As Black History Month draws to a close, Women’s History Month begins this week on March 1. This moment on the calendar invites deeper reflection on the potent intersection of race and gender, and how that kind of reflection might shape the season of Lent, which also begins in this coming week.
To do that work—especially as a white man—I’m particularly grateful for the insights of M. Shawn Copeland, an American womanist and Black Catholic theologian who taught for many years at Boston College. She helped me think differently about a foundational question in Christian theology: what does it mean to be human in relation to God? How one answers that question shapes so much else of Christian faith and practice.
For many centuries, the European (white) male was considered the “standard issue” human and thus the primary reference point for answering that key theological question. The whiteness of Jesus himself became a question in new ways during the 1960s, which Copeland writes about in relation to the (Black) Jesus of Detroit.
Among the many moments of Black American history that white people (among others!) should not forget, Copeland draws our attention to the “rebellion” of 1967 not far from where I currently live. The following is her synopsis of that moment and the blackness of Jesus that it surfaced (taken from her essay on the Black Jesus in the collection edited by George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do?):
“In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, a routine police vice-squad raid on an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, escalated into one of the most furious racial rebellions in modern times. Five days later 43 persons were dead, more than 450 injured, more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
“A little-known, yet highly symbolic, incident during those days involved a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the grounds of the major seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. At the intersection of West Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, two blocks west of the site of the rebellion, stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which looked out on a then increasingly black neighborhood, even as the seminary faculty and students remained predominantly white.
“On the second day of the disturbance, an African American housepainter reportedly applied black paint to the hands, feet, and face of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At least twice, the color was removed, but black paint prevailed and, over the past four decades, the seminary has kept it fresh. In an interview during a 40th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion, the Assistant Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary’s Institute for Ministry, John Lajiness, said, ‘the City really has no other positive visible symbol like it. The painted statue speaks less of violence and more of the internal struggle for identity and the human tension which, intentionally or not, bled into making this statue an icon.’”
If a white man cannot represent the sacred heart of Jesus (much less in marble), then the European male certainly cannot stand as the only, or even the primary answer to the question of what it means to be human. The (brown and Middle Eastern) body of Jesus resides at the center of the Gospel, Copeland reminds us, a body that was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and raised to new life by God. To understand and embrace such a Gospel, especially given the social, economic, and political history of Western society, Copeland argues that women of color belong at the center of our theological work.
I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of that claim are for how I live, but I am convinced of how crucial it is that I keep reflecting on it and shaping my life because of it. Her book—Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being—helped convince me of this, and as Lent begins, I’m especially mindful of her work on the Eucharist.
Copeland recalls the gruesome history of lynching in the United States and how it prompted the same kind of terror as crucifixion did in the first century. Rather than avoiding that painful history, or feeling a vague sense of guilt about it (especially as white people), Copeland urges a practice of “divine solidarity.” To stand with and for those who are poor, outcast, and oppressed is to bear witness to the Gospel hope for a new world, a hope that shapes Eucharistic worship in Christian communities. Copeland expresses this in a powerful way:
“A Christian practice of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine practice of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination—recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self” (Enfleshing Freedom, p. 126).
Perhaps one of the ways I can take Copeland’s urgent call for solidarity to heart is to resist how I usually imagine the transfigured Jesus—with a shiny white face. As I prepare to preach tomorrow on the Transfiguration, a story often told on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, I’ll keep that Black Jesus of Detroit in mind instead, and even more as we move into the season of Lent.
Following Jesus on the road toward the Cross can itself be an act of solidarity if, as Copeland would urge, we see in him all the countless women of color strewn through so many forgotten stories of American history. Remembering them, even though we cannot now know their names, could contribute to how a “compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin.”
May that be the hope that breaks open an Easter dawn.