Bodies, Black Women, and Solidarity in 2018
At Christmas, we celebrate the day God took on flesh to redeem the world. Our Divine Lord, with human body. Subjected to all the human body's frailties and wonder. It’s through our bodies that we inhabit a place and relate to others. It is the site of knowing and experience.
The body is where race and gender and sexuality reside. Both are unimaginable without the other. The gazes of dominant societies use these elements of identity to project meaning and shape hierarchies. In America, the social gaze has produced generations of objectification and violence for Black women. Black women, under the brutality of these conditions, have been forced to think theologically about the body more incisively than any group I’ve encountered (often under the name 'Womanist theologians'). Among these thinkers, M. Shawn Copeland is a brilliant leader.
Copeland’s work privileges “suffering bodies in theological anthropology” because doing so “uncovers the suffering body at the heart of Christian belief.” For her, the crucified Christ can be revealed through the suffering of black women’s bodies today. The two are mutually revelatory of one another.
She draws out five ideas that can guide our embodied lives in discipleship after the incarnated shalom bringer.
- The body is a site and mediation of divine revelation
- The body shapes human existence as relational and social
- The creativity of the Triune God is manifested in differences of gender, race, and sexuality
- Solidarity is a set of bodily practices
- The Eucharist orders and transforms our bodies as the body of Christ 
Each of these has wise guidance for us heading into the new year.
First -- in a year marked by violence, a relentless quest to undermine health-care, escalating hate crimes, and a strong element urging that some bodies (white, American, ‘job creators,’ male, straight) are more valuable than others -- we are reminded by the creation story, the incarnation of Jesus, and the Church’s liturgical confession in the ‘resurrection of the body’ that the physical human body is holy. Whether the body is Louisianan, North Korean, or Puerto Rican it is a site of revelation into God’s person. How do we care for our own bodies as sacred? How do we cooperate to craft a world in which all bodies can thrive?
Second, Copeland argues, bodies remind us that the core of life is relationship. Such bodily relationships — primordially and irreducibly — are material, requiring physical presence. How can we be more present to one another in this coming year? What practices and policies could bring us into wholesome connection and intimacy?
Next, the diversity and perichoretic love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are designed to be reflected in the intersectional diversities found in bodies relating well to one another. If not ideally realizable in public discourse and space, economic flows, and politics, how can we at least begin recognizing this Divine creativity through the language and communion of the Church? How can the ‘communion of the saints’ rediscover how to embrace, celebrate, and find it’s prophetic, transformative voice in and through it’s innate plurality?
Fourth, solidarity cannot be reduced to ‘woke tweets’ or progressive blog posts. Last November, I wrote that the hallmark of Christianity in the 21st century should be solidarity with the oppressed, and I am more convinced of it now than ever. But if we white people are not showing up with our bodies in places alongside Black women and others with their “backs against the wall” (in Howard Thurman’s language), then we are not living in solidarity. How often are black and brown bodies near yours? Do those bodies feel safe, supported, empowered by your presence? What new places does your body need to regularly spend time — listening, following, blocking violence, and putting in sweat equity to build a new world — this coming year? When your white body is in white spaces, how are you an ally breaking ground?
Finally, it’s around physical tables set with God’s body and blood that Jew and Gentile bodies can find liberative communion with one another. The dividing walls were broken through the incarnated God’s crucifixion and resurrection, and we can now show up in the same places as brother and sister. Can the earth-shaking implications of the Eucharist become a weekly act of remembrance that grounds us in communities of shalom once again?
In 2018, let’s try listening to Black women and see what happens. Let’s follow Jesus by placing our whole selves in the service of the wellbeing their long-abused bodies. Let's lean into the questions and engaged embodied discipleship that seeks justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God.
Books aren’t a substitute for listening to flesh-and-blood people, but here are three reads by Black women I’m digging at the end of this year to begin your listening journey:
- Kindred, Octavia Butler (fiction)
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson (history)
- Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, M. Shawn Copeland (womanist theology)
EDIT: After reading Copeland's full book, I've got to drop these quotes in here. So much more depth and richness to plumb!
“Sacraments disclose, meditate, and express, writes David Power, the ‘abiding presence of Christ’s mystery in the world wherein the Church is united with Christ as his Body through the gift and action of the Spirit.’ Sacrament form and orient us to creation, to human persons, and, above all, to the Three Divine Persons. Sacraments pose an order, a counter-imagination...
Sacramentality signifies the real-symbolic unity between what we are as humans, even as the de-creation of black bodies clarifies the cost of daring to em-body Christ in a morally degraded context of white supremacy.
Eucharistic solidarity is a virtue, a practice of cognitive and bodily commitments oriented to meet the social consequences of Eucharist. We women and men strive to become what we have received and to do what we are being made.
Eucharist is a countersign to the devaluation and violence directed toward the exploited, despised black body....Eucharistic solidarity opposes all intentional divisive segregation of bodies on the specious grounds of preference for race or gender or sexual orientation or culture....In spacial inclusion, authentic recognition, and humble embrace of different bodies, Eucharistic celebration forms our social imagination, transforms our values, and transforms the meaning of our being human, of embodying Christ.
Eucharistic solidarity orients us to the cross of the lynched Jesus of Nazareth, where we grasp the enormity of suffering, affliction, and oppression as well as apprehend our complicity in the suffering, affliction, and oppression of others. Eucharistic solidarity sustains our praxis of discipleship as we stand the ground of justice in the face of white supremacy, injustice, and domination; take up simplicity in the lure of affluence and comfort; hold on to integrity in the teeth of collusion; contest the gravitational pull of the glamour of power and evil....Because that solidarity enfolds us, rather than dismiss ‘others,’ we act in love; rather than refuse ‘others,’ we respond in acts of self-sacrifice—committing ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom.”
 - Enfleshing Freedom, 1. See also Moltmann, The Crucified Christ.
 - Ibid, 2