This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The dignity of bodies.” For more stories on this theme, see the February issue of The Mennonite.
When the first human (“adam”) was created, God took some soil (“adamah”) and breathed life into it. From our beginning we have been earth-infused with the divine. God’s breath of life not only fills our lungs but animates every cell in our body. What makes us human is that we are made in the image of God but also made of humus and, therefore, imperfect.
Our bodies are a source of delight. We bask in the glow of a warm fire. We dance to the sound of music, revel in the sky at sunset and breathe in the scent of a rose in full bloom. We use our bodies for helping, for working, for playing, for loving. We savor a good stretch, a tasty meal, a glass of cool water. God created our bodies and called us “very good.”
But bodies can also be a source of physical or emotional pain. We want them to be different. We wish they didn’t hurt, or were faster, or thinner, or healthier, more agile. We can feel shame about our bodies or frustration. This is particularly true because we live in a culture that has what Tom Reynolds calls “a cult of normalcy.”
In his book Vulnerable Communion, Reynolds writes, “[In North American culture] the cult of normalcy is at work. The physically and mentally able—the potent, acquisitive, efficient and innovative body is normalized. Conversely, excluded is that anomalous and dysfunctional body deemed lacking in these preferred and desirable traits. The disabled body is thus created. Able-bodied people fear the lack represented in the disabled body, so it is ostracized or normalized. Consequentially, everyone ends up shunning those dimensions of human existence that are vulnerable and weak, perhaps wounded or imperiled. Instead of facing our vulnerability directly, we participate in the cult of normalcy, projecting shame onto the other, the different—that which is categorized disabled” (Reynolds 2008, page 97).
The truth is that everybody has limitations. Imperfection is a part of human nature. We were created to be both gifted and vulnerable in different ways. And if we are not considered disabled now, it is likely that one day we will be as we experience age-related impairments.
God enters into our limited human condition through the incarnation. God in an embodied state, through Jesus Christ, takes on our human frailty and vulnerability. Jesus gets tired and sometimes needs to rest, even sleeping through a storm on a boat. On the cross Jesus cries out because he is thirsty, he suffers and is executed. His body bears the marks of his torture. It is significant that even after Jesus is resurrected his wounds are still visible and palpable. The resurrection does not take away the impaired state of his body.
In The Disabled God Nancy Eisland writes, “Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God” (Eisland 1994, page 100). According to Eisland, “Resurrection is not about the negation or erasure of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather, Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our non-conventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the Imago Dei and that God whose nature is love and who is on the side of justice and solidarity is touched by our experience” (Eisland 1994, page 107).
God fully understands our condition and embraces our imperfect embodiment with grace and love. We, on the other hand, can be dissatisfied with our bodies. We feel impatient with our own limitations and the limitations of others. For example, my husband and I are learning how to deal with some of the impairment of aging graciously when we don’t always hear each other well and we move more slowly.
We also make judgments about others based on their bodies. We make assumptions about their capability, strength, mental capacity, spiritual wisdom and character based on their physical appearance. As I serve in disability ministry, I have been blessed to encounter the wide variety of gifts shared by people who are considered disabled.
Being gracious and affirming of one another allows us to be mutually blessed. Human beings are varied in strengths and impairments, but we are much closer in likeness to one another than we are to God. Tom Reynolds argues that we are created to be vulnerable, to need one another. In fact, it is our impairments that draw us into relationship (Reynolds 2008, pages 106-107). We are diversely-able, but imperfect. It is through community, bound together in the Body of Christ, that we are made whole.
May we be patient and gracious with ourselves and one another as we struggle with the varied beauty and impairment of our embodied lives. May we find perfect completion in relationship with God and each other.
Jeanne Davies is program director at Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
Eisland, Nancy L. 1994. The Disabled God. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Reynolds, Thomas E. 2008. Vulnerable Communion. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
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