The Health Hierarchy

The Fat Nutritionist, one of my favourite bloggers, posted today sharing her brilliant insights in the ways that we use health as a marker of success and how that affects people who are inherently “unhealthy.” Check out her post at When health is not on your side..

Health is the newest hierarchy that our culture has developed. We human beings seem to have an inherent need to find ways to rank ourselves. Wealth has long been a primary status hierarchy. Race has tragically been used too often to create a hierarchy of differences. Gender, of course, is still used to prove that one type of human being is better than another. But health is the current hierarchy fad, and we are being led to believe that it is something we can earn for ourselves. As The Fat Nutritionist writes,

By this definition, if you have good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, and no notable illnesses or conditions, then you’ve achieved health.

There is, according to this definition, no reason that we can’t raise ourselves up on the health hierarchy. All you have to do is take care of yourself, right? Exercise and eat right and you will be Healthy. But, as she rightfully points out, that isn’t always possible.

I can’t help but look at the issue through my theological glasses, of course. Sometimes, Christians seem preoccupied with the importance of Health. The whole “Less of me and more of Jesus” approach to weight loss is a great* example. I think we might claim not to be worried about outward appearances (i.e. the ugliness of fat) but about the inward importance of physical health. I’ve heard the argument that we need to be physically healthy because then we will be prepared to do whatever work the Lord might ask of us (such as going on a foreign mission). I’ve heard the argument that being healthy is a way of honouring God in our bodies (we’ll ignore the context of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which is sexual morality not physical Health). Of course, there could be an argument that striving for health is a way of loving ourselves well.

I’ve often wondered how people with disabilities and illnesses feel about these arguments. The person with Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t know from day to day if he will be able to “do whatever work the Lord might ask.” He needs to trust that the Lord knows him and his weaknesses and won’t ask him to do something that his illness prevents. And the Lord is trustworthy, so he can rest assured that will be the case. The person with bad asthma may not be able to exercise to “honour God in her body” because she risks triggering a severe attack that will leave her weaker than ever and risk her life. She honours God in her body by serving Him faithfully in whatever way she can, knowing that will be enough for our good God of mercy. Striving for health might not be possible for the working poor. They spend all their time working just to make ends meet and then are often only able to afford “junk food.” I am confident that God recognizes their situation and is pleased that they are doing their best with what they have.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “but that all makes sense. The person with Multiple Sclerosis, the person with asthma, the working poor all have problems that are not their fault. What about the person who gave themselves Type II Diabetes or high cholesterol or overweight or whatever? They did it to themselves. They should feel bad. They did something sinful.”

First of all: did they? How do you know? Are you sure that you aren’t judging someone by their appearance without knowing the whole story?

Second: are you sure that unhealthy habits are actually sins? I’m not.

Third: so what? Do you think that God loves the fat person less? What about the person whose sweet tooth led to diabetes? What about the person who loves rich, greasy food and gave themselves a heart attack? Do you really think that these people are less important to God than healthy people?

 

Health is just another hierarchy. Christians are called not to consider ourselves better than others based on race, class, or gender (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28). Paul hadn’t seen a world where we treated one another differently based on perceptions of Health, but I think if he had, he would’ve added “healthy nor unhealthy” to his list. Actually, I take it back. Paul did see such a world. He saw a world where lepers and people with “imperfections” (anything from birthmarks to physical and intellectual disabilities) were cast out of society and had to live in squalor on the outside of the cities. He also knew a Saviour who walked amongst those people, who healed some of them of their diseases, and who promises that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Our bodies are broken by the Fall. Some are broken more than others. Some are broken because they haven’t been loved well by themselves or by other bodies. But our broken bodies are a part of our humanity and our humanity is a gift from the God who made us in His image. As Christians we are called to love one another and to value others above ourselves. There is no room for judgment based on Health in that call.

One more quote from the excellent post linked above:

The reality is that health is not an achievement. It’s something you already have, and it looks a bit different for every person. Health is a dynamic resource that each person carries with them, in some form, through their entire life. …By coping well and caring for yourself, in whatever way works best for your unique habitus and challenges, and by living a life that matters to you, you are cultivating the health that is already yours.

