M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.
When we first touch something hot our minds concretize the connection between the hot thing and the pain we experienced. We then develop a kind of pattern in our minds: don’t touch the hot thing; it will hurt you. This same process applies to thousands of other experiences in our lives: our bodies are the vehicle through which experiences shape us and change us. This also applies in a spiritual or existential sense. The way we represent ourselves and the ways we are perceived and treated, the physical and emotional contact we make—whether positive or negative—with others, our habits of eating and drinking, the situations in which we are placed or place ourselves, and the communities that we become a part of, in which our physical presence is paramount—all of these bodily things (and more) shape us into who we are, or how we understand ourselves.
Theologically, however, the body is underappreciated. Because we he have the means of transcending, at least by some degree, the (bodily) things that shape us through critical reason, reflection, and choice, we have overlooked the decisive role that bodies and the way we treat them play in our lives, and also help us understand and process the world in which God became flesh. That is the starting point for M. Shawn Copeland’s book Enfleshing Freedom.
In particular, Copeland wants to investigate the theological implications or meanings of bodies like hers: black female bodies. Early on Copeland states that her book is based on five convictions: 1) the body is the site of divine revelation; 2) the body shapes human existence as relational and social; 3) the creativity of the Triune God is manifest in differences of gender, race, and sexuality; 4) solidarity is a set of body practices; 5) the Eucharist orders and transforms our bodies as the body of Christ (p. 2).
In terms of broad strokes her book moves from the negative implications of bodies to the positive implications of bodies. For all of the value of the body, it is also vulnerable. So it should not be surprising that Copeland spends a good deal of time interrogating the effects of racism and the effects of its physical and psychological abuse on the being of black women. Then she moves to the positive theological implications of bodies, especially in light of the body of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Eucharistic practice in which we are united in solidarity with this body.
The first thing that stuck was her notion of racism as a kind of blindness or “scotosis.” This is not her invention, but she elaborates on how racism is not just an active hatred for or subordination of others, but rather very often it is a blindness to the inherent beauty and value as figured in the bodies of others. Yet this kind of racism, or bias, is conscious and deliberate in its refusal to see what is right in front of it. The typology Copeland develops of racism or bias as a) dramatic b) individual c) group d) common sense, will be very helpful to (white) folks such as myself who continually need to think through the ways in which the poison of bias remains in our blood.
The second thing that stuck was Copeland’s emphasis on “practices of solidarity” and ultimately upon the solidarity found in the practice of the Eucharist, which she calls “Eucharistic solidarity.” The focus of practices of solidarity is on remembering. We remember the good and the bad—but remembering the bad is especially important because it acknowledges that it happened, we become witnesses to the pain of others, we become able to say to another person who is suffering that at the very least we acknowledge their pain as real. Most importantly, in the Eucharist we remember not just the salvific force, but the bodily trauma, with its roots in social injustice, that precipitated and constituted the salvific nature of the cross. To be in solidarity with Christ in that remembrance is to bring all of the physical and emotional suffering of humanity into solidarity with God. The Eucharist thus unites us with God in solidarity with the suffering bodies of others.
By attending to black women’s understanding and interpretation, judgment and evaluation of their condition, we may understand more adequately their determination to reclaim their bodies and those of their loved ones, and appreciate their love and struggle for freedom. Moreover, we may e better prepared to challenge contemporary stereotypes about black women—especially those intellectual, moral, and aesthetic labels that objectify, exploit, and deface God’s image in black womanhood. (25)
Davis recognizes that cognitive and affective dimensions alone remain inadequate; awareness and pity merely nod toward solidarity. Awareness and pity must be strengthened, extended, and enriched through personal encounter, responsible intellectual preparation, and healing and creative action for change in society. We shoulder suffering and oppression; we take up a position beside the exploited and despised black bodies. Further, solidarity involves critique of self, of society, of church. This critique takes on and includes existential reflection, historical scrutiny, presence to memory, social analysis, acknowledgement and confession of sin, authentic repentance—change of heart, change of life, change of living. (126)
As a white, male reader of a black woman’s theology it can be intimidating. My approach is to listen, to learn something, and to not assume too quickly what would turn out to be a false commonality or equivalence. I think that is important, but it is also important to engage at some level; to look for ways in which connections might be found; to respect the author enough to even disagree or at the very least be less than convinced.
The thing I want to focus on as a kind of conclusion is the fear and anxiety at work in this kind of engagement. There is a fear here that I will say something wrong and offensive, that my biases will be exposed, that I might be guilty of the blindness I am prone to see in others. The reality is that this may very well be true. I do not inhabit a morally or socially pure space from which I would be able to read what Copeland writes or respond in a way that will not be guilty of blindness or misunderstanding. The key is to admit that, to be honest, because the only way to overcome this is to go through it.
This book is an important book for people to read especially if they do not look in the mirror and see the figure of a black, female body. It is worth it to listen to Copeland’s words and grow by encountering a voice and perspective that may be very different than one’s own or what one is used to—but also to hear those faint familiar tones through which we connect in authentic commonality.