Ferguson and Fat Theology

On August 8-9th this year I saw two news stories pop up in my twitter feed. One from Ohio, one from St. Louis. Two black men, killed by cops, with questionable and suspicious circumstances. I watched, via hashtags, as the news developed and the outrage grew, especially in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown had been killed.  I would stay up late into the night refreshing my twitter feed, watching live streams, and trying to keep up with what was happening as the small town of Ferguson became an internationally known city.  My heart broke at the continued racism in our country.

Despite the fact that both Michael Brown and John Crawford where killed just a day a part from each other, the protests and the communal outrage found its home in Ferguson, rather than in Ohio. (Some of the history of St. Louis and Ferguson playing a significant roll in that.)  Though, John Crawford’s name and the name of many others killed by police have been spoken on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis.  The protest is about a much bigger, much more historical problem of racism that sees black bodies as threatening, Ferguson is a rallying point. Michael Brown a tragic example for the local community to hold on to.

At times in the past months, as information has been leaked, discovered, or withheld, I’ve found myself wishing that the collective protest had taken root in Ohio.

And then I immediately offer a prayer for a heart that sees as Jesus sees – because my desire to move the protests a bit northeast on this continent is somewhere deep in my heart rooted in the societal teachings that tell me that a man walking casually around a store holding a toy is somehow more deserving of life than a young man who shoved a store clerk and possibly fought with a police officer.  I don’t consciously process that train of thought when I wonder what it would look like if Ohio had been the rallying point, but if I take a moment to examine it, that is the ugly truth.  Even if Crawford would have been a “better” rallying point – even if his case doesn’t have the fighting with a police officer and the run-in with the store clerk a few minutes prior  – – there’s still no guarantee that a rally there would have resulted in someone being held legally responsible for his death. As it is, maybe it’s time for our country to learn that whether or not the victim of violence was “respectable” or not is not the issue.

Why am I writing about Michael Brown and Ferguson in a space devoted to “fat theology” – – because one of the most heart-breaking and simultaneously encouraging things I learned in seminary is that the experience of feeling like your body does not deserve respect because the social and economic powers have deemed it “less than” is a shared experience among the marginalized and oppressed.

Mayra Rivera talks about the progression which leads those who do not have the “ideal” body to long for it. She begins by explaining that colonizers favored one type of body over another in the colonized people so much so that the colonized people themselves began a “vigilance of their own appearance in an effort to hide those physical traits related to lower rungs of the social/ontological ladder.”[1] This progression of this type of interaction with our bodies eventually leads us to a place where our society offers us various “means to hide markers of perceived deviance. The images of bodies thus produced are never simply external to ourselves; their very power depends on their capacity to shape our desires and compel us to see ourselves through and conform to them – to incarnate the ideal body.”[2] 

We believe that there is a certain, narrow, way to have a “right” body. This extends to dress, posture, hair style, etc. It’s not just about body size. Those who achieve that goal become models for others, further enforcing the idea that our bodies are meant to be hidden or minimized until they are “right” and thereby ignoring the embodiment of God within our bodies in whatever form in which they exist. This damages our relationship to God for instead of honoring that relationship and seeking to know God through the various ways in which God has been embodied in diverse peoples, we instead seek to know only one “right,” “healthy,” and “good” body. It damages our relationship to each other for even when intentions are pure, our focus on the “bad” body of others becomes about offering encouragement and support to change that body, rather than on how to embrace the image of God found therein.

As a fat person, I am “supposed” to try to have a thin body. I’m supposed to try to make it fit into this world. The threat for failing to try? Death.  By my own doing supposedly.

I’d like to think that our world which runs at a speed of 140 characters understands that life is valuable. That lives matter no matter what someone does or does not do. I’d like to think that Jesus followers get that to another level – that we know that we are supposed to be the radical people who love even our enemies, even [especially] those who seem less, to the point that we upset systems of power. And there are those points of light and hope in the world where people are living into the truth that all lives matter. But it seems that more often than not we don’t get that.

As I continue to follow the story of Ferguson and as I scroll through the twitter hashtag or hear people say that “Brown would be alive if he would have just. . ..  walked on the sidewalk, not argued with a cop, etc.” These “ifs” say: If he had been respectable enough. If he had been trying hard enough to wipe away his appearance that our society has taught us to read as “intimidating” then maybe he’d be alive.  That’s the narrative I hear:  It was death by his own doing, supposedly. He should have made better decisions. Somehow in these discussions it’s always either life or death. “Of course if you argue with an officer you risk being killed.” It’s as if everyone forgets about arrests and trials by juries. Somehow when we are talking about someone “scary” – we forget about the right to life.

Racism and “fatphobia” are vastly different for many reasons that are significant. I do not want to downplay that or try to equate the two. One thing I know though is what it’s like to imagine that when I die one day, there may very well be those who say my death was deserved. That I earned my death by failing to try hard enough to turn my body into a more respectable version of the human form.

And so as my heart aches with the imaginings of the racist, dehumanizing ideas about Michael Brown and other black bodies will further solidify in the hearts and minds of those who will rejoice if his death is deemed “legally excusable,”  I confess and repent of the way I am prone to wish we had rallied around another event – rallied around someone who was trying harder to be respectable, someone who would have given us a clear right and wrong instead of forcing us deal with the mess of how racism informs all of our interactions.  I confess and repent of the inclination in my heart to stop and ponder if Michael Brown maybe earned himself death by not turning his body into the type of respectable citizen we are conditioned to believe deserves life.

Choosing to live in a way that embraces bodies regardless of whether or not they conform to the societal understanding of “good” is a radical and liberating act. The various people who still suffer under negative assumptions about their dignity because of the state of their body deserve for Christians to think critically about what it means to honor embodiment in all people. People deserve for us to to question why we try so hard to prove that it is ok to kill someone, to find death a logical conclusion.

[1] Mayra Rivera, “Unsettling Bodies,” Journal of Feminist Studies In Religion 26, no. 2 (September 1, 2010): 120.

[2] Ibid.

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