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Churches throughout the world are still wrestling with questions about sexuality and gender. In the Church of England, the organised spiritual warfare that was Living in Love and Faith has now morphed into a wrangle about whether gay couples can even be blessed! How could this deeply painful and shameful state of affairs have come about?
The time has now come for an investigation into the prior historical and theological causes leading to this impasse. Moving beyond the polemics and endless iterations of fixed positions, such an investigation might uncover a much older tradition that regards particular human bodies as inferior, disgusting, vile, ‘other’. This tradition would explain more than the disdain shown to LGBT people and their place, if any, in the churches. It would help to explain the terrible and world-wide abuse of children and vulnerable people by Christian leaders; why the churches covered it up; why racism is still endemic; why women still can’t be ministers or priests in most of the world’s churches; why spiritual abuse operates unchecked; why churches uphold marriage while ignoring the poor quality of life within many of them.
There is now a book that has begun this wider, deeper, and necessary investigation. Vile Bodies: The Body in Christian Teaching, Faith, and Practice uncovers an antipathy toward the human body in much Christian theology. No abstract body/soul dualism, the product of theory, this antipathy expresses itself in practices that harm particular bodies. It vilifies them, whether the bodies of women, slaves, Jews, Muslims, Black people, heretics, gays, heathens, people of lower classes. This tradition of thinking about and mistreating bodies is stubbornly entrenched in theology. It manifests itself whenever the church manages to get itself talking about bodies.
Vile Bodies exposes the beliefs that harm people instead of healing them. It finds the roots of sexism, misogyny, androcentrism, antisemitism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and for the justification of extreme violence in the Bible itself. Building on the insights of black and feminist theologies, Vile Bodies moves beyond the Bible and examines what successive generations of Christians have done with it, right down to the contemporary practices that demean the bodies of sexual minorities, of colonised peoples, and victims of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
Bridging the distance between biblical times and our own, Vile Bodies examines the psychological abuse of women compelled to see themselves as the downfall of the world; the futile attempts of holy men to deny their sexuality; the elaborate (and entirely biblical) justifications for owning slaves and enslaving whole peoples. It shows how mystical theology plundered the body’s senses in its forlorn attempts to soar above them in the soul’s search for God. It describes the elaborate manipulation of biblical texts to justify the persecution and killing of Jews, soon extended to justifying the crusades, enslaving millions, and colonizing whole peoples.
Two of the most harmful books ever written were produced by Christian theologians, Kramer and Sprenger’s work on finding, trying, and murdering women identified as witches, and Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies – a work that led to the demeaning and unbelievable persecution of Jews in the following centuries. But these works followed the methods of the later Anglican theology that bases itself contentedly on scripture, tradition, and reason. These two folios of hate speech bulge with quotations from scripture, adding tradition and reason as necessary, all justifying their evil ends. They show that doctrine without compassion is an evil and destructive thing. They show that of all books the Bible, at least in the hands of some, is most dangerous.
Racism and colonialism follow from the theology that regards some bodies as superior, others inferior or disgusting. A particular feature of such theology is that it requires self-delusion, the pretence that racism, like sexism and homophobia, is consistent with God’s will. Wilful amnesia is required to pretend that these continuing evils have other causes. At other times acknowledgement of them (“We sincerely repent”) is a refusal to acknowledge the bad theology that continues unabated. Alleged fidelity to scripture is substituted for real fidelity to Christ.
An ‘unknowing’ of this tradition is an urgent task. The violent God who authorizes violence, who sends ‘His’ ‘Son’ to be a sacrifice for our sins might be feared but can’t be worshipped. The inoculation from self-criticism; the priority of apparent unity over the pursuit of truth; the abuse and its concealment to protect the church’s ‘good name’; the hypocrisy that spins pastoral principles while at the same time undermining them; these are the demons awaiting exorcism from the body of the church.
St Paul contrasted vile bodies with glorious bodies (Phil. 3.21, KJV). A post-abusive theology rejoices in human diversity; welcomes our bodies as sites of joy and pleasure; welcomes God the Life-giver as source of all beings, and the Spirit as the One who breathes Her gifts among all peoples. It foregrounds the Word made flesh over the words of the Bible; finds both unity and diversity in the doctrine of the Trinity where the Persons really are equal but different; and in the Eucharist finds the One who said ‘This is my body’ as He gives himself to us without reservation. Here no body is vile, and the vile thoughts and beliefs that vilify so many bodies, have no place.
Adrian Thatcher is Editor of Modern Believing.
The ideas explored above will be addressed on Monday 5th February, 7.30pm, 2024, online with SCM Press, at a colloquium on Vile Bodies: the Body in Christian Teaching, Faith and Practice, by Adrian Thatcher (editor, Modern Believing). Chaired by Elaine Graham, with Rev Jarel Robinson Brown (author of ‘Black, Gay, British, Queer: The Church and the Famine of Grace’), and Helen King (Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at the Open University).