As Christians, I would encourage you to take the health you have as a gift from God. Recognize that your body is broken but that the effects of the Fall are temporary. That doesn’t make our brokenness any easier to handle, but it will give us hope, leading us to care for ourselves and live our lives well based on our unique health resources. Recognize also that, even if you are temporarily Healthy, you have not achieved something that makes you better than anyone else. Beware of pride. There is nothing wrong, of course, with doing things like exercising or eating well, because those things make us feel good and could give us strength and energy. But they aren’t a form of righteousness and they never will be, just as eating some cake is not a sin (I will concede that eating ALL THE CAKES could be considered a sin, but gluttony is not the topic of this post). Most of all, loving your body is good, but loving other bodies is better. By that I mean that we should take care of our brothers and sisters and love them as they are, not as what we think they should be.

If you haven’t already, go read The Fat Nutritionist’s post. It was awesome and much better thought out than mine.

 

*and utterly humiliating. Christians can be so painfully cheesy sometimes.

 

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Food and Prejudice

A few days ago, I had the privilege of reading this excellent blog post from s.e. smith on the blog This Ain’t Livin’:

Eating as Performance of Moral Superiority – this ain’t livin’.

In this post, Smith explores the ways in which our culture has recently come to give moral and ethical inflection to certain foods or certain ways of eating.  I heartily encourage you to read the post since there is no reason for me to rehash an already excellently written piece here.

Essentially, Smith reminds us that our decisions about food are more complicated than the food-moralists might like to believe.  Food-moralists (I’m coining a term here) want to give certain foods (say, kale) a higher moral superiority rating than other foods (say, white pasta).  They then condemn those who eat “wrong” foods and applaud those who eat “right” foods.

But, Smith suggests, those food choices are not always easy to make.  I have certainly noticed what I call a “health tax” on some foods.  Picking on pasta again, I have noticed that whole wheat pasta is typically more expensive than white pasta.  So, if white pasta is “junk food” (something I once heard a food-moralist say), then poorer people are stuck eating “junk.”  The moralistic implications of the word “junk” are pretty strong.

Smith’s entire post is excellent, but it ends on this strong note:

Until eating can be divorced from value judgments, it’s going to be difficult to repair a broken food system. Individual dietary choices are not made in a vacuum, but a world filled with pressures, and those pressures must be acknowledged in a discussion of what people eat, how, and why. There’s nothing morally superior about eating one thing and not another, and people need to stop acting like their fridges contain proof of sanctification.

Wow.  Proof of sanctification.  I think that hits the nail squarely on the head, don’t you?

And here’s where I have to weigh in theologically, since the word “sanctification” is an explicitly religious word.

What you eat does not make you a better person.

What you eat will not save your body or your soul.

But food-moralism has found its way into churches as well as running rampant in secular society.  What can we do about that?

James has a few things to say that I think are pertinent here (James 2:2-13, bolding mine):

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. …If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. …Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Okay, so here James is talking about clothing as a visible and outward sign of poverty or wealth.  I would argue that in our society, obesity or thinness are the new signs of poverty or wealth.  But regardless of what a person looks like, when we see what’s on their plate, we levy judgments.  We show favouritism.

I guess the theological message I want to add to s.e. smith’s excellent blog post is this: Christians need to live differently than everyone else, and that means letting go of the world’s (our society’s) ideas about “right foods” and “wrong foods”, “good foods” and “bad foods.”  We need to stop judging others about their food choices.  Mercy triumphs over judgement.  Loving your neighbour as yourself means honouring them as adults who are free to make their own choices about what they eat.

If you care so much about what other people are eating, feed the poor.  Donate what you consider to be wholesome foods to the food bank.  Volunteer to make healthy meals at homeless shelters.  But keep in mind that what you can live on as a person who has access to food anytime you want it might be different than what a person who might eat only one meal a day might need.  Honouring the poor means listening to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their desires, not imposing your food judgements and value systems on them.

Body Size Discrimination and the Church

From a Christian perspective, discrimination on the basis of body size/shape is especially heinous.  We are called to love all people, sinners and redeemed-sinners (otherwise known as the saints) alike.  We are called to love them because they are made in the image of God.  I think, however, that healthism is creeping into the Church, preventing us from loving some of our neighbours—or our brothers and sisters in Christ—as well as we are called to do.

