Where You Put Your Body, What You Do With It
It’s a simple idea, really: who you are can be discerned by what you do. Except we usually want to make it more complicated than that.
I watched a movie with my family: All Is Lost (2003), the one wherein Robert Redford’s sailboat gets hit by a cargo container. The entire movie is without dialogue; it’s just one person’s battle against the chaotic forces of nature on the wide open sea. (If you know my fear of natural water, you’ll know I was pretty wound up for this one.)
Redford’s character, whose name we don’t know, has relationships we don’t know, is from somewhere we don’t know, has lived a life we don’t know, thinks thoughts we don’t know, is on a quest we don’t know, has made plans we don’t know. He is a spiritual person or not; is a good person or not; is worth saving or not – we don't know.
There is literally no backstory for this two-hour saga of Sturm and Drang, and no denouement, either. It’s a pure experiment in the idea that we will root for his survival not because we identify with his history, his intentions, his persuasive voiceover, or his touching reunion with someone, anyone, who loves him; rather, we will die to see him die based solely on what he does. Because who he is is what he does, starting with the initial crash that punctures his boat and continuing through the eight-day shitstorm that follows.
A 20th-century biblical scholar and theologian, Hans Frei, wrote a terribly complex book called The Identity of Jesus Christ (1975). In this book (so I’ve been told by my spouse who is something of an expert in Frei’s work), Frei argues that Jesus is what Jesus does. Or, more fully, Jesus is what Jesus does, says, and suffers. Jesus is not what Jesus intends or believes or thinks. His identity is rendered by what we can see on his outside, not by what we have to guess about his inside. The identity of Jesus = his outer life, not his inner life.
The gospels, you’ll notice, very rarely attribute any intention to Jesus’s actions. Once we are told that he “had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Another time we read, “Moved with pity [or anger? it’s a wacky translation issue], Jesus stretched out his hand and touched [the leper]…and he was made clean.” But all the rest of the time, we get nada about his mood or his thought process or what he thinks it all means. It simply means what he does.
Frei would say, “If you want to know who Jesus is, look at what he does. It’s all there for us to see; there is nothing to distinguish between his intentions and his actions. We know Jesus is compassionate, or pissed off, or puzzled, we know whether Jesus gives a shit or not, because of what he does and says and suffers. He’s the same, inside and out.” Well, Frei probably wouldn’t say it just like that. I summarize.
This is important because we are so quick to say, “I didn’t mean to!” when we’ve done something, or somebody, wrong. Or, “I fully intended to…” when we’ve neglected what should’ve been a priority. Somehow we imagine that our intentions – what’s on the inside – can trump our actions – what’s on the outside, available for anybody to see if they’re paying attention.
So, for example (and here’s where this sounds kinda’ judgey, more than I intend, probably – and see what I did there?), one might say, “I worship and adore the living God.” But if one does not put one’s body in the worshiping posture, in the worshiping place, in the worshiping routine, if one does not actually worship, can one really say one is a worshiper of God? Your identity is rendered not in what you intend, but in what you do.
Or, for example, one might say, “I care about justice for LGBTQ humans, or kindness for low-wage workers, or creating beauty for our God-Who-Is-Beautiful, or making real relationships, no bullshit, ever.” Or anything else. But caring about these things is not a function of intending to care about these things. To care about them is to externalize that care as a practice. It has to do not with what you think or claim you prioritize, but with where you put your body and what you do with it – i.e. what you do.
So imagine that I’m Redford, out on that sinking boat, water pouring in, another storm brewing, with a concussion and no more fresh water. If you were watching me, who would you think I am? A survivor? A coward? An idiot? A fatalist? An optimist? Would you care whether I lived or died? How would you know, without a voiceover, a narrator, someone to tell you what I’m thinking?
You would just watch. You would wait to see what I do, after I throw up a little seawater and shout “Fuuuuuuuck!” to the sky. (Which is a perfectly legitimate prayer, by the way, and maybe the only appropriate one in that scenario.)
Or imagine my actual landlubber life. How do you know what I care about most? How do you know whether I'm a worshiper, or an ally, or a healer, or a parent, or a friend, or a self-important asshole? Look at what I do. Don’t worry about what I intend. I’ll show you my identity, and you’ll show me yours, the same way Jesus showed us his.
“You’ll know them by their fruits,” he told his followers one time, meaning that an apple tree really isn't unless it produces actual apples. You know people by what they show you -- the exact same way we knew him. The exact same way he knows us. Yeah. Yikes.