Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Decommodifying The Body

Written by: on April 13, 2022

Dutch Author Bessel Van der Kolk masterfully clarifies the complexities of the human psyche and inner world. His work specifically focuses on trauma, how it is carried in the body, and how that trauma can be addressed, befriended, and integrated. I am distinctly struck by his work around embodiment. Arguably, this book is summed up by that very concept. Emotions communicate embodied reality. Van der Kolk writes, “Emotions (from Latin emovere – to move out) give shape and direction to whatever we do, and their expression is through the muscles of the face and body” (75). Modern dualism has taught us that humans have bodies, but in reality, we¬†are bodies. That can be difficult to conceptualize considering how deeply disembodied Western Christianity has become, particularly since the Reformation. Not that Catholicism had it all right, but its symbols, rituals, and liturgy are more naturally embodied. Protestants took down the symbolic body of Christ from the crucifix, substituted transubstantiation for memorial, and taught us to close our eyes during worship.

Certainly it is arguable that our culture of disembodiment is attributed to the economic structure of capitalism. In the Great Transformation, Polanyi writes, “Self-regulation implies that all production is for sale on the market and that all income derives from such sales. Accordingly, there are markets for all elements of industry, not only for goods, but also for labor, land, and money […]” (72) Places of worship are not immune. Most churches function off of and are sustained by the basic tenets of capitalism: commodification of land, labor, the pursuit of greater market share. Western Christianity, evangelicalism and many mainline streams together, are not sinisterly disembodied. Perhaps it is the result of the totalizing commodification of all things, even sacred space. When this space is commodified and lacks the ability to transform, people cannot find healing, specifically for their internal world which likely dictates their external relationships.

Van der Kolk offers a way forward. He writes, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” (81) Van der Kolk introduces the need for social support which provides the critical element of reciprocity. Reciprocity, he writes, is “being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.” (81) This is not possible in a commodified ritual space, because it doesn’t allow for the soul to settle. Van der Kolk gives voice to Internal Family Systems in chapter 17. He writes of the internal managers, firefighters, and exiles. I will not go into detail here regarding IFS, but I bring it up only to make this point: When ritual space is commodified, only our internal managers are welcome. Managers are the parts of us who know how to smile at the greeting time, say “hello” to the right people, and “thank you” when we check-in the kids to childcare. These parts of us know how to feign kindness and gentleness in order to receive the same. In this market, emotions are commodified-the most acceptable emotions are bought and sold to afford social power and approval. In this market, exiles are not welcome, and if they present themselves, the firefighters are surely close by.

Van der Kolk writes, “Danger turns off our social-engagement system, decreases our responsiveness to the human voice, and increases our sensitivity to threatening sound […] in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down” (85-86). When our churches are commodified, danger and scarcity control the collective narrative, a manifestation of system 1 thinking. System 1 thinking is about survival, and when in survival, trauma cannot be addressed. It’s simply not safe to do so. What is the way forward? I feel it has to do with decommodifying emotions and bodies within ritual space – a first step would be to eliminate quantifying attenders, members, baptisms, salvations etc. Then, inclusion of less acceptable emotions is needed. These emotions carry the voice of inner exiles, and if allowed we find them everywhere – in sycamore trees, coming through thatched roofs, and and returning from prodigal existence.


Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press, 2001.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Publishing Group, 2015.


About the Author

Michael Simmons

- Tennessee --> Oregon - Father to David and Bina, Partner to Liz - Portland Seminary Admissions Counselor - Spiritual Director - Companioning Center Leadership Team - Deep Water Board Member - Ordained Elder, FMC - Aspiring Jungian Theologian

7 responses to “Decommodifying The Body”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:

    You’ve raised some fascinating points that have pulled out some theological questions in my mind. But, mainly, I’m thinking about the significance of this weekend and the ramifications of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

    I wonder how many people live with a traumatized spiritual identity with this particular theological stance on the significance and purpose of the cross. What psychological trauma are people walking around with caused by believing Jesus was offered up as a sacrifice to appease an angry and vengeful God?

  2. I actually ran into this in a spiritual direction appointment this past week. The individual has experienced significant trauma/abuse throughout their life, and that is playing out once more in their church context. Knowing she needs to leave, but her theological foundations tells her that God may be angry, that “I’ve done so much for you, so how could you leave?” I think atonement theory and soteriological underpinnings are often at the core of people’s decisions to stay in abuse religious settings. Love this conversation! Thoughts?

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Michael, wow, great take on this read! I love the connection to Miller and others regarding the commodification of religion.

    You seem to be in a position of helping individuals process their faith in Jesus and engagement with the Church. If you had to give 1-2 points of advise of who to best balance this tension of dealing with the trauma that exists in the church, what would you suggest?

    • Thanks Eric! Yeah, I think it’s case by case, individual by individual. I’m passionate about helping church leaders cultivate language and process for creating healthy culture. Unfortunately, for every pastor who implements this, there are 20 that don’t value trauma informed leadership. When people have religious trauma, it’s important to address the shame and existential fear that often accompanies leaving the church. I’ve found that intentional community, that may or may not be faith-oriented, is necessary for leaving the institution. In short, I think seeking balance can leave someone in a perpetual state trauma. In a religiously traumatizing context, it’s important that exercise by leaving and seeking community outside the organization.

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Michael: I was also drawn to the quote by Kolk regarding feeling safe before a person can really start to heal. It made me think of the role church can play in allowing someone to start to heal. What is a safer place than God’s church? Safe families, safe workplaces can also contribute someone feeling safe but so often those social structures don’t provide that environment. I loved this book; the author is so thoughtful and after 30 years of experience his expertise is apparent. With your academic background do you think this book added a new and deeper approach to human trauma?

    • Yeah this book is incredible, and I think it will continue to age well. Along with the Jungian perspective, trauma informed work and Internal Family Systems (IFS) have been key. Van Der Kolks book has been huge for me since I first read it a few years ago. Church communities that model embodiment spirituality are rare, so much of the work I do is helping Christians return to their bodies. What do you take away most from this book?

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Michael, this is a very interesting blog! I do agree to a large extent that emotions have been commodified. Is commodification the trauma or is it “atonement theory and soteriological underpinnings”? Or both?

    I am curious about this statement, ” Not that Catholicism had it all right, but its symbols, rituals, and liturgy are more naturally embodied”….can you share your thoughts on how these are more naturally embodied?

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