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The Body Politic: the most powerful metaphor for belonging or exclusion.

The metaphor of the Body Politic is the single most powerful way to create community belonging, or to justify cutting people out or controlling them. The Body Politic is infused into our very language of community in the concept of membership; to be a literal member, a limb, of the corporate social body. It is rooted into religious traditions thousands of years in the making that themselves shape our sense of society.

 


Yet we hardly notice it. It is like water to a fish – so common it is invisible, even though it shapes and constrains our entire environment.

 

If you are curious about how religious traditions of the Body Politic shape policy outcomes in America, India, and China, read on!

 

 Last year I was invited to join the Center for Faith, Identity, and Globalization as a Research Fellow. My paper, Sickness and Health in the Body Politic: Religious Traditions of Social Boundaries, Justification, and Policy is out today, January 3, 2024!

 

Human beings all share three fundamental experiences. We need to belong to and feel secure in a group, we use simple metaphors to understand complex concepts like society, and we all experience embodiment. In other words, and to expand on Mary Douglas’ classic formulation, the image of a human body is the most readily available system of meaning by which humans can shape, and limit, the groups we need to survive. Put simply, the body politic is us, and we are driven to protect it as we are driven to protect our own skin and bones, even by excluding or controlling those who would endanger it.

 

This conclusion is the essential finding of both my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. Both those explorations centered on the diverse world of late Roman antiquity, as Christian communities formed in the crucible of internal diversity, Roman persecution, and then imperial takeover. The people in those ancient communities struggled to form boundaries and belonging around orthodox and heresy, leadership, and how to engage with a broader, wildly diverse society.

 

Their struggles around who to include or exclude, why, and what to do about it are achingly resonant with our struggles to define community in a wildly diverse society today. Do we include people of different religious traditions? Do we include people who sin or err in certain ways? What about people who love differently? Come from different places? Don’t all share skin color? Favor different forms of government? Believe different things about gender roles?

 

Like for the ancients, the Body Politic metaphor continues to shape and even constrain our sense of community and belonging. We almost instinctively use the language of social cancer or infection to identify community members we believe are dangerous, thus defining the social boundary and justifying a policy of exclusion or control.

 

Building on my dissertation and other previous publications, I explain how different ideas of health and sickness end up promoting different social policies of exclusion or control in today’s politics. I explore three case studies of how different constructions of the Body Politic based on ancient religious traditions have real policy outcomes today.

 

 


 

The Body Politic metaphor is one way that humans use to manage diversity. My decade of research on this metaphor and its policy outcomes shapes my strategic work to promote social cohesion at Cohesion Strategy.

 

I was thrilled to be invited to become a Research Fellow with the Center for Faith, Identity, and Globalization. It is an honor in itself. It is also an exciting chance to share my findings about how the Body Politic shapes our sense of community for good or ill.

 

If you are curious about how Cohesion Strategy can help your nonprofit or philanthropy better understand the landscape of diversity and promote belonging rather than exclusion, reach out! I’d love to chat with you. Feel free to schedule a 30 minute call to explore how I can support you. 

 

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