Now, you might argue, loving overweight people means helping them to become healthy.  Yes, yes it does.  But consider this quote from Dr. Jon Robison:

“Health can be redefined as the manner in which we live well despite our inescapable illnesses, disabilities, and trauma.”

Robison makes a very Christian point here, whether he intended it or not.  One of the things we know as Christians is that there was a Fall.  Human beings, though made in the image of God, are now dying beings, experiencing the on-going effects of the first sin.  Our brokenness means that we will suffer disease and illness, that some of us will be born with physical or mental challenges, that we can be injured and maimed, and that we can make mistakes when it comes to taking good care of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live.

We also know, however, that we are being redeemed.  Our world, our selves, and our relationships with God and others are all part of that ongoing redemption.  When we interact with someone, we are interacting with them both as children created in the image of God and as people who can be or are being redeemed.

Health is a part of that redemption.  But it behooves us to note that, in some cases, ideal health (whatever that might look like) will never be possible.  No matter how virtuously a cancer patient lives her life, she may still die young.  No matter how hard a blind person prays, he might not receive healing.  Someone with a chronic disease like Multiple Sclerosis lives as well as he can despite the pain and difficulty associated with the brokenness of his body.  Regardless of how often a fat person tries to lose weight, statistics tell us that in 95% of cases, the weight will be regained (sometimes with interest) within 2-5 years.

So, encouraging someone to live a healthy life sometimes means accepting that their body will not be made perfect on this side of the general resurrection, and that, frankly, we don’t know what perfect will look like on the other side.  Helping someone live a healthy life means helping them to love themselves well.  It means helping them to see that their bodies are giving them cues about what to eat and when and how much.  It means helping them to find healthy and pleasurable ways to move their bodies so that they are experiencing fullness of life.

It means not judging someone because they go to the gym and then have an ice cream afterwards.  Instead, why not complement them for going to the gym?  It means that you welcome people of all abilities and sizes into a physical event—whether sports or dancing or gardening or otherwise—and make sure that everyone is having fun and no one gets hurt.  It means affirming someone as made in the image of God and helping them to find abundant life in the body which God gave to them, even as that body is marked by the brokenness of the Fall.

Objectification and Theology: Part 3

Is Christian theology strong enough to help women fight back the pressures of objectification?

I believe it is.  I believe that if we look into the Christian story, we will find a narrative that describes all the ways that God has said, “Yes!” to human bodies.  And if God is saying, “yes”, then who am I to say, “no”?

As we explore this topic, I will touch on the following areas:

  • Creation: God gave human beings bodies, and said that they are good
  • Incarnation: God loved human bodies so much that He took one for Himself
  • Resurrection: The body of Jesus didn’t stay dead, and He didn’t come back as a ghost
  • Ascension: The body of Jesus is ALIVE and IN HEAVEN right now
  • General Resurrection: All our bodies are going to be raised up to new life

I think that if we can come to believe that all these things are true, then we will be able to fight back against the forces that want to treat us as objects.  We will find worth for ourselves that transcends our bodies but doesn’t leave those bodies behind, either.

Feminism has rightly accused Christianity of treating bodies in general, and women’s bodies in particular, as if they were bad.  I hope to defend Christianity against that charge, even as I admit that some Christian thought has definitely contributed to the damage that women are suffering.

I hope instead to offer a Christian theology that tells the story of the goodness of the human body, the equality of women, and the amazing hope that all Jesus-followers have for an eternity of embodied awesomeness.

The God who created us wants us to be whole persons: body, mind, and soul.  I believe that without reservation.

I also know that a lot of damage has been done to women in the way they relate to others, to themselves, and to God.  Objectification is a cancer that is spreading through our culture, but I hope that if enough of us can learn to fight it, then it will someday be stopped.

Men, please don’t feel left out or accused.  You are victims of this culture of objectification as well.  You are increasingly becoming victims of objectification yourselves, and you have learned destructive ways of relating to women’s bodies and to your own bodies because of objectification.  I know that not all men are complicit in objectification, either.  Many of you are fighting for the rights of women to be treated as subjects, and that is very, very exciting.  I hope that you, too, can learn something about how much God loves you, body and soul.

