“In many ways, this is what our bodies are: ever-present reminders of our essential lack of control. The body subjects us to gravity and pain. It makes us eat, sleep, fall, sit. It is the only part of us that can be bitten by a dog or go tumbling down a flight of stairs.”
— Sam Anderson, the New York Times
It’s been a shade under a year since I read about Sam Anderson’s weight, in a piece titled “I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning.” As the era of global contagion entered its twilight, Anderson, a words whiz with The New York Times Magazine, became ashamed of his pandemic pounds and downloaded Noom in the summer of ’21. The app did what it was supposed to do: Sam slimmed down, via a cocktail of calorie counts and cartoonish commentary. But it also sent Anderson back to his past weight-loss endeavor, a childhood trip through the fitness industry that made him believe he wasn’t himself if he wasn’t skinny.
In Air, the Matt Damon-led reimagining of the Jordan brand’s birth, Nike is convinced they have a shoe problem. No one wears basketball shoes for anything but basketball, and it’s 1984 — basketball itself is a borderline cult sport: One of the film’s harder-hitting gags is that only one member of the Swoosh’s basketball department, Damon’s Sonny Vicaro, actually watches basketball on a regular basis. One day, Vicaro, a talent scout for the powers that be in Portland, finds film of an incoming Chicago Bulls rookie and decides that the player he’s looking at is the future of professional sports. So, he goes back and tells his bosses to create an entirely new sportswear entity, “around just… him.”
See, Nike’s been getting it all wrong. “A shoe is just a shoe,” whispers one of Vicaro’s collaborators, “until someone steps into it.” If Michael Jordan steps into it, it’s a symbol of greatness, a rind from the fruit of lifelong dedication.
Hanging as execution is not an invention of 21st-century America; the ancient Romans used gravity and rope to strangle common criminals to death, and the form of punishment itself never managed to fall out of style. So, they turned a rope, tied in a specific knot — the hangman’s knot, which kind of proves my point — into a symbol of death.
Yet, when Americans look up and see a hangman’s knot, we see something slightly different: A noose. Of course, any rope tied in a hangman’s knot is, technically, a noose. For most Americans, however, the noose isn’t just a symbol of legal punishment; it recalls the days when hooded horsemen crisscrossed the countryside, beating, torturing, and lynching (which here means an extrajudicial execution) Black folk and those who sided with us in the struggle for equality. To tie that rope in a certain fashion in a certain context, or even to depict a rope so tied, is to erect a symbol of violent racial prejudice and hatred. Many of the people who hang nooses know this, and do it to intimidate African Americans with a blast from the past. But, occasionally, the knot itself, tied for completely benign reasons, is enough to conjure up the darkness of eras past. (Just ask Bubba Wallace, the lone Black driver at NASCAR’s highest level. Wallace found himself involved with an FBI investigation when someone from his pit crew saw that their garage’s pulley was fashioned into a noose. After days of wall-to-wall coverage and controversy, the Bureau determined that the door pull’s design was, essentially, an unfortunate accident. Wallace, understandably, wasn’t quick to accept this explanation.)
There’s a universe in which a noose is just, well, a noose — not even a hangman’s knot. But that was two worlds ago: Nooses were nooses until someone got strangled by them. African Americans know what nooses mean, to us, in this country, and we can’t pretend that we don’t. Which brings me to this weekend.
Rome had a whole menu of ways to execute its transgressors, as Jean-Jacques Aubert wrote in 2002 — burying them alive, burning them at the stake, chopping their heads off, launching them off of cliffs. If a spectacle was the question, hangings and gladiator fights in the Colosseum were the answer. The Romans needed all these methods because its system had no concept of life imprisonment; the expense of feeding, clothing, and housing the empire’s edgiest evildoers was more than they wanted to take on. (Even before the death penalty came into widespread use in Rome, potential capital offenders were given the option of packing up and fleeing into the lands of the barbarians. Or, you know, anywhere else the Romans hadn’t conquered yet.)
But I’m off the rails here: My point isn’t about anything on this list. It’s about what isn’t. Crucifixion, per — of all places — the NIH, was a special punishment, reserved for people who held a truly special place in Caesar’s heart: The enslaved, wayward soldiers, traitors, and colonial rebels. It wasn’t quick and efficient like beheading, it wasn’t a spectacle like gladiatorial death, and it didn’t save money like cliff-tossing and exile. What it did do was transform the body’s of Rome’s enemies into symbols. In the biblical story of Esther, Mordecai is publicly honored as a friend of the king via a horse-drawn parade and public declarations of his gallantry and valor. Sticking someone on a cross and waiting for them to suffocate to death? That’s… the opposite of that. When the deed was done, Rome would often leave the bodies of the dead hanging for a while, as a warning to anyone else mulling rebellion.
