This week Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a photo of an ad that compared the “Syrian Refugee Problem” to a bowl of Skittles. The ad suggested that we can best understand the worst humanitarian crisis of our time by thinking about refugees not as embodied, suffering people but as poisonous rainbow-colored candy that could kill us. Let’s set aside for a minute the politics of this and the admitted complexity of immigration and national security.
What does it mean that we are comparing real, fleshly, breathing human beings to pieces of candy? Are we so desensitized and disembodied that the real, physical, incarnational suffering of people on the other side of the world can only be understood in terms of candy-eating consumerism and our own self-preservation?
What does it mean that as a nation it is actually controversial to say something as self-evidently true as “black lives matter”?
What does it mean that police officers so easily resort to lethal force in confrontations with black men like Terence Crutcher (and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and so many others) when non-lethal means are available to address a perceived threat?
What does it mean that our society has such an anemic and inhumane view of bodies that we casually dispose of unborn children, insisting that their bodies are not human but simply mounds of tissue to be removed as we would remove a tumor or cyst?
What does it mean that, when our bodies start breaking and causing us immense psychological and emotional stress, we can choose to end our lives via legal physician-assisted suicide?
What does it mean that we believe our “gender identity” is something wholly unrelated to our reproductive organs and biological realities, such that we can manipulate our bodies via surgery or hormone treatments to force it into the expressive identity we prefer?
What does it mean that forcing our bodies into preferred identities is something that also fuels billion dollar diet, fitness and pharmaceutical industries, in which we regulate and soup up our bodies like we would a car or a prized toy?
What does it mean that we care so much about organic, natural, non-genetically modified food but do not seem to find anything wrong with leveraging technology to modify our bodies and hormones to our liking?
What does it mean that sex has become a largely disembodied experience, a Tinder-fueled animal exchange divorced from commitment or, more commonly, simply a digital experience of screen-mediated orgasm?
What does it mean that our closest connection with fellow humans in crowded streets or coffeeshops is not eye-to-eye but bowed-head-to-bowed-head, as each of us engages a screen rather than the eternal, enfleshed beings sitting next to us?
It means we need to be re-humanized.
Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York Magazine essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” is his personal narrative of an increasingly universal problem: estrangement from ourselves (and each other) in a world where consumerism and technology and secularism and globalization and identity politics and more have combined to produced a rapidly de-humanizing world.
It seems we have adopted a sort of neo-Gnostic view of the body that treats it as something to be used, manipulated, controlled and harnessed in service of a nebulous Platonic idea of who we are.
What, if anything, can we do to re-humanize ourselves?
I think we can start by reducing our disembodied, mediated screen experiences and making more space in our lives for just being there in physical space, with physical people, present and talking and exploring the physical world together.
Another thing we can do is orient our lives more around the local and proximate than the global and abstract. The national news and Internet media machine is not all bad, but it can distract us from the much more graspable and changeable and beautiful communities right in front of us. Go to neighborhood gatherings; frequent local cafes and actually talk to people; prioritize local associations like community volunteer groups and churches.
One thing the church can do is preach and live a more robust theology of the body. The body is crucial to understanding Christianity, founded as it is on a God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Today's world is largely information based. We are bombarded with code and symbol and text every moment: cerebral stimuli to decipher. Christians are a people of the Word too, to be sure, but a Word that became flesh.
It matters that Jesus walked on this planet like we do, and sweat and bled and cried and hungered and desired like we do. It matters that he looks like us and we look like him, and that we are walking icons of the God whose image we bear. The Incarnation of Christ means it matters that we are human, and that we are here. Every life, every body, from the baby in the womb to the chronically ill octogenarian, matters.
We are not skittles; we are not statistics; we are not machines; we are not tissue masses; we are not politicized abstractions.
We are humans.