Objectification and Theology: Part 2

People who follow Jesus should be pretty excited about how awesome their bodies are.

That’s what I came to realize one day while hanging out with some Christian ladies that I love.  They were starting in on the “fat talk.”  Oh, you know what I mean.

“I’m so fat.”
“No you aren’t, you look great.  I’m fat.”
“Whatever!  You probably never need to go to the gym.  Omigawd, you should see my husband…he never works out and he’s still losing weight.  It’s sick.”

They looked down at their bodies in disgust.

These bodies that God made for them.  These bodies that God blessed and anointed.  These bodies that had laid hands in prayer, comforted the sick, hugged friends, enraptured husbands, served food to the poor, preached the Word, played with children, performed amazing music, and stood in awe of God’s greatness.

These Godly women hated their bodies.

And it struck me, then, that there was nothing in the Good News that should allow that to happen.  In fact, it started to grow in my mind that the Christian story is one that—literally—raises human bodies to a pretty high level.

God loves human bodies so much that He took one for Himself.

In my last post, I started to introduce the history of objectification in our culture, and I explained that Christianity has inherited a dangerous form of dualism that treats bodies like disposable trash.  That attitude unfortunately resembles the attitude of Gnosticism.  The early Church had to fight with a breakaway group that was trying to mashup Christianity with something called Gnosticism.  Very basically, Gnostics believed that secret knowledge (gnosis) would get them into heaven, and they believed that heaven was a place of pure spirit, since matter was nasty and broken and full of sin.  Long-story-short, the early Church worked really hard to knock Gnosticism out.  They didn’t want that theology creeping into Christianity.

Because Christian theology ought to treat the body—and all matter—as good, created by God, worthy of redemption.

And that includes our bodies.

I believe that although women have to face objectification all the time in our culture—whether in fashion magazines, pornography (soft and hard), or what’s being called “rape culture”—that if we place our trust in the God who made us as embodied beings, who wants us to be embodied beings, then we can stand tall against the forces that want to turn us into objects.

It is going to be the broad purpose of my blog to share what I have come to believe about how much God loves our bodies, and about how we can learn to love our bodies, too.  Please feel free to ask questions along the way.  I’m leaving out the footnotes because I know that some people find them boring, but they are available upon request.

Objectification and Theology: Part 1

“I hate my body.”
“I’m so ugly.”
“If only I had a gap between my thighs.”
“I’ll go dancing again—but not until I lose some weight.”
“Do I need a boob job?”  “A nose job?”  “Liposuction?”  “Skin lightening?”  “Botox?”

Across North America, as women are looking into mirrors or other reflective surfaces, they are thinking things like this.  According to sociologists like Marika Tiggemann, body dissatisfaction is so common among women in North America that it is now considered normal.  I think that experience bears this out.  I’m willing to bet that if you are a woman, you have had at least one negative thought about your body this week.  There is something about your body that you wish you could change.

This is hardly news, of course.  By now we have also been exposed to great coverage of how the media is affecting our body image.  We know, at least on some level, that the images we see around us are affecting the way we feel about ourselves.

It’s just hard to access that knowledge in a dressing room under harsh lights, or first thing in the morning when we’re still half asleep, or in the bathroom at an office party when our makeup starts to smudge.

Feminists, of course, have plenty to say about why women hate our bodies.  They blame the patriarchy—that political and cultural tradition that says that men are large and in charge—and they point to our philosophical heritage of mind-body dualism.  Together, they say, patriarchy and dualism create a potent cocktail in which women are routinely objectified, treated as property in heterosexual relationships or as consumable sexual objects in the media.

Objectification messes us up.  On the one hand, it makes us feel like we are only bodies, or that our bodies are the only important thing about us.  On the other hand, we feel alienated from those bodies.  That is, we start to feel like our bodies aren’t really us.  They’re just clay that we have to mold to a specific shape.  And because of the influence of a misogynistic patriarchy, we also come to feel that our bodies are dirty, never-good-enough, worth nothing until a man decides they are worth something.

Christianity gets blamed for this attitude, and not without reason.  There is an ugly tradition of woman-hating in our history: men who considered women to be temptresses out to seduce them and destroy their virtue.  There is also some confusion in Christian theology about the body.  Some Christians have come to believe that our bodies are nothing more than meat-suits that we wander around in until we die and then our spirits go to heaven.

