Years ago, I learned of a small Christian sect that has an unusual sexual practice due to an interpretation of each Christian as the literal ‘bride of Christ.’ Every member of this religion is instructed from the age of 12 to imagine their sexuality always in relation to the (male) person of Jesus; men are encouraged to imagine they are women during intercourse and masturbation, to avoid a homoerotic relationship with Jesus; and they basically imagine their wives are Jesus.
I admit that I find this idea both bizarre and alarming. Yet, ironically, this sexual practice does accomplish one interesting goal: men imagine women as the literal Body of Christ.
Now, to be clear, I am highly wary of literalism in any religion or ideology; I could write this entire piece on the problems with this group’s theology and praxis. But as I was mulling this idea over, it did remind me that the original intent of the idea of the Body of Christ often gets neglected, ignored, or outright denied. We do not recognize the body of Christ in ourselves or those around us. We deny Christ. How… fitting.
Often, Christians and others assume that the concept of “Christ” refers to the historical, human person of Jesus of Nazareth. But “Christ” is just the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah,” or “anointed one.” The (Jewish) authors of the New Testament connected the symbol of Christ with ancient Hebrew ideas of eternal, divine wisdom; and they sought to name Jesus as one of the wise (female and male) Jewish leaders, chosen by the Divine to bring liberation and justpeace into the world. The Jewish community of that period would have understood these connections – just as they would have understood all the warnings against idolatry. Jesus never asks to be worshiped; and the term used in the New Testament for how people respond when they recognize the sacred wisdom of his teachings, often translated as ‘worship,’ refers to the same acts of reverence also shown to Jewish high priests at the time.
In the meantime, sometimes Christians focus so hard on the Messenger that they forget about the Message. Isn’t it mighty convenient that this shift away from social justice and toward personal piety creates lots of room for big money interests to manipulate well meaning people for their own further self-enrichment? And interestingly, one of the most effective ways to counter this strategy turns out to be… well, to go to church. Of all things.
Lo and behold, it turns out that those who consistently attend regular religious worship are generally more tolerant of people from other ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Even though church attendance can definitely reinforce people’s political stances (both conservative and progressive), it still fosters the ability to see humanity across lines of diversity; although until recently, the queer community has only experienced this trend in liberal churches. Conversely, the secularism that many hoped would end culture wars has had the opposite effect, driving both conservatives and liberals into homogeneous echo chambers where they develop increasingly less tolerant stances.
Some suggest that church communities offer opportunities to interact with people from other ethnic and socioeconomic groups, a form of the Contact Hypothesis that breaks down stereotypes and divisions. But even in churches without much diversity, regular attendance still leads to more tolerance. Instead of being the cause of recent spikes in hate crimes, could churches actually be counteracting them? Could the religions themselves have something of value to offer?
Ancient religions arose within communities seeking the sacred, seeking liberation, and justice. While extremists will always use religion to promote extremism, religions as a whole preach tolerance, humility, and even celebration of diversity. Although far from perfect – humans are, after all, imperfect – something about regularly practicing our religions, in community, apparently helps us remember and reclaim the divinity within ourselves, one another, and all Creation. Which brings me back to the Body of Christ.
As black liberation theologian James Cone points out:
Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people… have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.
The redemption and healing Cone describes extends to everywhere in Creation where human sinfulness causes suffering. As Paul writes,
Those parts of the body that seem to be lesser are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we clothe with greater honor… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ; each one of you is a part of it.
[1 Cor 12:22-7]
Christians must always claim the original intent of the Body of Christ, broken because of sin. Until we see the broken body of Christ in the suffering children intentionally separated from their parents at our southern border, until we recognize the most holy and precious Divine in their beautiful little bodies, in their parents, in ourselves, we will not be able to find the liberation, the salvation, that our country desperately needs. How many bodies are broken to bring us cheap food? Cheap clothes? Cheap oil? How many bodies of Christ are broken for us?
Every corner of Creation cries out in anguish. Our own bodies cry out. When we deny the sacred, in ourselves and those around us, we deny Christ. Can we claim the Body of Christ in ourselves? In our children – all of them? In our lands? How have we contributed to the wounds? Do we repent? How do we honor the Christ, eternal Source of holy Wisdom? It is – we are – at once broken and whole, anguished and resurrected, dying and reborn with mighty strength and power.
I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
I’ve danced through the prophets all across the Earth,
In Life and Love I have my birth.
I danced before power and rigidity,
But they would not dance and they would not follow me;
I danced for the lowly and the brave and scorned;
They came to me and the dance went on.
I danced in the holy place and sang my Name;
The holy people said it was a shame;
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high;
And they left me there on a cross to die.
I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried a body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.
I stepped through death and I leapt up high,
I am the Life that will never, never die;
I’ll live in you as you’ll live in me;
I am the Life and the Dance and Free.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Life and the Dance and Free,
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance with me.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.