The Soft Underbelly of God

When God rolled over in vulnerability.

Blake Nail / 8.17.23

As the glow of the morning sun slowly illuminates the backside of my house, you can find my pesky feline sprawled out across the warming floor. Basking in the sun’s rays, my cat eventually grows in comfortability — eventually rolling onto his spine and revealing his soft white underbelly. A state of vuleralbility which leaves him unarmed and defenseless. If you’re trusted, as I am, you can come up and rub this out-in-the-open belly. But it must be done quickly, this offering of such vulnerability is available for a limited time only. Within minutes, the thumping sounds of innocent, yet menacing, children’s footsteps will thunder down the stairs. The weak spot which left my cat unarmed and defenseless, will be safely hidden once again beneath four paws equipped with sharp nails which should’ve been trimmed already by his owner (who could not be reached when asked for comment…).

However irrelevant it may seem, this image of exposed weakness is one found to be curiously valuable in times of war.

War tables are usually depicted in film and television as extended stretches of thick sturdy wood where upon a detailed map has been spread. Men wearing stern and focused mugs study the little figurines representing both their armies and the enemy’s. They move them around with minitature shuffle board cues while discussing strategy. Sometimes an unexpected speaker will mention an absurd strategy and the rest of the men will mock it. You might even get the line we all know and love: “It’s so damn crazy, it just might work.” Now, I’ve never personally been around a war table, but I imagine it must be something close to that. But someone who would know is the infamous leader, Winston Churchill.

Churchill, known for leading Britain to triumph in World War II, is often referenced for his powerful speeches, shrewd war tactics and worthy-of-replication leadership. There’s been a host of books written about the man and plenty of movies, television series and documentaries to go around. And of course, as fame will have it, the man has quotes aplenty. One in specific spoken in 1942 when plotting where to first strike. General Mark Clark quotes Churchill saying “We should slit the soft belly of the Mediterranean.” According to history, this is a term Churchill is known to have utilized numerous times in his attempts at finding weak points of the enemy to easily overtake.

Many years later, this term was again picked up by an advertising photographer who was inspired by the quote and looking to start a new project. Mark Laita has a list of well-known clients: Apple, Intel, Adidas, BMW and plenty of other major companies. After years of making art for people other than himself, he published his first book, Created Equal, featuring writings from Ingrid Sischy alongside his black and white portraits. These feature people from all walks of life as he traversed the country and snapped stills arranging them side-by-side with a comparative counterpart — company president and janitor, fitness model and heart surgery patient, Baptist minister and KKK members, French chef and short order cook, astronaut and alien abductee.

“I photograph what I love about my country, which is the American. By that I mean the individual who is shaped from more than 200 years of liberty and independence mixed with all the successes and failures that America has experienced in its short life. So here is a collection of these creatures. Tragic and wonderful, great and ordinary, they stand proud and ready for scrutiny,”

This was the beginning of Mark’s dive into what he has deemed the “soft white underbelly of America.” Eventually he started the YouTube channel The Soft White Underbelly which features, much like his book, people from all dark walks of life. The channel, which has 4.74 million subscribers, features painful, heart-breaking interviews from addicts, prostitutes, pedophiles, self-identified racists, homeless, drag queens, dominatrixs, ex-cons and a host of those who have been disheveled and disregarded by the rest of the world. It’s a “crash course in empathy” as he calls it.

His most popular video, which currently sits at 38 million views, is of the Whittaker family. A disturbingly human inbred family in Odd, West Virginia. The video displays a family with obvious mental disabilities, one which results in barking like a dog as the primary form of communicating. But it also reveals a portion of humanity we would never know about. Or if we even knew about, would never go and see. God himself could descend from the heavens and  instruct me to go and I would quickly become an imitator of Jonah — hitting the road as fast as possible in the opposite direction. And yet, the family remains a part of humanity along with all of us. The soft white underbelly of humanity.

Mark Laita can often be found in LA where he posts up on Skid Row with the least, the lost and the last. Through the videos and photography, Laita opens a window to see humanity for who they truly are and reveals the qualities which resonate with all of us to varying degrees — broken, vulnerable and loaded with baggage. He describes such relatability when discussing how watching his own interviews affects him:

I’ll do it on a more personal level, on a more individual level, like I see self-destructive or self-sabotaging behavior in myself and I’ll be able to apply the story that I’m hearing, maybe not as extreme — some of these stories are really horrifying and my childhood is nothing like these — but the mechanics are still the same. The stuff that happens to you as a kid ends up affecting the way you believe in yourself which ends up manifesting as problems with alcohol or drugs or your diet or taking care of your health or your choice of partners or career choice or belief in your self or education you decide to get there’s so many things … we’re our own worst enemies.

The brokenness and sin of the world is not just expressed in one time “no-no” actions. It’s deeply embedded in who we are as a people. Its forms are often passed down generationally through DNA and trauma. It’s sometimes extenuated by our learning of deeper ways to dig ourselves into our brokenness. Laita himself can be viewed as a window into the past, a reflection of a greater image. Peering into another person who cared for, exposed the injustices against and spent time among the least, the lost and the last. 

While Churchill has found himself among the ranks of highly accomplished world leaders, especially when it came to times of war, his methods were not utilized in the War on Human Trespass. Instead of finding the soft underbelly of humanity in order to strike it, the God of the universe decided to step into it himself. An infiltration behind enemy lines with plans to redeem said enemy. The result? Solidarity with the trespassers: growing up in a poor, meek town, beginning his ministry to the enemy in a trading port where numerous people from all walks of life (including those looked down upon). He spent time with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, paralytics and well, a chocolate box assortment of trespassers — you never knew what you were going to get. In short, this God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, spent his time on Earth with the soft white underbelly. More than that, he found unity with them by actually becoming part of the soft white underbelly of humanity. An idea so offensive at its time, and still today, that he was accused of blasphemy and was even stretched out on a Roman torture device for it. 

While all that is certainly intriguing, it’s not exactly the advised attack plan during a hot war. In Christ, God rolled over in vulnerability. He presented the squishy, easily penetrable underside of himself. He offered up the weak flesh of his body, not to be rubbed but rather to be pierced. To be betrayed and taken advantage of for the sake of those who, in fact, perpetrate the act. It’s baffling, absurd and altogether rather nonsensical. But for those who find themselves part of the soft white underbelly of humanity, as we all are, it’s counted as joy. For the soft white underbelly of humanity is not only seen by God but has been visited upon, incarnated into and resurrected out of. Like the two criminals next to Jesus on the cross, we can look to our side and see God himself on his back, exposed in unison with us. 

God’s war table doesn’t have a map spread out with army men and arrows for plans of infiltration. Instead, it resembles something more of a dining room table, with plates full and cups spilling over along with a guest list which would make any reasonable commander sneer. A table where enemies are welcomed and soft underbellies are filled. There’s no question if humanity has a soft underbelly or not. The only question in the air: Is it rumbling? 

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One response to “The Soft Underbelly of God”

  1. Jim Munroe says:

    Blake, This is just a brilliant piece, and I’ve just ordered “Created Equal.” Thank you!!!

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