These Christians are mistaken.

They’ve (mostly) accidentally inherited some dualism from good old Plato…this idea that mind/spirit/soul is better, higher, purer than bodies/matter.  Sadly, when this dualism comes into play, women get stuck on the body/matter side of things, and men get to live on the mind/soul side.

Because women are considered impure matter under this system, we are treated like objects.  We are treated as if we have no souls, no minds, no spirits.

Is it any wonder that we end up treating our bodies like trash, and at the same time thinking that they are most important thing about us?

Why I Get Excited about the Incarnation

What’s so exciting about the Incarnation of Jesus?

It comes across at first as a dry theological topic.  It has a Latin-y name with more than two syllables.  It sounds kind of vague and abstract and ivory-tower.

In fact, the exciting thing about the Incarnation of Jesus is that it is none of these things.

When we find Jesus in His human body, we find something not vague, but specific.  Not abstract, but concrete.  Not ivory-tower, but down-in-the-dirt with the least of us.

Jesus has a human body.  A specific human body.  With specific features.  Unfortunately for us, none of the disciples cared to describe Jesus’ appearance in writing for us, which might be because he doesn’t look like anything special. (In fact, in Isaiah 53:2b, Isaiah foretells that there would be nothing about him that would cause us to take a second look.)  But he has features: he has a nose of a certain shape, eyes of a specific colour, a mouth that curves upward in just a certain way when He sees His friends.  I don’t want to speculate on what He looks like because we simply don’t know…yet.  But someday we will.

Jesus has a human body.  A concrete human body.  It isn’t a ghost’s “body,” somehow looking physical but actually made of energy or something.  He has a solid, touchable, human body.  Granted, His human body is now transformed, so it has…properties…that our bodies don’t yet have, but it is still a concrete body.  It is a concrete body that no doubt tore at the flesh of His virgin mother when she gave birth to Him.  It is a concrete body that felt the warmth and wetness of the tears of the woman who came to wash His feet.  It is a concrete body that cried tears when He felt–with His real, human, poignant feelings–the grief of His friends over the death of their brother, Lazarus, when He felt His own grief.  It is a concrete body that still bears the concrete scars of His crucifixion: holes in His hands (wrists?) and His feet, a gap in His side where the spear pierced His concrete flesh, His forehead torn by the thorns of the crown they gave Him.

Jesus has a human body.  A comes-from-the-dirt human body.  This isn’t an ivory-tower, academic, castle-in-the-clouds concept.  This is a truth that is as real as the ground beneath our feet, the sweat on our skin, the blood pounding in our ears.  Jesus is alive in this body right now in the presence of God, in the dimension we call Heaven.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Word that was in the beginning, the One in whom all things hold together, has a real human body that we will someday see with our real human eyes.  Jesus knows what it means to be hungry, to feel physical pain, to experience temptation, to hug a friend or family member, to touch a person suffering from disease, to craft something with his hands, to mix spit with dirt to create mud.  Academics (and I am one of them, most of the time) can make almost anything so difficult to understand that it seems like they’re just making things up as they go along, or so aloof from reality that we can’t ever figure out why certain concepts matter.

But the body of Jesus matters.  The body of Jesus is matter.

I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus because it’s the part of the story where everything changes.  God, who crafted human beings out of the primordial stuff, the basics that make up even the dirt that we walk on, that God chose to become one of us.  He chose to cast His lot in with us, to take the death that we deserved, and then to pave the way for us to become like Him.  Because His real human body is present with God, our real human bodies can be present with God…someday.  Because His flesh was transformed, our flesh will be transformed…someday.  Because the dirt from which His body was formed, that basic stuff…tissues, cells, DNA, atoms, electrons, the Higgs boson…all of that basic stuff will be transformed…someday.

So, how can I not get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus?  Because Jesus is matter, matter matters.  Because Jesus has a body, we can trust that our individual bodies, and the whole of the universe, will someday be transformed in a collision between the eternal heaven and the currently-finite universe.

Your mileage may vary, but to me this is Very Good News.

That’s why I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus.