I used to believe I’d escaped the worst consequences of the American insistence on commodifying everything, from sacred land to Black bodies and lives to water and time. That system of using everything up and throwing it away was designed to benefit me, an upper-middle-class White person. I never noticed how it was insidiously teaching me to use myself up and throw me away. Now, some days my knees and hips ache and I remember that my disabled body has been thrown into the vortex of all those systems’ hidden costs, alongside poor people’s bodies, disabled and elderly bodies, bodies of People of Color. But all those types of bodies can be, and are, also autoimmune bodies. And unlike my body, not all of them have access to the material resources needed to heal. I live with far fewer barriers to claiming my human right to health than most people in my country.
In these years of experiencing my body’s disease, I’ve ever-so-slowly learned to appreciate her ability to detect when something is wrong and insist that I pay attention. I no longer have the option of ignoring and exploiting myself for very long, pretending to delay the consequences indefinitely. These days, when I feel her twinges and tiredness, I not only recognize that I need tending, I also feel her calling me back into integrity with myself and right relationship with the wider world.
Likewise, all of the interlocking systems in which we participate are offering us clues that our extractive, exploitative habits can’t be sustained much longer. My body is only one of those systems, but as I am still learning, it’s a wise and prophetic one. Glennon Doyle says some people with mental illness are like canaries in coal mines: “In a profoundly sick society filled with racism, misogyny and all of these ills, we breathe in all of these toxins [and] we get sicker.” Autoimmune bodies are canaries too—sensitive to both literal toxins and figurative cultural and systemic ones.
The good news is, the very complexity that makes those systems so difficult to fix once they’re thrown out of balance also makes them highly resilient in the long term. My body is not “cured” or returned to its previous state, but a hard-won new normal has emerged through my doctor’s care and my reconsideration of my life choices, big and small. The same is possible for our food systems, our healthcare systems, and more.
Jesus says our greatest power to resist empire and foster Wholeness doesn’t lie in our ability to wield empire’s weapons—violence, economic exploitation, fear, and hatred—for ourselves. It’s not even in democratically wresting control of the government that we are to place our hope.
We can be called to join the prophetic cry, “no justice, no peace,” because this is simply a description of our present reality, but the bitterness of injustice doesn’t excuse us from pursuing wholeness and peace. “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus says (Luke 17:21 NKJV). You have the power to erupt through empire right where you are.
Just like there’s no single magic pill for my body, no person, organization, or politician has the answer for making food or healthcare just and sustainable. Our systems’ problems call for solutions as diverse and widely deployed as their causes. And that can be a good thing. We’re so used to imagining power as a top-down proposition—as something some people have, and others don’t—that we’ve been convinced to forget the power of small-scale but widespread transformation.
What I don’t mean is small-scale but widespread actions. This is not the part where I try to convince you that our world’s pressing issues call us, deeply and urgently, to a little recycling here and a trip to the farmers’ market there. In fact, we have too often defaulted to well-intentioned but ineffective (or harmful) actions, tacking on more “virtuous” tasks to our to-do lists, because we don’t remember how to be—or to become.
This becoming, if it is radical enough, will touch every aspect of our lives. It may ask us to reconsider our dreams, our worldviews, our worship. And at the same time—because it is so deep, taking place at a cellular level—it may at times look on the outside as if nothing is happening at all. That may very well be the case; for so many of us, an essential step in unlearning empire’s colonizer culture is to practice surrender.
My own choice to seek out local, organic food won’t change an outdated, unjust system; in fact, I could consume this food as a niche-market status symbol and likely do more harm than good. But when this practice is about belonging to a local food ecosystem, it can ask me more questions and call me to further action: to learn about the agricultural and labor practices of farmers and support sustainable farms, to advocate politically for community-led solutions to food apartheid, to begin a relationship with the land by cultivating the soil around me, or to share my table with my neighbors more often.
This way of relating to the world doesn’t discount the importance of federal legislation, technological innovation, or good corporate governance; it just doesn’t put all its hope in those tools alone. It dares to believe that what we need is not a few superhuman leaders, but millions of leaders whose very humanity is their strength. It trusts that when we align our small habits and big life choices with our own values and our own communities’ flourishing, we will also find ourselves in the very specific place in the world we are called to occupy: one where our deeply intentional, interrelated actions can reverberate with the greatest impact.
The story of colonization, objectification, and exploitation can feel so long and broken that the ending seems like a foregone conclusion: we are destroying the planet, one another, and ourselves faster than we can even document our losses. No economic class is exempt from burnout. No place on earth will escape it. Too often our “solutions” seem to be little more than the invention of new industries to profit from the destruction.
But humanity isn’t inherently destined for perversity and evil, any more than my body is. We’re created good and indwelt by a longing for Wholeness. We can offer kind attention to the places crying out to be tended. We can wield creativity and love to reimagine our businesses, our farms, our cities, our countries. We have new technological, sociological, even psychological tools for growing kinder relationships and kinder systems, not just for making war and growing already-bloated economies.
Healing is embedded within our DNA and within the DNA of all of earth. What if, instead of resisting, numbing, or bypassing the signs of distress, we leaned in close? What if we gave our pain its overdue respect, and our innate, God-given wisdom its forgotten honor? What if we dared to believe that our communities, in the most unlikely, overlooked places, have already been given everything we need?
We could right our upended relationships from the cellular level, out.
We could become people who embody repair.
This is an excerpt from My Body and Other Crumbling Empires chapter 2, “Why We Need to Heal.”