The Commonwealth of the Body

The reality of our interdependence is a gift from GOD (click for original image source)

About a month ago my daughter was born and my wife Emily and I are entering into that phase of discovering what Donald Rumsfield would call “unknown unknowns.” Among them is the absolutely radical dependence of our daughter Lillian. This may seem obvious and of course we knew that she would be dependent upon us, but the fact that she cannot even hold her head up and can hardly articulate her wants or needs, even through a cry, is something difficult to fully grasp until one has experienced a newborn.

In the past, on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve spent a good number of words exploring the concept of our dependence from the side of being dependent upon God, the soil, each other. But for all my thinking about being dependent I haven’t, until recently, given much thought to the idea of being depended upon. It seems that this other side of dependence is as challenging in late capitalist society as being dependent.

To be depended upon shows radically how our lives are not singular, how our bodies are not individual. Take abortion, which is centrally the mechanical destruction of dependence. So much of the abortion debate, on both sides, has focused on the rights of the mother or the rights of the unborn child over their bodies. But this rights language significantly diminishes the human person and does not address the reality of pregnancy or birth. A woman’s body is not her own, a babies body is not her own, and let us be clear to add that a man’s body is not his own—they are interconnected in a network of gifts—internal and external to the body. The human person is not private property, in other words, it is a commonwealth.

We fear commonwealths in large part because they require cooperation more than control, they mean that others may have a claim on the same goods we do. We want to control the demands and requirements of our life, we want to control our use and disuse of our goods, but when we must cooperate with others around such things it requires more work, it requires compromise and sacrifice, it requires most of all slowness.

To be a member of a commonwealth also means that we must be responsible—this is the primary requirement of the depended upon. To be response-able requires that we open ourselves to the cry of those outside of ourselves—that we answer the demands of our baby when she cries, that we must open ourselves to “give to those who ask” when they ask. It means also that we must accept and cultivate our “abilities” so that we can make a good response when called upon. To be a part of this whole we must sacrifice an aspect of our part—we must give over our independence.

To be independent is impossible, of course, but to live in that illusion we must find ways to alienate and ignore our dependencies. We must also give up our place in the network of dependencies by relieving ourselves of the work that would put us into contact with them. This requires a slave-master relationship in which we subjugate others to our needs by denying the legitimacy of their own call.

We can live comfortably in an economy abounding in cheap consumer goods only because we have objectified the persons who make these goods possible. And in this economy we have denied our commonwealth of land, air, and water, turning them into the private goods of profit and exploitation, no matter the cost to us all. It is no wonder then that without the commonwealth of places we would deny the commonwealth of people and the commonwealth of our bodies.

It is time now to return from the world of atomized selves in which the world becomes dominated by objects to a reality of deep subjectivity. My pastor preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago in which he followed the Episcopal theologian William Porcher DuBose in claiming that God does not see us as objects, it is impossible for God to do so in God’s truth. God only sees us for what we are, subjects.

Let us seek to see as God sees, to recognize our subjectivity and relatedness and forget about my rights against yours and join together in the slow work of life within the commonwealth of creation. It is only when we live into this truth that the flourishing that comes from health can come, because as Wendell Berry so wisely told us, “Health is Membership.”

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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