From the moment we emerge from our mothers womb, gravity is our constant. It pulls us down, sticking us to a planet spinning at 67,000 miles per hour around the Sun. Released from the weightlessness of our foetal astronaut existence we begin the fight – legs & arms quivering and flailing, air pushed from our lungs and blood pumped through our hearts, but stuck on our backs, like limpet to rock, as gravity makes its first, irresistible, claim on us.
For a time it feels as if we can win the fight – we learn to sit, to crawl, to walk, to run. We defy gravity. Every mountain climbed, flight taken, or weight lifted is a battle won. But in the end, gravity always has the victory, when the day comes when arms and legs can no longer be lifted, and at last our bodies are laid in the ground.
For some people this fight is more difficult than for others.
In April 2012 it was reported that firemen in Rotherham, “one of Britain’s fattest towns” were having to employ forklift trucks and hydraulic lifts to move obese people stuck as a result of accidents. This development followed a number of firemen being injured while attempting to shift fat people. In addition, the local emergency services had at their disposal one ambulance with the capacity to carry a patient weighing in excess of 40 stone, whereas the regular ambulances could only handle those up to a sylph-like 20 stone.
6,000 people in Rotherham (a town numbering in the region of 120,000 citizens) are known to have a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40 and nearly 800 have a BMI above 50, while a range of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy. A BMI of more than 40 is considered to be morbidly obese. A BMI of more than 40 means that someone five feet eleven tall weighs more than 290 pounds. That’s 21 stone. Which is a lot. (It’s even more than Preston Sprinkle can benchpress.) ‘Morbidly obese’ is a morbid phrase redolent with the assumption that being this fat means you are tottering on the edge of death. And it means that one in twenty of Rotherham’s population are being dragged, like melting candles, like helpless sacrificial victims, into the merciless maw of gravities pull, with a force their more slender compatriots do not experience.
At this point, we should try and tidy up our terminology, for what is commonly described as ‘weight’ should be more accurately termed ‘mass’. Mass is constant. It is the amount of ‘stuff’ packed into a body (whether obese or not) and does not change irrespective of where that body is – so whether you are sitting in a takeaway in Rotherham, falling out of an aeroplane, or taking a space walk, your mass will be what your mass is. Weight, on the other hand, describes the gravitational force acting on a body mass, and will therefore alter, depending on where the body is. A trip to outer space will mean you weigh less, though it won’t do anything about your mass.
Perhaps appropriately, if somewhat cruelly, according to the British Gravitational System, units of mass are measured in slugs. The slug is a mass that accelerates by one foot per second per second when a force of one pound-force is exerted on it. Pound-force is equal to the gravitational force exerted on a mass of one avoirdupois pound on the surface of Earth. An avoirdupois pound is comprised of 16 ounces. At the surface of the Earth, an object with a mass of 1 slug exerts a force of about 32.17 pounds per foot. Force can also be measured in inches, rather than feet, in which case the unit of measurement is the blob – which must mean that slugs are more forceful than blobs.
Unless you are an engineer or a physicist, probably not. Practically speaking, if you were to have the misfortune of being hit by a falling member of Rotherham’s larger classes, the force of impact would be considerably greater than if someone with a BMI of 18 were to land on your head. Someone with the mass of 290 slugs is going to make a large impact.
Regardless of how you measure it, some things weigh more than others. In Rotherham there are too many people who weigh considerably more than is good for them; but whether your chosen unit of measurement is the slug, pound or kilo, all of us spend our lives fighting the irresistible pull of everything heading south.
Of course, the question of when enough is too much is debated. Take the whole notion of body mass index itself. Frankly, I am sceptical about the usefulness of this measure. Some of this is personal, as my BMI places me just inside the ‘overweight’ category. Perhaps I am engaging in self-deception in railing against this, but I eat a healthy diet, cycle to work, walk the dogs, and engage in vigorous physical exercise five or six days a week (running, cycling, circuit training), so don’t think I am overweight. At the other end of ridiculousness is Steve Way, a runner from Poole who is currently world 50km champion. Steve regularly runs more than 100 miles a week, and before a big race will engage in ‘carb-depletion’ – an exercise which then prepares him for carbo-loading in order to create a big energy reserve on race day. Before the last London Marathon Steve noted on his blog the effects of carb-depletion:
Weight : 10st 6 (4 pounds lighter than when I started depletion)
Waist : 27 inches (I’ve got some 38′s in the wardrobe from another life)
Resting HR : 34
Face : Skeletal
Cuddle factor score with Mrs Way : BIG FAT ZERO
Entertainingly, my BMI is still well within the boundaries of “normal” at 19.79 which shows what a load of old cobblers that is!
BMI might be cobblers, but Rotheram fire service are still having to invest in forklifts. Rotheram, we have a problem.
Andrew’s post on gluttony and homosexuality is what prompted me to weigh in on this subject matter. Also, last Sunday our text at Gateway Church was from Judges 3 and the account of the assassination of the supersized king Eglon at the sneaky hand of Ehud. The point of that story is that Eglon had grown fat on Israel, and then gets his comeuppance at the end of an Israelite dagger. It is Tom and Jerry stuff – we’re meant to see the irony and laugh at the humour. Preaching it can be tricky though, because of the sensitivities many people have around body size. I was preaching at another church so one of my young guns picked up the weighty Eglon. I counselled him to tread carefully, and that while emphasising the humour he needed to steer clear of needless offence. This he did, with wisely chosen words, but he still received complaints from the sensitive.
Which is why gluttony is such a difficult sin to address.
Part of the problem is that carrying too much weight does not necessarily equate to gluttony. As well as questioning the BMI, I have an innate scepticism towards the obesity industry. I hate being hectored, and we are constantly bossed and bullied about what to eat. I eat my five portions of fruit and veg each day, but this is because I like it and not because of some nannying official instructing me to do it. The reality is, we are all living longer, even though we are bigger. The health dangers of obesity are more than outweighed by the health advantages of modern life. Better too much to eat than too little. And my theology of joy means I want to celebrate food that is fat rather than skimmed (Is 25:6). Gluttony may be bad, but feasting is good!
Of course, some of Rotheram’s larger citizens might be gluttonous, but 21st century style gluttony is much more complex and nuanced than simply eating too much. Gluttony, it seems to me, is involved whenever there is an undue focus on the body and food – when salvation is in someway seen to reside in what we do or do not put into the body. For the traditionally imagined glutton this is obvious – the never ending troughing that is more about fulfilling an existential need than a dietary requirement. But the skinny contestant on Masterchef who waxes lyrically, “My passion is food!” appears to me more guilty of gluttony than the person who is overweight simply because they are careless of what they eat. Similarly, some of my triathlete friends are gluttons, in the sense that they constantly obsess about ‘nutrition’. The non-glutton eats his food with thankfulness, but without too much introspection.
The charge that the church should speak more about gluttony and less about sexuality is a heaving portion of hog-wash. Actually the two things are closely connected, as indicated by Paul’s instructions on food and sex in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The thing is that the western world is full of fat people who are not gluttons and thin people who are, while the general sexual climate is to scoff at the notion that, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” because the very idea of sexual immorality is considered risible. The people of Rotheram have had no end of advice about diet and exercise. The people of the world need to be shown the health benefits of a consistent sexual ethic. The people of the Church need to live in a manner that “glorifies God in our bodies”, which means we are willing to hack down our idols, whatever form they disguise themselves in. What we do with our bodies is not indifferent; far from it. But the real question is to what is our personal god. And whether I am fat or thin, straight or gay, the gravity of my decisions will get me in the end.