How do I connect with others after the past few years? How does my congregation figure out how to be together? What do we do with what all we experienced and who we have become? After times of isolation and fear, how do we move toward one another? What are the factors that create belonging? What are the risks that accompany it?
Embedded deep within these questions, there is a powerful critique about the concept of belonging. The word begins with its roots in ownership of bodies and land. Who belongs to whom? What belongs to me?
Edgar Villanueva problematizes this idea in his book Decolonizing Wealth. The concept of colonization, he writes, took place around the time humans became farmers, and concepts of ownership, managing or controlling the land gave way to owning plants and animals. Somewhere deep in our history, the value given to us at creation began to resemble a dynamic of ownership. And, in developing systems of hierarchy and control, ownership didn’t stop at land and animals.
I would take Villanueva’s wisdom one step further as colonization connects to bodies. We read in our Scriptures of how humankind continued its quest for ownership by enslaving others and, in so doing, put a price on bodies. This commodification was so culturally common, we see practices throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. Who owned who was part of the larger societal framework of understanding place, identity — and it further linked the owning of bodies with concepts of belonging.
Recently, a colleague and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where I learned the cost of a body, in the form of an enslaved male, in 1760: two muskets, 40 pounds of gunpowder, one anker (a measurement of spirits or alcohol), five pieces of cloth, two iron bars, one copper bar, four pieces of linen cloth, one pewter basin and 20 pounds of cowrie shells.
An enslaved person, once purchased, was thought to belong to their owner.
Lest we see this as a bygone dynamic, our view of bodies and their economic and societal value continue to impact how we view systems of belonging in the United States. From gated communities to conversations about immigration, we often hear of who doesn’t belong and why. The reasons are often deeply rooted in money, resources and our view of a body’s worth.
From gated communities to conversations about immigration, we often hear of who doesn’t belong and why.
Our perceptions of the body’s worth, with roots from our nation’s history of slavery and the selling of bodies, is embedded in our DNA. It did not end in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or with recent land acknowledgements of stolen land. It did not end with robust conversations in the pandemic about essential workers or the relentless murders of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. We continue to feel this pain, this discrepancy of our value versus the cost of our lives, in our bodies and in our relationships with others.
We see it in our communities as resources are deployed for the benefit of some bodies, but not others. Where the cost of a body is related to a number and not belovedness.
It translates now to overwork, insurmountable anxiety and vocational burnout. Folks describe their fear of being replaceable, disposable, or not of worth. How does our productivity impact our belongingness?
It is time we reanalyze and reclaim the word and the meaning of belonging as it relates to bodies.
A fundamental premise of capitalism is that all participants in the market are equal, and yet this equality is not actualized in our society because of the way we regard whose body belongs and why.
God is concerned with bodies. Specifically, God is concerned with bodies of those with whom the market’s so-called equality does not translate to justice: the working poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
In various creation stories, it is striking that God does not create an entity to do all the work. God begins with creation, with work. God is not relegated to a divine manager that, like CEOs or insurance adjusters, would seek to determine our worth by production or class.
This is important, as all too often God has been connected to the image of the colonizer or the dominant voice in order to ensure power. Far too often, bodies have been commodified, and this has been justified as God’s will.
God is presented as a working person who forms a person made from clay.
Rather, Joerg Rieger notes in Faith, Class and Labor, that God is presented as a working person who forms a person made from clay. “God joined the workforce as a human being in the form of a day laborer in construction – no doubt a distinct class position – in the carnation of Jesus Christ. He is not a “transcendent manager. Abraham, Moses, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus … were down to earth people who were interested in the wellbeing of their communities, in how covenantal relationships with God shape up in relation to other human beings.”
This moment, which raises questions of why we belong to each other, and how, offers the opportunity to release the antiquated, sinful idea that belonging depends on the cost of a body by way of production and class. It is a moment to reshape practices as we sort out factors of belonging on alternative metrics.
Patrick Reyes writes in his remarkable book No One Cries When We Die, “This commitment to the lives of your neighbors is part of your vocational discernment. Your call to life is not just about you! Vocation is both being called home and being called to the larger kingdom of God, in which we live together and for one another, as opposed to a kingdom of God with rulers and lords, and the underlings who have to do their bidding and work for them.”
What if a reimagined belonging abandoned ideas of control, owners and outcomes? What if belonging dealt less with the ordering of bodies and more in creating practices of care? What would it look like if we remember that God’s concern for bodies was not of a manager counting a body’s productivity, but as a creator who deeply loved their creation?
The call to life is a call to rethink belonging. Now is a pivotal moment in our collective understanding to be with and for one another. I pray we use these questions to redefine the concept of belonging as one that aligns with the kingdom of our Creator.