As an academic, it often pains me how much of what we are taught about learning only concerns the mind and hardly ever the body. Malina Keaton, an M.Div. student at LSTC and one of my advisees, presents us with a rich, simple model of how – even in times of great turmoil – even the most neglected parts of our very bodies are reservoirs of insight and wisdom. Her thoughts are as plaintive as they are jolting, and as my seminary continues to address the issue of institutional racism it provides a good compliment to last-week’s insight. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
*Reflection on the body is drawn from my background in gender and sexuality studies, which has for me served to counteract the Christian tendency to be anti-body. While it has become a powerful tool for theological reflection, I realize that body language is not by any means universal in its impact. I hope that my context can inform others beyond myself, but I would like to acknowledge that my words are not all-encompassing in their application.
For the longest time I thought I could combat racism with specific parts of my body. For me, the fight against racism meant bodily subversion, holding constructs and internalization within the realm of my intellect and only using my body as a vehicle for conversation. Ears were open receptacles, hearing the pain and experience of others. My mouth was closed, unless it cracked open a smile in an attempt to cheer someone up. My eyes were for tears, expressing sympathy and grief when experiences were told to me. Above and beyond all of this was my mind, the golden treasure trove I loved, which enabled me to retreat into the complicated emotions I felt, and the many nuances of oppression to consider.
This love of the mind has a long-standing relationship with my tradition. It is after all, the mind’s ability to carry two ideas in tension that formulated paradox, one of Lutheranism’s most beloved theological frameworks. As an unsurprising consequence, my tradition was also where I got the notion that my life as a Christian had little to do with my body.
I was taught by society a completely different message. That as a woman, it was in fact my body that could do the most. My smile was complimented and my thoughts criticized. My body even delivered messages I hadn’t even intended to send, seduced when I thought it was just existing.
But what does this experience have to say about diversity?
For so long, diversity became for me a matter of the mind, and my privilege was the choice over it being such a matter. Yet, in the realm of my mind I still wondered why there continued to be a disconnect between my thoughts and my environment. Why was I saying I valued diversity, but from an outsider’s perspective nothing indicated I had actually sought it? Part of it was that I never considered my body, and hadn’t trained myself to embody my theoretical values.
So I began by looking at my body and letting it teach me.
I start at the top of my head.
My hair is constantly growing, and when the ends are split and dead, I cut them off. In this, I wonder what practices I must cut out of my life that if not attended to will result in the fragmentation of my community.
I go to my ears, they are open to receive. I contemplate ways I have sometimes only heard what I want to hear, or have been unable to receive.
My eyes, two witnesses that perceive things around me. I think about how intentionality has enabled me to see things I didn’t before.
My mouth speaks in conversation with others. I consider how in conversation silence is inadequate.
I go lower.
My neck turns my mind to receive another view. How beautiful it has been for me to turn when summoned by those around me when I thought I should be facing one way!
My chest moves up and down. I consider repetition and how sometimes I have done the same thing over and over without thinking about it. Perhaps I should make time for the benefit of deep breaths.
I begrudgingly go lower to consider my stomach…
which bears evidence of the ways I have stretched and grown. I ponder the ways I may have not always appreciated stretching, wishing it had never happened and the marks of it would go away.
My clitoris. That beautiful part shows me that friction with the most sensitive part of my being can eventually bring ultimate peace. I wonder how I can be more comfortable with the friction that comes with vulnerability, and how that can take us to an existence we never thought possible.
I have forgotten the back of me! I look at my butt for a moment, that which perches itself in various spaces. I consider how I have taken spaces for granted, or taken a seat when others should have been at the table.
I continue down.
My thighs show me that two separate things sometimes rub as I move forward but remain their own. I remember all the times I thought unity and progress meant blending two distinct things together.
My knees bend when necessary, and remain tall when they need to. I wonder when in my life I am supposed to do these different tasks.
I go to my feet, they use grounded presence to move everything forward. I consider all the times I failed to move forward out of fear.
I end by taking a step back, considering my whole self and the skin that envelops me.
Its fairness, its shape means that as much as it has taught me, my white woman’s body does not hold all the answers and I shouldn’t pretend that it does. There are other bodies in the world.
I have heard many different thoughts on what occurred last week at our seminary. For an excellent summary and reflection, please read Erik’s thoughts, but here are a few that I have. Last week we were invited to travel by a professor in our midst, but like a multitude of white liberal institutions pursuing diversity, we could not do it. Solidarity was not an embodied practice.
Some stomachs betrayed their feelings, and in tension they twisted and turned. For many, eyes could only show tears or look at the ground instead of seeing the larger institutional racism we had always been surrounded by. Some arms were used to hold others at a distance. We were asked to move but some feet could not travel. Bodies had not been taught to act. Some bodies in our fold were tired. Some voices were hoarse from always being asked to speak up. Some backs bent from perpetually carrying a weight beyond what they should be holding. Being in white institutions mean some have to suffer in mind and body everyday. It is not a choice to do so, and it is not just.
The pursuit of diversity does not mean purely intellectualization, it means we must train ourselves to embody it. Not in an ableist sense, but in contemplating the lived and not just intellectual journey of our values. If there is a disparity between your body and your mind, you. must. work. to. fix. it. We cannot leave the embodied task of diversity and full-inclusion to select few. We simply cannot.
Are you using your ears to hear that a person’s experience and bravery was to condemn one person and not the system of racism? Are you using your mouth to critique and pursue nuance instead of conversing about the main point, institutional racism? Is your butt seated at a table everyday with people who look just like you? This means that you are not enabling your body to teach and inform.
Working towards a diverse community means training ourselves to rote memorization so that inclusion becomes muscle memory, and when our bodies falter we can continue on in the pursuit of the gospel promise. Will it be natural? It usually isn’t at first. It means retraining many things we thought we already learned.
And yet. It will mean we are trying to get there. When people in our midst offer a brave and embodied act, we respond with every part of us, and we commit to learning to embody what we say we believe. This will be difficult, but the key to dismantling the structural evil of racism will not come from the worship of our minds. The key will come from the power of a group of bodies that act together, speaking in confession, fighting for justice, working out reconciliation in our midst, and living out this gospel message of inclusion for all.
Malina Keaton is a first year M.Div. student at LSTC, pursuing an emphasis in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Northern California, she is entranced as a candidate for ministry with the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA. Malina is active at LSTC as a Public Church Fellow with the Night Ministry, and the Gender and Sexual Justice Organizer for Seminarians for Justice.
 Inspired by the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Barbara Newman, trans. “Commentary on the Johannine Prologue: Hildegard of Bingen.” Theology Today 60 (2003): 16-33.