Treating People as more than Just Bodies

Photo by Laurin Guadiana

A couple days ago, I talked about the biblical basis for defining a person as both body and soul, and how our ultimate hope is not to become a disembodied spirit, but rather to spend eternity in a glorified body. We are not only our bodies, but our bodies are certainly an integral part of who we are. Having laid down that scriptural foundation, I would like to now discuss how human relationships can break apart when we fail to properly apply these principles.

If the ancient Greeks tended to view people as souls trapped in a shell, the modern world has a tendency to view everything as material. If you are a true materialist (in the philosophical sense), you do not believe that souls exist. Therefore, a human being really is nothing more than their body, and all of their thoughts and feelings are the result of electrical signals that they cannot truly control. This has led some atheists, such as Sam Harris, to write treatises declaring that free will does not exist.

This is not the Christian view. We believe that the human will is under the influence of the sinful nature, and that without the power of the Spirit, humans are unable to perform true acts of righteousness or choose to follow God. However, we certainly do believe that all humans have a soul…even if that soul is dead in sin. No human being is only a body. We affirm the real nature of the physical world while also acknowledging the existence of the supernatural.

Despite this belief, many Christians join right in with non-Christians in acting as if people do not have souls. What do I mean by this? Just look at how we tend to treat people whom we look down on for any number of reasons: we often deemphasize their mental and spiritual nature and view them only in terms of their body.

During the recent kerfuffle over the “Pence Rule” and the reexamination of the “Billy Graham Rule”, my friend Aimee Byrd and others noted that such ways of thinking have a tendency to reduce women to sexual objects and nothing more. Sam Powell described this by saying that some people believe they can “catch adultery” from a woman simply by being in her presence. Whether or not you feel that way about the “Pence Rule”, there is no question that our society and many throughout history have objectified women and treated them merely as sex objects.

A beauty pageant in the Philippines. Photo by Paul Chin

We certainly see this in the case of rampant pornography, beauty pageants, and the general way in which women tend to be judged by men…and other women. But it is not only those who are “worldly” that think in this manner. I have written elsewhere how the great medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas stated that women were placed on earth chiefly for the purpose of procreation. This was a common view throughout much of history, and it is still held by some people. The irony is that this view commits the same error as our current hyper-sexualized society: it reduces women to nothing but their bodies. It does not take into consideration their intellect, emotions, or eternal soul. It judges them purely on physical attributes or sees their physical duties as the only ones that are important.

When you view someone as nothing more than a body, it is a lot easier to justify taking advantage of them, mistreating them, or outright controlling them. That person becomes an object or a toy to be played with rather than an individual to be nurtured. It does not take much of a jump to get from this point to something even more nefarious: treating people as property.

Your mind has now turned along with mine to the history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere. There was a time in this country when it was possible to legally “own” a human being. I put that word in quotation marks because there is no moral basis for owning another human. Yet slavery has always existed on planet earth, and Scripture even acknowledges the fact, though I must emphasize that the type of slavery described by the Apostle Paul and others was somewhat different from what existed in America prior to the 1860s. It was more common in the 1st century for a person to become a slave because their nation was conquered or they had debts to pay. Entire races of people were not taken into slavery purely because of their race, and it was possible for many people to buy their freedom. While slavery was certainly a cruel institution in those days, these differences shed some light on Paul’s language concerning slavery and redemption.

In the case of the ancient Israelites, they were enslaved in perpetuity based on race, and God clearly condemned the way they were treated by their Egyptian masters. The Mosaic Law outlined ways for slaves to be redeemed and required them to be set free in the Year of Jubilee. (Leviticus 25:35-46) Exceptions were made for foreigners, but this must be viewed in the context of the conquest of Canaan and the fact that the Mosaic Law was not meant to describe divine perfection. See, for example, the rule regarding divorce, which Christ later said was given “because of your hardness of heart”. (Matthew 19:8) While the Apostle Paul did tell slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:6), he also instructed masters not to treat their slaves with partiality or threats (Ephesians 6:9), and he told slaves to gain their freedom if they were able to do so and not to sell themselves as slaves. (1 Corinthians 7:21-23)

This famous photograph by Matthew Brady, taken of a man named “Gordon” in March 1863, suggests that slavery really was that bad. It may be one of the most important photos ever taken.

