A Liberating Incarnation: Bodies, Suffering, and the Church

Hwa-Young Chong, Northern Illinois Annual Conference

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God in Human Flesh

The Word made flesh. How is it possible that the infinite and eternal God has found a home in the finite and temporal humanity? [1]

At first, incarnation seems contradictory. God comes to our world as a newborn baby? God grows and changes just like one of us? God suffers and dies on the cross? How can divinity and humanity coexist? Yet incarnation powerfully tells us that, in God, the impossible is possible and the unimaginable becomes real. The good news is that the almighty God assumed human body, and by doing so, God became intimate and accessible to the human world. At the same time, God’s own embodiment challenges us to find sacredness in our bodies and to resist any abuse, violence, or injustice forced upon our bodies.

In our incarnate God, powerfulness and vulnerability become one. God enters our world as a “fellow sufferer.”[2] Theologian Jürgen Moltmann even indicates that all the suffering in history is the suffering of God, when he writes, “There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history of Golgotha.”[3] As the one who knows the pain of tortured death, God suffers with all suffering bodies, and brings new life to our fragile world. Incarnation has a liberating message for all whose full humanity has been denied, harmed, and oppressed due to their bodily aspects. A liberating incarnation calls for a way of justice for all.

Bodies in the Bible

When it comes to understanding bodies, there seem to be conflicting messages in the Bible. On one hand, bodies are considered sacred. Both men and women were created in the image of God to reflect the sacredness in human bodies (Gen 1:27). Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, affirms that Christians are the “temples of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16) and human bodies are the holy vessels in which the divine Spirit dwells (1 Cor 6:19). Becoming one communal body in Christ brings healing and reconciliation, putting an end to hostility and enmity (Eph 2:16). The body, or soma in Greek, is used to express the state of “being in Christ.” According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, soma, as a key symbol in the early church, evoked “an emancipatory political symbolic universe and vision.”[4] In this regard, body is a powerful symbol of a just community where all are invited to be one with Christ.

On the other hand, in traditional Judaism and in Jesus’ lifetime, some aspects of bodies—such as sick bodies, dead bodies, Gentile bodies, and women’s bodies—were considered defiled. A woman who gave birth to a son was considered unclean for one week, and a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered doubly unclean—for two weeks (Lev 12). No unclean bodies were allowed in the temple, and unclean bodies had to go through a ritual purification. Such bodily conditions were used for segregation, discrimination, and exclusion. In this way, the sacredness of bodies was painfully ignored and denied.

It is in the midst of both positive and negative understandings of bodies that Jesus reached out to all people.

Bodies and Jesus’ Ministry

Jesus was well aware of the oppressive nature of condemning bodies. Gospel writers witness that Jesus’ ministry extensively involved those who were affected by bodily conditions: lepers, a woman with a bleeding condition, a bent-over woman, and people with visual disability. These people were declared ritually unclean and thus isolated from their communities socially and religiously. The social perceptions and practices also made it difficult for them to participate in community life. Jesus’ healing was, first of all, the healing of their physical conditions, but equally important was the restoration of their status in the community.

In the healing story of the lepers, Jesus asked the lepers to go to the temple and show their healed bodies to the priests (Luke 17:14), so that the priests would declare them clean and they could be included in the worshiping community. Jesus similarly declared that the bent-over woman was free from her ailment (Luke 13:12), indicating that she was not going to be socially restricted. Jesus also rejected linking the body’s condition to spiritual sinfulness. When he was asked whether a man was born blind due to his own sin or his parents’ sin, Jesus responded that it was not due to anyone’s sin (John 9:3). In a similar vein, Jesus ate with prostitutes and so-called sinners,  those who were ritually unclean. In Jesus’ parable of the great dinner, when the invited guests did not come to the dinner, the host invited “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21), indicating that, in God’s kingdom, no one would be excluded based on their social or physical conditions, which was in contrast to the experience of  those hearing the parable.

Jesus, the incarnate deity, defied the unjust laws that alienated people and served to oppress bodies. In taking on human flesh through Jesus, God challenged discrimination and prejudice based on bodily conditions. Jesus embraced stigmatized bodies, a powerful act in both our time as well as his time. In Jesus’ life and ministry, incarnation was a life-transforming and world-liberating power, far from an abstract philosophical principle.

Bodies and the Church

As we have examined thus far, in Judeo-Christian traditions, bodies were considered to reflect divine grace, and at the same time, were considered defiled. This ambiguity caused much fear, conflict, and division in the church. The bodily aspect of circumcision, which was considered both the physical sign and the spiritual symbol of God’s covenant, was at the heart of the early church’s intense struggle as to whether or not the Gentiles were part of salvation history. By the power of the Spirit, the Jerusalem conference concluded that circumcision was not needed to enter into the Christian community (Gal 2: 1-10; Acts 15), which provided the springboard for the church to become an inclusive community. Had the insistence on circumcision remained a requirement, many of today’s Christians would not have been able to be part of the church.

Discrimination based on gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are related intimately to physical features, sabotaging God’s call to embody diversity in the one body of Christ. Despite a painful history that has considered particular bodies to be dangerous, fearful, unclean, or inferior, the church today must live out incarnational theology and strive to be a place where all differently colored, sexualized, and functional bodies gather together safely and confidently.

