M. Shawn Copeland, “Enfleshing Freedom”

Horizons

I’ve been reflecting on Copeland’s explanation of ‘horizon’ – the events and people that are within my fields of knowledge and interest and those who are “eliminated from my knowledge and interest, care and concern.” (13)

After seminary, my husband and I received a fellowship to study in Australia for a year.  When we arrived in Australia, a coup had just occurred in East Timor.  The news and the issues of justice for the Timorese were plastered in the headlines.  I had never heard of East Timor, and had some catching up to do.  During the year, we had access to news about all sorts of places that we never hear about in the United States.  When we returned home, we promised ourselves that we would stay abreast of developments around the world.  Sad to say, we’ve tried, but haven’t been very successful.  In part, it’s because we’ve found it difficult to find good news outlets (the ones we relied on in Australia have been reformatted to supply entertainment news).  But even more, we’ve again succumbed to a small, American-centric horizon.  We’ve become lazy, and our appetites are more for entertainment than information about globalization and justice.

These past years that we’ve had babies in the house, I’ve noticed how small my horizons have become.  Many days, the world isn’t even as big as our town – it is narrowed down to the immediate needs of a crying baby (first) and a hungry body (second).  We still give money to organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Rape and Incest National Network, but our minds and bodies are far from engaged.

In the face of a smaller horizon, through, I’ve also noticed that I am more connected with the needs within my horizon.  Southeast Idaho has some of the highest rates of child abuse and molestation in the nation.  These are such a deep part of the culture here that being molested is almost like a right of passage in some families.  Uncles or cousins “initiate” the boys and girls into adulthood.  Many of our county prosecutors won’t touch these cases.  In the past two weeks, we’ve had three domestic violence situations that have resulted in the murder of three women and three kids under the age of three.

I haven’t figured out how to fight the system – it’s so tied to the predominant religion in which as a woman and a pastor I am less than nothing.  But I do know how to provide a safe house in the neighborhood.  We don’t know everything that goes on in our neighborhood, but we do know some of the houses that have stressed out parents and grandparents, abuse, and probably sexual violence.  We have kids who spend a lot of time at our house, some who come by when they’ve fallen out of a tree and need bandaging, and some who we never see but  who know that our door will open to them day or night. 

Our concern for kids and families in our neighborhood is part of my husband’s and my motivation for starting our house church.  We’re hoping that by opening our lives and letting people see how Jesus has built health into our lives, that the reign of God will also bring healing, maturity, and resilience into the lives of those we serve. 

As members of the house church are growing in faith, they are discerning calls to other groups of people.   By the end of the year, I think that members of our group will be starting a group that reaches out to a particular apartment complex and another that serves the women’s shelter.   We might not be able to fight the system head on, but we can slowly start building an alternative culture that over time will move the dominant culture to greater health.

Crucified Bodies

I’ve been thinking about salvation and atonement.  Bosch nicely moves the idea of salvation from being only about heaven to including God’s reign breaking into our lives even today.  Wholeness, peace, mercy, and love are signs that, even though God’s reign is not yet fulfilled, it is already present in our midst.  Where we are experiencing life, love, and peace, we can be sure that we are experiencing the first fruits of the kingdom.

If God’s reign is about shalom, it is hard to support theories of atonement that focus solely on something happening to God’s wrath.  How does God’s Word of love, peace, wholeness, and mercy tie to the requirement that punishment and wrath be satisfied?  It appears to me that the evangelical world (and missional theologians by extension) prefers the Substitutionary theory of atonement.  I’m a little murky about the variety of transactional theories of atonement (serving in a multi-denominational setting, it’s easy to get vague about some doctrinal points), but know that all have solid basis in scripture. 

I love how Copeland understands what happened in Jesus’ life and death.  Jesus came as the incarnation of God’s love and compassion for created bodies.  Jesus spent his life and ministry pouring himself into those who suffer (and by extension, those who cause suffering), living in solidarity with the poor of every sort, and challenging oppressive structures.  Even though God certainly knew how broken humanity would respond to divine love incarnated in Jesus, I think that Copeland would assert that Jesus’ crucifixion was inevitable rather than God’s plan for an atoning transaction.  “Jesus was born of people subjugated by theRoman Empire; an itinerant and charismatic preacher and teacher, his strenuous critique of oppressive structures – whether political or religious or cultural – along with his fearless love or ordinary people provoked those in authority to brand him a criminal.”(83)  Jesus’ crucifixion was inevitable because humanity is so affronted by love and justice that we would rather kill it than receive it.  The mystery of atonement is that, in breaking the earthen jar that held divine love, love was poured even more fully over humanity.  As Jesus’ blood was spilled from his broken body, God’s love spilled over the barriers that separate humanity from God.  The curtain of the temple was torn; the separation caused by our Sin was rent.