There are some people today who want to claim that slavery in the United States was not all that bad. They argue that slaves were just members of the family who sang songs while they worked, raised their children side-by-side with white children, and were given everything they needed to keep their bodies strong and well-fed. Never mind that they were singing those songs in an attempt to mitigate the pain and hopelessness of their situation. Never mind that their children received none of the education afforded to white children. Never mind that those same bodies that their masters fed could also be subject to the lash. As for that family atmosphere, black families were routinely broken up and sent their separate ways, never to see one another again. Then there were plenty of slave owners who killed their slaves and suffered little or no punishment. (The South Carolina Slave Code of 1740 stipulated a penalty of 700 pounds for killing a slave, or half that if it was done “in a sudden heat or passion, or by undue correction”.)

Some apologists of the Old South will tell you that slave owners viewed their slaves as full people, with not only a body, but also a mind and a soul. Deep in their heart of hearts, those owners may well have known this to be the case, but that is not how they behaved. In fact, the type of slavery that existed in this country was essentially predicated on the belief that a person of African descent is not as human as a person of European descent. The masters only saw the usefulness of their slaves in what they could do for them physically. They wanted slaves with strong bodies, not strong intellects. This was one reason why they made few efforts to educate their slaves. A second reason was that they knew educated slaves would be more likely to rebel, and the third was that it was often illegal to teach slaves to read or write. They treated these people as bodies and nothing more.

A couple years ago, I attended a writers’ conference where I heard a talk by Margaret Wrinkle, author of the novel Wash. For this story, Wrinkle was forced to wade into her own uncomfortable family history and investigate something that many Americans may not even know existed: the slave breeding industry. The main character of this novel is a slave who is a “sire”. He is sent to breed with other slaves in the hope of producing strong children. This really happened in America. Strong men of African descent were treated as prized studs, which was only good in as much as it might have kept them alive longer. It certainly did not cause their owners to treat them as full human beings of infinite worth. They were reduced to their physical attributes and viewed only as bodies: bodies that could be controlled for whatever purpose the owner saw fit.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “That is the way it used to be under slavery, but we’ve improved. We know that black people have intelligence. We know that they possess souls.” Do we? Do we really? Do we know that about any of the groups we view as less important than ourselves? Are we really treating every person as a whole person, with both a body and a soul?

A Nazi poster from 1938 depicting “Degenerate Music”, which they claimed was created by Jews only to be played by African-Americans. The association with apes is also hard to miss.

It is a common thing in history for us to take a group that bothers us and paint them as less intelligent, less feeling, or less human. If you look at propaganda from the World War period, you will see how all of the belligerents found ways to portray their enemies as bloodthirsty, greedy, or even animal-like. The Nazis in Germany certainly convinced themselves that Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Homosexuals, the Disabled, and others were simply not human in the same way as people of Aryan descent. That is how they justified killing so many of these people and raping untold numbers of Soviet women upon invading that country. What does it mean to rape someone or place them in a gas chamber? It means you are denying their full personhood and treating them as a body without a soul. If you reduce them to nothing but a body, you can justify abusing and controlling them in any number of ways.

The sad tradition of treating other human beings as if they were merely bodies has led to some of the worst abuses in human history. However, we must realize that even those of us who would never go so far as to attempt to physically control someone else’s body or literally deny that they have a soul are perhaps in smaller ways committing mental errors that lead to a similar spirit: a spirit that views others as merely bodies.

I recently watched a video of a panel discussion that occurred at the most recent Acts 29 Network Pastoral Retreat. The title was “Understanding Race & Reconciliation in the USA”. I would encourage you to watch the video, which features Matt Chandler interviewing five African-American pastors. I realize that it might make some people uncomfortable, particularly if they hold certain notions about black America, but I would still encourage you to give these men a chance. They are not anti-police. They are not anti-white America. However, each of them in their own ways has faced significant racism and bears scars from that. If you want to pretend as if America is not still racist, then you will not like the video. If you accept that it is racist and that we all need to be working toward racial reconciliation, you will surely gain something from hearing what these pastors have to say.

