of Christ. We sing a few gospel hymns, we celebrate MLK Day, and we go back to the institutional racism in our denominations where white congregations have the majority of the financial resources, the majority of the full time pastors, and the majority of the buildings they owned themselves.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an entire denomination that had to be established because white Protestants wouldn’t ordain black Protestant clergy. Two hundred years later and we are still unable to reconcile the divisions in our churches wrought by the pernicious belief that black bodies are less valued, less beautiful, less dignified, less holy.
There are parts of the body that are suffering, not just the big shootings and the structural racism, but the small indignities, the thousand little paper cuts that carve away, millimeter by millimeter, at the body of Christ. The paper cut of having your name constantly mispronounced because it’s not Anglo enough; the paper cut of having the music of your culture be reserved for “World Communion” Sunday, but not any regular day; the paper cut of again and again being asked “when your family converted” because you’re both black and Lutheran and no one seems to have the imagination that you could have always been both.
In recent years, activist have claimed the term “body shaming” to talk about how some bodies are pressured into standards of acceptability and beauty that contort and distort. We internalize unreachable standards. We have a whole vocabulary developed just to body shame: Muffin tops, and beer guts, and back fat. We have created whole industries to capitalize on our body shame! If your thighs are too big for that slinky dress, you can by Spanx to suck them in. If your hair is too kinky, we have lye relaxers to burn curly hair straight. If your skin is too dark, it can be bleached. If your eyelids are too “Asian,” so-called “corrective” surgeries abound. While our God proclaims that each of us is wonderfully made, we have body-shamed one another into changing our God-given bodies.
But some bodies, some bodies are shamed and vulnerable in unique and particular ways. There are bodies whose very existence is an existential problem in a country build on enslaved labor. In a letter to his son, Ta-nehisi Coates writes, “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyer will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible”(Between the World and Me, 9).
There are parts of the Body that are wailing in suffering, bleeding in the streets, bruised in the schools, crying in the opinion columns and on the Internet. I wonder how we hear this suffering. I wonder how we make true St. Paul’s words “If one part suffers, all suffer with it”(1 Cor 12:26). Because right now, I don’t suffer. I can keep going along my merry way and plug up my ears.
I come from a family with a parent who was loath to go to the doctor. My Dad would stoically suffer through rather than acknowledge that part of him was hurting. We have to learn to notice the pain in order to attend to it.
Why does this matter? Why can’t we just live without our baby toe on the left foot? I think, part of the reason why Paul comes down so hard on the Church in Corinth is that he knows that they long for something deeper. They aspire for that heavenly banquet where there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor master, where the mighty have been brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. The table is the place where all that possibility exists, where we might get a foretaste of that day.
The challenge of unity in the body of Christ is not to shame any part, but to recognize the integrity. God is not asking us to be anything other than what we are- not asking you to be an elbow if you are a kneecap, not asking you to be AME if you are Lutheran, not asking you to be black if you happened to be born white. But we are being asked to hear the cries of pain and see the system that breaks certain bodies. Maybe too we are being invited to notice our own longing for unity.
Coates continues, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing- race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (10)
“You must never look away from this.” This is the challenge: to not ignore the reality of black bodies suffering just because my part doesn’t suffer in that way; to not ignore the toe writhing in pain just because I am a finger.
If we, especially we in the white parts of the Church, cannot learn to hear the suffering of the black body, we cannot follow Christ. I have no answer, no magic formula, just the confession that I am trying to learn to listen too. I’m messing up, failing, misspeaking, saying things I shouldn’t, keeping silent when I should have spoken, stumbling, and trying to hear too. From wherever you sit, and wherever you’ve been, I am certain you have an experience of being left out, of being looked over, of being excluded, or in pain. I think we take that as a starting point to hear the pain of others. For we Christians who are also white, I think this is process of un-learning some things we accepted as true and, re-learning to listen to the pain of parts of the body. This is what it will take to re-member us.
Bodies are remarkably resilient. Tissue repairs, though not without scars. New cells can be generated, though not without time. Not every wound can be healed, not everything cut off can be re-attached. Not impossible, but also not optional to re-member the body of Christ.
In the depth of my soul, I believe there’s enough sympathy to go around. We service a limitless God who invites us to care for not just our own pain, to see and reject our own body-shaming, but also the pain of the whole body. Truly hearing the pain of the black Body of Christ does not diminish my own particular part of this body.
Paul’s own word choice bear this out. You can pretend like your Baptists and look in your Bibles at 1 Corinthians 12: 26. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Paul takes regular verbs and adds the pre-fix “syn” which means “with” or “together” as in symbiosis or symphony. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. The verb is συμπάσχει / sympaschei, to suffer with: sym & pathos. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. The verb is συνχαίρει/ synchairei : to celebrate with, to rejoice with. Our unity is not accidental or incidental, but God’s intention and design from a Savior who suffered with a human body so that we might also share in Christ’s joy. This is possibility held out, held out at the communion table where everybody, every body is welcomed, that we might share in our suffering so that we might share completely in one another’s joy.