A cross, in other words, was just a cross, until someone got nailed to it. The question of an execution isn’t just one of methods and deaths — it’s a question of who, exactly, is being executed, both individually and collectively.
Enter Jesus Christ. The Gospels insist that He’s not a violent political insurgent. He’s not a murderer, either, unless fig trees have moral considerations. (They really don’t.) Read the Gospels, this week if no other: His high, lethal crime appears to be periodically talking smack to religious authorities. Like Mordecai in the book of Esther, Christ is a member of a Jewish people that’s been eaten alive by more powerful forces, and yet has put their hopes on His back. When the people discover that He plans to carry them to a more nebulous, spiritual hope than any sort of concrete liberation, they fall in line behind the Pharisees and decide that, yes, turns out the good Lord has committed some sort of capital offense.
What is this offense? No one knows in John’s 18th chapter — least of all the person who has to approve the execution, Pontius Pilate. All they know is that Pilate is “no friend of Caesar” if he declines to subject Christ to the fate of a terrorist insurgency for the civic sin of (checks notes) saying the rabbis had the wrong ideas about religion. Okay, fine, Jesus called a few Pharisees the “offspring of vipers” and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but neither beef rises to the level of “waging internal war against the regime.”
In light of what He’d actually done — or even was accused of doing — the details of Jesus Christ’s execution laid out in Scripture seem positively, absolutely, intractably bizarre. He’s taken to a place just outside Jerusalem called “the place of the skull” and pinned at the center of two zealots who’d actually tried to overthrow the regime. His death is made a public spectacle, and the local authorities make it their business to make Him as miserable as possible. Still, while the Lord experiences epochal agony atop Golgotha’s hill, He also manages to die in record time; the Roman soldiers are so shocked at the speed at which He gave out that they cut short the normal execution procedure. Besides, unlike many of the other rebels and rabble piled high on Jerusalem’s crucifixion hill, Christ gets a burial, inside a tomb. What’s up?
To answer that question, I’ll take you back to where this story starts and middles: Sam Anderson and Portland, Oregon.
Anderson’s experience with weight is a remarkably lonely journey. His best friend is taken aback when Anderson talks about his weight loss, because that same friend had made the comment that started this journey in the first place. (“Did I say that?” the friend asks, via text, indicating that Sam Anderson made a mountain out of a molehill.) Anderson’s wife and daughter discover he’s petering pounds by watching him around the house in an accidental, silent stakeout of sorts. (“Are you counting calories?” his daughter wonders aloud, her voice thick with incredulity.) And the childhood flashbacks that roadmap Anderson’s journey pair a remarkable volume of outside insight with an equally remarkable dearth of anything discernable as empathy. For much of his essay, the only characters who really know what’s going on are Sam Anderson and his own body.
“What is the human relationship to the body?” Anderson asks. “Is the body our essential self, or is it just an outer shell — and if so, is it more like a clam shell (homegrown, enduring) or a hermit crab shell (adopted, temporary)?”
It’s here that the wordsmith’s work becomes what it truly is: Not an aspersion cast at an American subculture so much as a lamentation. Anderson is mourning who he was, and what he cared about, while acknowledging that this person is never fully dead. He insists he’s never been severely injured by diet culture, never suffered anything akin to damage in pursuit of a slimmer, trimmer figure. “Even so, my weight has somehow managed to make itself a central fact of my life,” he writes, “an essential part of the story I tell myself about myself.” As a child, Sam earns a reputation as the kid you give all your snacks to at the lunch-hour table; he makes a show of consuming his classmates’ brownies as they chortle with a mix of wonder and mock admiration. Once, his grandfather sees him chugging from a glass of orange juice and shakes his head with disapproval. (“You drank it for the flavor,” growls the grizzled gramps, “not the nutrition.”) When Anderson becomes enthralled by a morsel of food and shoves it into his mouth with a joie de vivre, his wife jokes that a character named Fat Sam has emerged.
That story ends in front of a mirror, a few hours after Anderson buries his father in Oregon. His dad was a runner who — oddly enough — spent much of his adult life in the shadow of Nike’s headquarters. Even though he’s in one of his slimmer phases, Anderson simply cannot get his father’s shirt to drape itself over his body. Sam Anderson and his father are two different people, in ways that go beyond shirt sizes; the son’s attempt to fit the father’s bodily mold falls far, far short.
