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Stanley Hauerwas: Bodies Matter

September 29, 2009

stanleyLast Thursday as I sat listening to Stanley Hauerwas preach in a chapel service here at Duke, I remembered the gift of how, in just a few minutes, a mentor can change the course of your life.  It happened to me in 1998, in a coffee shop in San Francisco.  After many years of ministry in Mississippi our family was headed to a new chapter in Boston.  But John Alexander said, “You don’t need to go to Boston.  You need to go to Duke Divinity School.  I have friends there who will take care of you.”  We trusted John.  And we eventually landed in Durham and me at Duke.

One of John’s Duke friends was Stanley.  My jaw dropped the first time I heard Stanley teach.  He gave theological language to all that I learned in Voice of Calvary’s interracial Christian life in Mississippi.  He helped me to see that what I learned there mattered, and it had everything to do with a kind of Christianity that takes our bodies seriously.  That because Jesus and his body is risen from the dead the world changed and therefore “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”  That being a Christian is about the holy journey with God of dying and being resurrected into a new world and way of life, here and now, changing our bodily practices.  And so what we do with our bodies and who we do it with matters, such as the bodies of strangers who have been divided becoming intimately bound together as companions in daily life as and with the body of Christ.

“Body Matters”—that’s what Stanley preached about last Thursday in his usual frumpy blue jeans and sneakers, and uncustomary red shirt, tie, and sharp blue blazer.  His text was I Corinthians 6: 12-20.  His words were especially timely as in our “Journeys of Reconciliation” class we’ve been reading God’s Long Summer, stories of Mississippi Christians during the civil rights movement.  One of the dominant forces was the theology of the “competency of the soul” which harmonized the purity of the souls of white parishioners with the racist practices of their bodies and enabled white churches to synchronize with segregation.

Stanley’s focus was on contemporary expressions of “the Gnostic denial of the significance of the body.”  A few quotes:

“We need to begin … by asking why and how the Corinthians ended up in such a mess.  I think it was Paul’s fault.  Through his preaching they had become Christians.  They had probably been pretty normal before Paul came along, but because of Paul their everyday worlds became unstuck.”

“… John Stuart Mill’s ‘principle of liberty’ is hard to resist. You can hear it at work in slogans we use as Christians. ‘Who am I to judge another Christian?  After all when it is all said and done we are all sinners.’  ‘It is up to each of us to do the best we can by loving one another.  What I eat and with whom I sleep, therefore, is my business as long as I do not hurt anyone.’  ‘To be a Christian is not to get hung up on moralistic judgments but to care about those who have less than we have. ‘”

“[Paul] thinks what we do with our bodies is more indicative of who we are than what we say we believe. “

“In good capitalist fashion the body becomes another possession I can use as I see fit.  But Paul does not think there is an ‘I’ that has a body.  We are our bodies. And the body we are together is one that has been bought with a price.  Our bodies are, therefore, not our own to do with as we please.  Rather our bodies are a resting place for the Holy Spirit.  Paul even seems to think that what our bodies do and do not do makes a difference for our ability to be a holy people.”

“There is nothing quite as lonely as sex used as a substitute for intimacy.”

Last Thursday I was grateful for the gift of real bodies—for John Alexander’s body next to mine in that San Francisco coffee shop, for the body of the Mississippi church in that West Jackson neighborhood that bound me into themselves, for the body of Stanley here at Duke in that chapel service.  And how taking bodies seriously can make you a holier person.

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