One thing that really struck me while watching this video was how much black men in particular are viewed in terms of their bodies. To be fair, we never look at a person without taking their body into consideration. How could we when it’s the only part of them we can see? Our bodies are certainly a portion of our identity. We have real and lasting physical attributes. I could get as many cosmetic procedures as I wished, but my DNA would still tell you that I am a white female. It is not wrong to acknowledge a person’s body as part of their identity, but at the same time, if we are not also acknowledging their soul, their intellect, and their emotions, we are not viewing them as whole people. We have stripped them off a significant portion of their humanity.

There were two comments in that discussion that seemed to bring home this point. Both tell us something about how we view black men in our society. The first had to do with people who are “black, male, and large”. More than one of the men stated that they had to realize early on that they fell into this category and that it would intimidate people. They make an effort even in conversations to give the other person a little more space so as not to be too imposing. I do not think this is simply the product of assuming the worst about the people with whom they converse. A large black man is indeed more likely to be viewed as threatening, even if he is one of the sweetest people alive. In the minds of many, black men are seen as likely criminals, and there is an old and slanderous perception that black men seek to assault white women.

Am I claiming that a black man has never assaulted a white woman? No. However, statistics do not justify this stereotype. You are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know or who at least frequents your social circle, whether that be verbally, physically, or sexually. The FBI reports that more than half of all murders in 2011 involved people who knew one another, while the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network states that a full 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. RAINN’s data comes largely from the Department of Justice.

It is very sad to me that we should be so suspicious of someone on account of things that are completely out of their control. What does a person’s race, gender, height, or weight have to say about their character? Nothing! When we start to treat people differently based solely on their bodies, we are in effect treating them as nothing but bodies. We are not waiting to judge their true character, but acting according to our own prejudices.

A 2006 game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Photo by Keith Allison

There was one more comment in the video to which I think we need to be sensitive as well. One of the pastors recalled his time playing on a high school football team, when he was able to receive some accolades for his skills. Yet the praise he received was not a recognition of his true humanity. He recalled running down the sideline and hearing one of the coaches happily proclaim, “Look at that n—– run!” I am sure that the man who said that thought he was paying a compliment. He was noting that this young black man had fine athletic ability. But in using a racial slur at the same time, he revealed that he valued this young man purely in terms of what his body could do. He was happy enough to have a black athlete scoring touchdowns for his team, but in his heart he likely did not believe that blacks and whites are equal before God.

I think this is a problem throughout American society. Now, I want to be careful, because black athletes are certainly worthy of praise on account of their athletic abilities. They work very hard and ought to be rewarded for that effort. Even so, I wonder what it says about us that the two groups of black men that are idolized by many white Americans are hip-hop artists and athletes. My concern is that there are a lot of people who value the contributions of black athletes to their favorite teams and do not even begrudge them their enormous salaries, but would probably never invite a black family to have dinner at their home. Are we still valuing black men simply because of their bodies? Do we assume that they have inferior intellects?

I love to see stories of black athletes who succeed in sports but also succeed in the classroom. (This one is great, although parts of it make me wonder if the NFL only values bodies.) Such stories are out there, but I don’t know that they exist because there is an expectation of academic excellence placed on black athletes. I think they exist because the individuals themselves are extremely motivated. The NFL is only now taking more serious efforts to protect the physical, mental, and financial well-being of its players. How many football players suffered concussion after concussion while the NFL tried to pretend as if the problem did not exist? Did they really care about those men, or were they once again treating them as merely bodies? (Of course, not all NFL players are black, so this problem is not restricted to one ethnic group.)

I do not have any firm answers regarding these issues, and I do not mean to imply that all white Americans are terrible, unrepentant racists. My personal belief is that every human being struggles with racism in their own heart, which is merely an extension of our pride and sinful nature. Some people are certainly more successful at putting their prejudices to death, and those people should be commended. However, I do not think it is all that useful to speak of a small percentage of “racists” in society and a majority of people who never feel such impulses. We all are in danger of treating one another as bodies and nothing more.

Whatever groups of people we encounter on a daily basis, we must strive to see every human being as a whole person with both a body and a soul. We must take great care not to reduce their perceived humanity, for we are all made in the image of God. We are equal before our Creator, and that is what really counts. Therefore, let us keep in mind these scriptural principles and apply some common sense as well. We are our bodies, but we are not only our bodies.