Erin Weber-Johnson: The Cost of a Body
What is a body worth to you?
What is a body worth to God?
On the surface, one might be inclined to answer that bodies are priceless. Bodies are sacred. Bodies are beloved.
Yet, this language doesn't translate consistently. There is a tension that occurs when we talk about one’s hourly rate or the value of one’s time. When a person is injured or killed, insurance adjusters quantify what a life is worth in terms of monetary reimbursement. When considering prison reform, school reform, hospital reform, analytics are made of the cost of a single body in order to determine cost/benefit analysis. How do we make sense of this question in the modern world?
Recently, the nation was horrified at the brutal murder of Eliza Fletcher, a woman out on a run one morning. Initially described in the news at a pre-kindergarten teacher, major news headlines quickly changed to read ‘billionaire’s heiress granddaughter murdered.’ Within 24 hours new information was provided that her grandfather was not a billionaire; that initial headlines didn’t accurately reflect Eliza’s identity. In the midst of this question of her worth, others asked important questions about why this case gathered more attention compared to similar cases of women of color. Why does one human’s body garner extensive attention and public outcry while others remain unseen?
In the Twin Cities where I live, after the murder of George Floyd my family watched as the national guard’s tanks made their way through our streets. Palpable pain and loss gave way to fresh visual expressions of grief. Strangely, the national guards presence seemed to focus their protection at predominantly white owned businesses. The news began to speak of the cost of the protests to local establishments. One business owner of a nearby Indian restaurant was featured saying, “George Floyd’s life is worth the loss of my business. I can always rebuild again.”
How one views our bodies, as vehicles for productivity, as estimable by hourly wage or as beloved impacts the ability to engage in conversations about money. The powerful relationships between body and money impacts our relationship to God.
What can we say about how God moves in our world when even our notions of stewardship and giving are often rooted in the sense of ownership of our material goods. Having created us in his/her/their image, the creation story tells that God entrusted the land and animals to Adam.
Edgar Villenueva further problematizes this idea in Decolonizing Wealth by saying the concept of colonization took place around the time when humans became farmers and concepts of ownership, managing or controlling the land gave way to owning plants and animals.
Somewhere stewardship began to resemble ownership. And, in developing systems of hierarchy and control, ownership didn't stop at land and animals.
I would take Villenueva’s wisdom one step further as colonization connects to bodies. Our body’s worth, with roots from our nation’s history of slavery and the selling of bodies is embeded in our DNA. We feel it in our bodies and in our relationships with others. It translates now to overwork, insurmountable anxiety, and vocational burnout. Folks describe their fear of being replaceable, disposable, or not of worth. Overwork becomes a defense mechanism when asking, “what am I worth?”
Psalm 139: 14
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
As we move into a season often called that of annual giving, stewardship or fall giving, we are often asked to consider our relationship to money. Yet, the weight of this question about the worth of a body lays heavy. How do we pray to a God who forgives us our debts as we forgive our debtors when this language is also linked to scriptures of how God loves us so much that he gave his only son? Ultimately, this drives the question: what was Jesus’s body even worth?
The question of bodies and worth emerges both in theologies of giving as well as the lived experience of those inviting others to give. In thinking of stewardship and faith leaders, I’ve both experienced and read painful stories from leaders (people of color, women, those differently abled, etc) in the church where they`ve described the impact of code switching, of leaving the identity of their body at the door in order to raise money. In other words, these beloved were forced to measure the cost of their body in order to receive funding for ministry.
What am I worth? What are you worth?
Sonya Renee Taylor writes in her powerful book The Body is Not an Apology, “When our personal value is dependent on the lesser value of other bodies, radical self-love is unachievable.” The work of monetizing bodies was historically crafted and rigorously maintained to enforce the notion that some bodies are worth more than others. Some bodies would cost more than others.
The theology of decolonizing stewardship invites us into a new way of thinking about our money in relation to both our bodies as well as other beloved of God. This moment calls us to an unpacking of the ways our minds as well as bodies have been colonized in ways that apply a cost to the body, to the soul. Our work, in exploring our relationships to money and bodies, is one of asking difficult questions, living in ambiguity, avoiding prescription, and celebrating diversity as holy.
This moment calls us to bear witness not only inherited sinful systems that would see a body as something to possess, own, or monetize. It is one not of only tearing down the colonial mindset, but of hopeful imagination as we invite the holy spirit to reorient ourselves to God and each other in the world.
Erin Weber-Johnson is Senior Consultant at Vandersall Collective, a faith based, woman-led consulting firm and Primary Faculty of Project Resource. In 2017 she co-founded the Collective Foundation, which worked to address the gap in giving characteristics in faith communities of color. In 2022 she co-founded The Belonging Project, a movement designed to reimagine belonging across the ecclesial landscape. Previously, Erin worked as the Senior Program Director at the Episcopal Church Foundation, as a grants officer at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, and served as a missionary for the Episcopal Church. She holds a BS from Greenville University, a Masters of Public Administration for NYU and is currently completing a second masters in Religion and Theology from United Theological Seminary. A published author, she strives to root her work in practical theology while utilizing her experience in the nonprofit sector. Her co-edited book, Crisis and Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy is available through Cascade Books.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Day1, Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.