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The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith
Theological Reflections on Embodied Faith: Body Talk
Body in Space
“What’s it like to have your body in space?” The only correlation of the question to reality was that we also happened to be sitting outside around the looking at stars, but I knew she was really asking something else. She wasn’t wondering about the effects of zero gravity, or the silence of screaming into a vacuum. “I didn’t say it at the time, but it wasn’t lost on me: watching you use your stature with that child lifeguard today was a delight,” referencing the transformation in body language she had seen when we were begging for a canoe-rental exception.
Then it struck me. She was asking something profound. I mean, I’ve lived with my body (in a variety of shapes) my whole life, but I didn’t have an answer because I had never really thought about it before. What does my body say about who I am, what does my body do for me and for others, and how is that different than anyone else?
I guess I’m tall enough to reach things from the top shelf. I’m probably strong enough to do most manual labor that could reasonably be expected of a person. I’m certainly white enough to not be murdered for a broken taillight, and male enough to not get many catcalls walking by a construction site. These alone are probably plenty of differentiation from the petite inquisitor, but I think the question was begging for more.
So here’s what I’ve got: I think my body is a gift and a responsibility. When our lives become radically re-centered on the other, our bodies carry us into action as an extension of that. I’m strong enough to carry the heavy stuff for my wife. I’m tall enough to put children on my shoulders and make them feel like superheroes. I’m big enough that I can block traffic, the wind and rain, or someone from getting punched. As I found out earlier, I’m also imposing enough to intimidate a lifeguard, and hopefully wise enough to know when not to do that.
But it comes with a responsibility too. How I carry my body in space means something. It says something about me, but perhaps more importantly it says something to everyone I interact with. Am I a threat? Am I imposing? How is my body language literally opening up space for the other to live and breathe and flourish? Where I place it shows who I’m concerned about, and what I do with it shows what I value much more than what I might say.
My body offers me a lot of privileges, to be sure, but the responsibility that comes with privilege is to be ready to lay it down for the sake of the other. I don’t always know how people will interpret my body, but I can influence what they experience from it. Will my fellow clergy see my energy? Will my family members see my willingness? Will the stranger on the street see me as safe? Will my politically panicked friends see me as a non-anxious presence? Will my brothers and sisters of color see me as someone who needs the microphone or someone who holds the microphone for them?
The question of others might be “what is it like?” They can see the attributes and advantages I have, and they can know their potential for action. But I wonder if they are really asking something else: Will you use your body to protect me or are you the one I need protection from?
I can block the wind and the rain from their assault, or I can turn and be the assault myself. I can take a punch for someone else, or I can deliver the same punch. I can lift people up on my shoulders, or I can hold things over their head. I can escalate and antagonize, or I can make peace and make space. I can be a rock that refuses them room to grow, or a rock that provides refuge in a storm.
The question is not about voyeurism into privilege, but rather a question of posture. How will I use my incarnated self? I think that’s a question for all of us. You have my answer.
Photo of the author (left) and his friend, Josiah Daniels (right), was taken during the Laquan McDonald protests in Chicago on Black Friday, November 27, 2015. Photo credit: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune.
1) In what ways do my various bodily features give me advantages in power or privilege?
2) Some studies have shown that non-verbal cues comprise 93% of what is communicated. What are some ways that our body says more than our mouth?
3) How do you weigh the privileges and responsibilities that come with your incarnate self?
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About the Author: Ben Swihart is a community development practitioner, author, and activist from Chicago. He has an MDiv from Northern Seminary (IL) and an MA in International Development from Eastern University (PA). He also blogs occasionally at www.smolderinghope.com.