But don’t mistake the son’s ample waistline for a useless body. Anderson’s dad was sick, with cancer, before his passing in 2019. “I thought about the way my able body had allowed me to help his suddenly disabled body with its basic functions,” Anderson reflected, “just as he helped me with those same functions 40 years before.”
Jesus Christ and his father are supposed to be the same person. You see one, you see the other, and the former is supposed to be an extension of the latter — akin to connecting a Furby to an AI chatbot. In theory, the Father and Son’s high holy bond should be impossible to break.
In practice, the disciples scatter, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost as soon as the Romans nab the Christ. Before Jesus even appears before Pilate, the Apostle Peter’s swearing up and down that he doesn’t know the man. The Lord’s flanked by two criminals, one of them rather contrite, at the Crucifixion; his mother, Mary, is there, with a gaggle of other female disciples.
But God? The Father? Jesus Christ, racked with anguish and dying fast, can’t help but wonder: “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”
And just like that, the Creator’s alone. With his body.
No matter what we do to our bodies, Anderson — perhaps in ecstasy, or lamentation, or both — warns, “I will still be me. And you will still be you.”
Christianity’s founding miracle is not a spiritual rebirth. Every religion is in the rebirth business, at some point and in some way, and every religion has a spiritual angle, too — Moses sees a burning bush and gets the inside track on godly vision, Muhammad meditates in a cave and starts taking orders from Allah’s heavenly angels, Arjuna’s chauffeur turns out to be the octo-god of preservation, and so on, and so on, and so on. We see all these people as normal when they’re bodies first; then, through the prism of experience, they rise to high and holy ground.
We meet Jesus Christ in different circumstances altogether. If Christianity is to be believed, we get acquainted with him as a spiritual being, a voice in heaven and a capital-A Angel on Earth. Then, the King of Glory devolves into a hypothetical, a prophesied person who is going to do A Thing in some indeterminate future. Then, and only then, do we meet him as a body — small enough for Nat King Cole to serenade, unable to feed himself, volitionally unmoored from the insatiable sensations that drive our lives from start to end. His body, in a different time and under different circumstances, experiences everything our bodies do over the course of three decades. But it doesn’t do what our bodies do. We want the wrong things, at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, and spend our entire existence fighting the impulses that arise from those wants. Christ’s claim to fame is that he short-circuits all of this; therefore, we can, too.
Yet, at the Crucifixion, the differences between Christ and ourselves are closed for all to see. Bodies get thirsty, as does his. They breathe, as his can’t. They die, as his will. But it’s not our bodies that feel so similar; the whole point of Jesus’ time on earth is that he has the same body as us. What matters is that his soul becomes so much like ours, with its all-consuming anguish and a searing loneliness that makes his quick death make sense. In those moments, our supposed God feels human, and he doesn’t feel like anything else.
A cross is just a cross until someone gets nailed to it, but it’s still a cross to us until we can see ourselves up there, too. But if we can see ourselves there dying, unsatisfied and alone, Easter makes a little more sense. Remember the abandoned rabbi, stuck on the cross, a public example of Rome’s snide contempt? He’s nowhere to be found less than 72 hours later, not even in the tomb he was supposed to occupy. Three women, friends of his, drop by to renew his embalming and return with the news that he’s risen from the dead, but this part’s a little garbled if you’re reading the Scriptures side-by-side.
What matters is this: When Mary Magdalene, perhaps the friendliest of friends of God, sees the Lord for the first time, she thinks he’s a gardener. Nothing about him suggests otherwise for as long as she’s tearfully asking where “they” have taken the body. (I’m just some dude, sitting on a couch, typing into my laptop, but the use of the word they seems to suggest that Mary Magdalene was worried that the Romans had decided to keep working on the corpse.) Only when he says her name into the morning, breaking the pall of isolation that had followed him since his arrest, is Mary’s entire being turned upside down with the thesis that will define the next 2,000 years of history. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus has risen — just as he said he would.
We live in a shell of infinite complication; we don’t understand the body, and there’s a chance we never will. It’s not the roller coaster we ride in this life; it’s simply the car that contains us during the dips. But the message of Easter, on a personal level, is not that the body can be harnessed or commandeered. The message of this weekend is the passage of a God — within, without, and beyond the body. And if his suffering was laced with human universalities, then perhaps our own bodies can be transcended in his glorification.