Jul 24, 2017

Christianity, the body and neoliberal individualism

There's a huge industry dedicated to making people feel bad about their bodies and then selling them a product, whether cosmetics, clothes, superfoods, a fitness regime, whatever, that will make their supposedly hideous and ugly body more like the photoshopped perfection in these companies' ads. This kind of business model is rightly condemned, but its roots are rarely looked at. The fact is, if you traveled back in time to before this body-shaming nonsense was big business and wanted to found an industry based on tricking people into hating themselves, you would have found the perfect blueprint for your hateful con in the nearest church.

Christianity was born some time in the first century CE as an offshoot of Judaism in Roman-occupied Hellenic Palestine; to make a long story short, it largely consisted of taking a series of Judaic theological ideas and combining them with Greek philosophy and a lively expectation of the end of the world. The Greek philosopher who had the biggest impact on Christian thought was undoubtedly Plato: the dualism and juxtaposition of mind/soul and body in Phaedo became central to Christian theology. In Plato's concept of the universe, the world of ideas was the home of pure truth, while the material world was nothing but a reflection of it. The body, being of the material world, was imperfect and acted as a brake on the higher ambitions of the immaterial soul. Thus Socrates, according to Phaedo according to Plato:

We have found, they will say, a path of speculation which seems to bring us and the argument to the conclusion that while we are in the body, and while the soul is mingled with this mass of evil, our desire will not be satisfied, and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost. Moreover, if there is time and an inclination toward philosophy, yet the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves: then I suppose that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and that is wisdom, not while we live, but after death, as the argument shows; for if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow-either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body.
- Phaedo, trans. by Benjamin Jowett

Christianity eagerly took up this vilification of the body, and created a reinterpretation of the paradise story of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, where in addition to being the grounds for humanity's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the episode of the fruit also came to symbolize an original sin, the Fall, which doomed us all to the imperfection of the material world.

Whereas with Plato, the body interfered with the philosopher's quest for truth, in Christian thought the body came to symbolize original sin and acted as a barrier between humanity and God. The body was sinful, and therefore shameful, and had to be disciplined. Thus the apostle Paul:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, New International Version

Later, the writers of what became the canonical gospels had Jesus propound an even more unrealistic and hateful version of the same doctrine:

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
- Matt. 18:8-9, New International Version

It's interesting to note that these teachings never seem to have been taken literally in the early church. When enemies of the third-century theologian Origen wanted to bring hin into disrepute, they spread an apparently false rumor that he had taken the Gospel of Matthew literally and castrated himself - because apparently actually doing what Jesus purportedly commanded would have been universally condemned.

This makes sense if you consider what the purpose of teachings like these are. If you can get people to literally hate their own body, and feel ashamed of their normal everyday life, they'll be permanently unhappy. In Paul's metaphor, the race only ends when you die. This is where the priest comes in. The clergy appoint themselves referees in this ghastly parade of self-flagellation; they can tell the suffering faithful that they're mortifying their bodies enough, or shame them for doing too little. Because ordinary life is a constant progression of sins that are impossible to avoid, a good Christian must necessarily be constantly ashamed and guilty. This gives the priest tremendous power over his congregation; exactly like a cult leader over their cultists, only we don't call them cults any more when they get big enough. So these entirely unhinged commandments to mutilate your own body were never meant to be taken seriously: they're there to give priests power over anyone who makes the mistake of believing in them.

This idea of the filthy, sinful body that needs to be constantly disciplined has since jumped from Christian theology to the weight-loss and beauty industries, where it thrives like it once did in churches. For both Christianity and Weight Watchers, cultivating a mind-body dualism where the body is the repulsive enemy of the mind has been excellent business, because it creates a demand for their services in people whose bodies would have been just fine had they not been taught to loathe them. Then again, at least the beauty industry only wants to sell you stuff you don't need; Christianity has done far worse.

The other prominent descendant of the early church and its hatred of the body is neoliberal individualism. In the logic of contemporary politics, unemployment is always the fault of the person without a job. They just need to try harder. In a neoliberal society, each and every citizen needs to heroically strive forward every day of their lives in order to be eligible for full membership in society. All distinctions of privilege are elided; if you were born poor, you should have worked harder. Those of us who are felt by our ruling elites to not be working hard enough are subjected to a constant stream of patronizing advice on how to get ahead, and it's hardly a coincidence that most of it focuses on disciplining the body. People who have never had to add up the cost of their groceries on their way to the checkout will give sermons on how to eat econonically. Tabloids run by millionaires will stoke rage over excessive "benefits" going to undesirables who will supposedly spend the money on extravagances rather than living frugally like the deserving poor should. If only all these lazy wasters would discipline themselves, the refrain always goes, they wouldn't be so poor. Obviously this political system has complex roots, but it's very difficult to not see more than a hint of the Christian idea of unending self-flagellation to prove one's worth. We even treat mental health problems as symptoms of individual weakness that should be adressed through discipline. The net effect is the same as in Christian theology: you are flawed, you are to blame, you must discipline yourself.

It's worth remembering that whatever cruel and hypocritical scam the advertisers come up with next to shame you into buying their products, or whenever a politician stands up to pour scorn on the lazy and idle parasites of society, they're doing nothing that wasn't pioneered two millenia ago by the apostle Paul and the evangelists.

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