Sunday, December 27, 2009

Giving Head, and Taking It Away

A few posts back I threw a small conniption over the corporate / body metaphor of nations, inspired by poet Joy Harjo's line that "a nation is a person with a soul." I mentioned that this is a fascist doctrine, spluttering out some of what bothered me about it, but didn't get the important parts, so here's another try.

As I wrote before, in the Body Politic individuals may become mere cells to brushed off like dandruff when they're no longer needed. But some cells are more valued than others. The body is made up, in Paul the Apostle's imagery, of various members (Romans 12:3-8):
3For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his[b] faith. 7If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
But not all members are equal. If a member thinks of himself 'more highly than he ought,' he may become unruly and insubordinate. Some are born to lead, others born to follow, and they need each other, okay? Paul developed this theme in 1 Corinthians 12:14-:
14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.... 21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? 31But eagerly desire[e] the greater gifts.
In practice, including Paul's, this nice doctrine of interdependence turns out to be a con. The head, despite its dependence on the feet and the "unpresentable parts", is still the head, and if Christ was the head of the body, different "members" of his body were heads of others:
3Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
Paul shifts here so quickly between literal and figurative use of "head" that it's not always easy to tell which mode he's in; but I hadn't noticed before that he's evidently saying that a woman who prays with her literal head uncovered dishonors her figurative head -- that is, the man who owns her. The dishonor, be it noticed, only moves upwards, toward the head -- or heads, since the Body of Christ turns out to be a hydra.

I'm digressing a bit here, but these passages have been both influential and representative -- by which I mean that Paul didn't make up these metaphors. He was borrowing a metaphor that his congregations would recognize and understand from other areas of their world, and applied it to his churches. And the metaphor persists today, even when it's not explicitly applied. Those who remember the US invasion of Iraq, our Operation Infinite Justice (I know, it's like so 2003! I should look to the future, not the past) will recall that politicians and pundits alike spoke of striking at Saddam Hussein, though in fact we hardly touched him for quite a while. The same language had been used in the first Gulf War in 1991, and during the Clinton administration too. This equation of Iraq's "head," Saddam, with the country made it easy for Americans to ignore the thousands of innocent people we were killing and hurting. They simply didn't figure in the festival of lights that was Shock and Awe.

I was surprised when Saddam was actually captured and executed -- in general heads of state prefer not to go after other heads of state. It's like a scene that was often used in old cartoons: two big guys square off for a fight, one says, "Take that!" and hits a small nerdy guy standing nearby. The other big guy bristles, growls, "Oh, yeah? Well, take that!" and hits the nerdy guy again. And so on: they never lay a finger on each other. And it may not be coincidental that the last American President to lay hands on another head of state was Bush's father, in his attack on Panama in 1989. (And as in the case of Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega had been a protected American client until he stopped being useful to us.) Ronald Reagan's 1986 blitzkrieg of Libya, though ostensibly directed at its leader Qadafy, killed civilians, including Qadafy's adopted 15-month-old daughter. Take that, Qadafy! (Americans do not react kindly when the same tactic is applied to us.)

But understanding this conception of head and body helps me grasp at last something that baffled me as a kid after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Adults, both newscasters and people in the street, kept asking what would happen to America now? Could America survive the assassination of Our President? I was only 12, but I'd already imbibed in school the doctrine that America is a nation of laws, not men. I knew that though Kennedy's murder was a personal tragedy for him and for those who loved him, it couldn't hurt the country. Of course America would survive. A new President had already been sworn in. The death of any person is no less a tragedy, and I distrusted, as I still do, the belief that some people are superpeople, whose lives matter than those of ordinary folk.

Now I see that these people meant that the US had been beheaded, the head of our national body cut off, and what could keep America from falling over dead? Well, for a while it did seem that it was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. But even to say that is to accept the metaphor that a nation is a person with a soul, with members and unpresentable parts that are subordinate to the head. It's a metaphor that serves to justify inequality within a nation, and ignoring the humanity of people outside it.