Defying the Cultural Norms of Bodies

Incarnation indicates to us that our bodies are the dwelling sites of the divine, yet some cultural and religious expectations of our bodies have become barriers to fully realizing sacredness. The contemporary cultural ideal of women’s bodies as being thin and physically fit or men’s ideal bodies as muscular and athletic, for instance, tend to promote unhealthy stereotypical body images, and may also lead to psychological, physical, and even spiritual problems.

Conflicting messages about bodies also exist. In Korean Confucian tradition, for example, bodies are gifts from one’s honored ancestors and thus are to be respected. To harm one’s body is to dishonor it. The Buddhist tradition also values all lives, both human and animal, as sacred and worthy of awe and reverence. The practice of vegetarianism in Buddhism can be understood in the large context of respecting all lives and bodies.

Yet women’s bodies have not always been treated with respect. For example, in Confucian Korea, there was a social stigma attached to women who were childless, asexual, or married more than once. While such prejudices are no longer overtly shared in contemporary Korean culture, women’s bodies still “exist for men’s everyday living and to cater to the male ego.”[5] A sense of shame often has been forced upon female victims of sexual violence, which deepens the trauma and pain inflicted upon their bodies.

A liberating incarnation defies such injustice done to our bodies. Incarnation powerfully proclaims that God became human in Jesus. Incarnation declares that all bodies are sacred, regardless of color, physical ability, age, fertility, sexual orientation, sexual history, or marital status.

Stories Written on Bodies

Our bodies tell our stories, and our stories are embedded in our bodies. Racism, sexism, alienation, oppression, fear, and horror are all written on our bodies.

I will never forget the first time when, as a graduate student many years ago, I met a comfort woman survivor. “Comfort Woman” is a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II under Japanese imperialism.[6] These women typically were teenagers when they were raped and tortured in captivity. Kap-Soon Choi was one of these brave and courageous survivors who spoke up, even though it was extremely painful to share the oppression and harm done to her body. She showed many signs of hardship and physical aging: deep wrinkles, missing teeth, and a bent-over back. Hearing her speak of the pain of having her body “ripped” in sexual slavery was heartbreaking. She spoke of the injustice of sexism and sexual violence, both with her words and with her body. It was transformative for me to experience her presence. This encounter profoundly changed the way I understood the broken body of Christ. The terribly abused bodies of comfort women opened my eyes to understand Jesus’ incarnation in a new way.

Jesus’ suffering on the cross not only happened once but also continues today in the suffering of men and women due to war, political and economic corruption, sexual violence, unjust marriage systems, commercialization of bodies, buying and selling of sex, and discrimination based on sexuality. Our incarnational God bring us hope by continuously entering into our lives to bring about healing, restoration, and resurrection.

Body of Christ, Broken for You

“The body of Christ broken for you.” We often say these words during the sacrament of Holy Communion. What do these words mean for those whose bodies have been broken by injustice and violence?

Each time I participate in Communion, I am reminded of, not only Jesus’ broken body and bloodshed, but also the suffering of women, men, children of all races and ethnicity. At the same time, Communion is a call for justice. Each time we break the bread, we participate in Christ’s vision for a new community. The open table of The United Methodist Church powerfully declares that all God’s people are invited. At this table we are challenged never to forget the suffering of broken bodies among us, and join Christ in an embodied dance of compassion, peace, and justice.

Holy Communion is a radical form of hospitality. In its sacramental form, the practice of Holy Communion both recalls the table fellowship of Jesus and envisions the eschatological banquet of God’s reign. The practice of table fellowship nourishes bodies, heals brokenness, and builds community.

A Liberating Incarnation

Our hope is in the incarnate God, who is manifest in our bodies. God’s suffering on the cross should never be interpreted as reflecting the suffering of the world. Rather, a suffering, incarnate God tells us that God will not tolerate suffering anymore. The broken bread of Holy Communion reminds Christian communities that Jesus’ body was broken to end human suffering, and that sharing in the body of Christ is making a commitment never to participate in violence. Holy Communion envisions a Spirit-led community that seeks justice and peace for all people.

The incarnate God liberates us from all dehumanizing systems and structures of the world, so that we may freely and joyfully participate in creating our world as a more loving, compassionate, and peaceful place to be. God invites us to an incarnational life. This is an invitation to be one body with Christ, to embody Christ’s peace, compassion, and justice in our daily life. The church is called to be God’s reign on earth, living out a liberating incarnation.

The gospel is in our bodies. God assumed human flesh and lived among us. God dwells in our bodies today. As those who bear the image of God and cradle the spirit of Christ, may the people of Christ’s body live out a liberating incarnation every day!

The Word became flesh. Thanks be to God!


[1] Hwa-Young Chong is senior pastor, Glenview United Methodist Church, Glenview, IL and affiliate faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

[2] Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York & London: The Free Press, 1978), 351.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 227.

[4] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Sharing Her Word: Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Context (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 117.

[5] Cho Haejoang, “Living with Conflicting Subjectivities,” in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption of the Republic of Korea, ed. Laurel Kendall (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002), 188.

[6] For more on comfort women, wartime sexual violence, and theological implications, see Hwa-Young Chong, In Search of God’s Power in Broken Bodies: A Theology of Maum  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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