Walter Brueggemann: Habeas Corpus

From my earliest days I learned in church to recite the creed. In my tradition it was the Apostles Creed. I learned to recite it before I had any clue about the meaning of the words or phrases. I learned and loved the cadences of the creed, and felt solidarity with all those who made the same recital, who were no doubt also without many clues about its meaning. Of course the creed finishes with the strong affirmation of the work of the Holy Spirit who is free to violate all of our categories of explanation:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

Except that in our vigilant anti-Catholicism we refused to say the word “catholic” even in lower case, and instead said, “the one holy universal Christian Church,” our cumbersome euphemism for the word, “catholic.” And of course it is not different in the Nicene Creed that I learned to recite and love in my adult Episcopal years. The ending of the creed is different and perhaps more carefully nuanced, but much the same in essentials:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

 and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The phrasing is somewhat different, perhaps a tad softer with “the resurrection of the dead” that we may take as synonymous with “the resurrection of the body.” This usage, in both creeds, relies on the apostolic testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus that is taken to be an earnest and guarantee for our more general expectation of resurrection. From the outset the church has insisted on the resurrection of Jesus from which it has extrapolated a more general evangelical hope of resurrection of our bodies.

The church believes and trusts that we are elementally bodies, and that God cares for and provides for our bodily existence and wellbeing. This insistence is neatly and succinctly voiced in Genesis 2:7 where it is affirmed:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

That is, we are bodies that have been breathed on; and when the breath that we cannot control is taken from us, our bodies are dust with the hope of being breathed on yet again. This claim intends to combat and counter the popular claim that we are embodied (incarnated) spirits, and when our spirit leaves the body at death, our spirits continue to live elsewhere and otherwise. The “resurrection of the body” intends to oppose and resist any notion of the “immortality of the soul,” the easier claim of much generic religion. After all, if our souls were “immortal,” there would be no need for God, whereas “resurrection of the body” recognizes and affirms that in death, as in life, we are wholly dependent upon the generous, life-giving attentiveness of the creator God. The claim of “resurrection” of the body of course poses immense problems, as is evident in Paul’s thick, not-very-clear explication of the claim:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead.

What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.

It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.

It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven so are those who are of the heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (I Corinthians 15:42-49).

Biblical faith, in both Jewish and Christian articulation, is insistent on the claim of “the body.” 

To be sure, there are mixed and unclear testimonies in the Gospel narratives about the “resurrection appearances” of Jesus, and our own continuing interpretive perplexity about the “bodily” claim is evident in the text and in the tradition. Beyond that, moreover, we are willy-nilly heirs of Descartes and his dualism that could argue that reality is wondrously “mind” that need not linger over the inconveniences of “matter.” And behind the legacy of Cartesianism, among others, is the wise judgment of Socrates:

Only the body and its desires cause war, civil discord and battles, for all wars are due to the desire to acquire wealth, and it is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved, which compels us to acquire wealth, and all that makes us too busy to practice philosophy (quoted by Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World, 40).

Indeed Wirzba traces out with some precision the contemporary “transhuman urge,” the quest for escape from the requirements of our “bodily existence” into a “better place” without bodily inconveniences (This Sacred Life, 34-60). Wirzba avers that Google, through its company, Calico, is actively working “to solve death” (45). All of this effort by the very wealthy is a continuation of the very old notion of “immortality” that wants to be free of the impediments of bodily existence. Such a free-floating imagination in the interest of wellbeing to perpetuity fails to reckon with the reality that such ease, comfort, and convenience will continue, elsewhere as here, to depend upon cheap labor implemented by bodies that will grow tired and old.

Given that old, long-running, and contemporary yearning to have a body-free existence, it is worth pausing to recognize that the biblical tradition is steadfastly and uncompromisingly insistent concerning the bodily reality of our historical existence. Problematic as it is, the claim is beyond doubt, so that the church stands against all such escapist inclinations, fully affirming our bodily existence. We are creatures whose lives are bodily shaped and bodily destined because we are bodies—flaws, warts and all. As bodily creatures, we rely upon the provision (“providence”!) the creator God makes for us. The point is made clearly and simply in the catechism:

God constantly proves himself to be the Creator by his fatherly providence, whereby he preserves and governs all things…God daily and abundantly provides for me with all the necessaries of life, protects and preserves me from all danger…God does all this out of sheer fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part (The Evangelical Catechism, 19-20).

This defining and unaccommodating claim of gospel faith has been freshly and poignantly made for me in a remarkable op-ed piece by Esau McCaulley, “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans,” (The New York Times, April 17, 2022). McCaulley affirms the “resurrection of the body”:

Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth. Like the earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected, but they will still be our bodies.

But then he offers a painful survey of the African American bodily existence in the United States from “the auction block to the lynching tree, to the knee on the neck of George Floyd.” The long painful history of African Americans in our country is the history of white control over Black bodies, control that was and continues to be readily violent and brutal. He cites the final display of the maimed body of Emmitt Till (as ordered by his mother) as an exhibit of Black bodies “lynched, maimed and martyred” as a reminder of the “high cost of Black freedom.”

That is why, as McCaulley makes clear, “the resurrection of the body” is so crucial for faith and for public life. He affirms that Jesus was raised “with his brown, Middle Eastern, Jewish body.” And then he makes this affirmation:

When my body is raised, it will be a Black body. One that is honored alongside bodies of every hue and color. The resurrection of Black bodies will be the definitive rejection of all forms of racism. At the end of the Christian story, I am not saved from my Blackness. It is rendered everlasting. Our bodies, liberated and transformed but still Black, will be the eternal testimony of our worth.

He lays down the challenge of faith:

The question, “What will God do about the disinherited and ripped apart bodies of the world?” can be seen as the central question of religion. Either give me a bodily resurrection or God must step aside. He is of no use to us.

It is the case that the more “intellectually sophisticated” we are, the more “the resurrection of the body” is problematic, as it violates our Enlightenment rationality. It is the case, in equal manner, that the more affluent we are, the more money we can and will spend on bodily comfort, ease, and convenience that we readily take as a right. The less “intellectually sophisticated” we are, the more we are left with the uncompromising reality of our bodily existence, and the less affluent we are, the less we can afford the care of our bodies in ways that lead to comfort, wellbeing, and safety. Thus our intellectual sophistication and our affluence together may talk us out of our bodily reality. But those who are less sophisticated and less affluent are left with their bodies and the pain that willy-nilly comes with our bodies.

Thus the centrality of the body for gospel faith is elemental and non-negotiable. We can and no doubt will continue to engage in speculation about the risen body of Jesus, a reality that violates our best reason. But we do better to use our energy, political will, and intellectual insight in valuing more fully our own bodies and the bodies of all of our neighbors.  Our conventional practice in our racist society is to regard Black bodies as a resource for our convenience that are otherwise quite dispensable. To the contrary, our gospel faith requires that public resources must be mobilized in generous ways for the care and wellbeing of all of our bodies that includes the bodies of young vulnerable children, the bodies of disabled people, the bodies of women, the bodies of old people, and the bodies of people of color, the bodies of those with alternative gender identity, all those bodies that fall outside the horizon of care of white male hegemony. It is of course an exemplary scandal that too many fierce “pro-life” advocates are deeply resistant to government finance for the care and nurture of bodies once they have been brought to life. It is as though too many “pro-life” advocates propose to abandon the lives of babies when they have insisted that they be brought to life. This readiness to abandon is part of a larger readiness in our society to devalue the bodies of all of those who do not qualify in the ruling hegemony.

There is no way, finally, to separate our confession of “the resurrection of the body” from good public policy that aims to nurture, guard, protect, maintain, and enhance the wellbeing of every human body among us. Our creedal confession leads us in a direct way to the mobilization of policies and funds for care and protection of the vulnerable. It is telling that Paul, in his great ethical summons, urges that we “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:2). Paul goes on, in that wondrous chapter, to delineate the faithful practices of properly dispatched bodies in the work of solidarity, generosity, and hospitality. And in his exposition of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, he ends with the ethical commendation:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58).

The “work of the Lord” from the outset has concerned the rehabilitation of the vulnerable (see Luke 7:22). It is the “work of the Lord” to be engaged in concrete, specific, and public ways in the work of resurrection.

The writing of Norman Wirzba, moreover, has shown how “care for the body” is deeply linked to care for the environment, for the environment is the creator’s way of providing a viable habitat for all the creatures. There is no escaping this habitant, so it must be cared for. As for those who seek or hope to escape to a “better place,” Wirzba nicely concludes:

The focus and goal of our efforts, in other words, should not be to seek transportation to another world, but the transformation of the desires and habits that are rendering our only world uninhabitable (44).

It is time, I judge, that the church can and must call the bluff on all those who denigrate the body, who neglect the positive capacity of the body politic, and who willfully foul the environment in ways that make our shared bodily existence increasingly risky and in jeopardy.

Walter Brueggemann

May 6, 2022


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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