This understanding of atonement leads us into a sacramental understanding of the Church.  As the waters of Baptism wash over us, we are caught up in the flood of God’s love which washes over the world.  As we take in Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion, we take part in the breaking of the earthen jar that poured shalom over creation.  We become the “body raised up by Christ for himself within humanity; through us, the flesh of the crucified and resurrected Jesus is extended through time and place.” (82)

And it is this extension of Christ’s body through time and place that gives us our mission.  Just as Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor and suffering, pouring out his love, proclaiming his strenuous critique of oppressive systems, we too are called to love, serve, and proclaim justice.  As Christ’s body is enfleshed in us, we don’t have any choice.

Solidarity and Social Justice

I’m thinking about solidarity today.  Copeland describes the “cognitive, affective, effective, constituitive, and communicative dimensions” (125) of solidarity.  Integrated solidarity requires our best thinking and historical research, our compassion and willingness to be cut by our complicity, our active participation, transformation of our identity, and public, interpersonal communication. 

I love Copeland’s Eucharistic understanding of solidarity.   The Eucharist provides a space for us to be comforted and provoked by a “counter-imagination” and a counter-cultural praxis (a table where the Lord welcomes everyone) involving our bodies – our senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing.  It is our shared Eucharist (Thanksgiving) that forms us into whole bodies, and also into a unified body with the lynched Christ as its head.   

As we unite with Jesus’ body (broken on the lynching tree), we are united with one another – all of us in bodies.  Some of our bodies are bodies that oppress and dishonor.  Some of our bodies receive abuse and dishonoring.  Some of our bodies yield to the oppression, internalizing the loss of humanity.  Some of our bodies fight back.  The glory of Jesus’ body is shown through his brokenness, because it is through his breaking that our Sin and the sins perpetuated against us are drawn through death into new life.  It is through Jesus’ broken body that ours are redeemed.   And it is living into this redemption, this transformation, that we are able to engage in true solidarity with one another.  To live into solidarity is to live into flourishing, whole, humanity.  As we live into solidarity, first with Christ, then with one another, we discover answers to the questions that Copeland offers:  “What might it mean to embody Christ?  What might it mean, in the here-and-now, to reveal his abiding but hidden presence in our world, to be the body of Christ, What might it mean to invest exploited despised black bodies with eschatological meaning? (125)” 

Thinking about the astonishing changes that racial equality has taken in the few short decades since the 1960’s, I’m thankful for the courage of the many people who have stood in solidarity with black women and men.  I’m thankful for the courage of the black women and men who have gotten up each morning to try again to live into who they know God has created them to be.  And I see that, even though some of the symptoms of racism have eased, new, perhaps even more virulent forms have arisen.  Racism has gone deeper into in our systems (medical, educational, economic, political), becoming more insidious because it is more hidden.  We have become more clever in our oppression, masking it as economic, educational, or technological policy that has nothing to do with race. 

I have become increasingly confused about many of the race conversations.  For example, the equal opportunity conversation has been deepened as we have examined its unintended consequences and questioned whether mandating justice actually reduces discrimination.  We’ve noticed that welfare might actually have the unintended consequence of destabilizing recipient families, and by extension, entire communities and multiple generations.  It seems that any action of solidarity, unless it is accompanied by internal transformation that allows us to honor the humanity of those we have violated, is bound to create a more complex mire of dehumanization.  Likewise, those with whom we stand in solidarity must also experience inner transformation, living into the full humanity for which they were created.    Political and social movements cannot motivate those transformations, but living into Eucharistic unity can.

I’m also pondering my call to solidarity. Reading about the legacy of slavery and especially lynchings, with their push for physical and even more terrifying psychological and spiritual domination and subjection is sobering.  I feel humbled into silence, remembering tortured bodies and recognizing the cost of my complicity in the ongoing breaking of bodies and spirits.  In Southeast Idaho, our culture dehumanizes people other than black people.  We are violent with our women and children.  We have a large, but almost invisible Hispanic population.  Even though Pocatello is surrounded on three sides by the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation, we largely ignore the presence of Native Americans in our midst.  I think it must be incredibly difficult to be a teenaged Hispanic or Indian female here.  My midwife told me stories about the obstetric care that the Bureau of Indian Affairs doctor gave the women on the reservation, and I wanted to cry (she later was fired – I believe, in large part because she brought this and other situations like it to light).   

In light of our local dehumanization, “What might it mean to embody Christ?  What might it mean, in the here-and-now, to reveal his abiding but hidden presence in our world, to be the body of Christ, What might it mean to invest exploited despised [Hispanic and Indian] bodies with eschatological meaning? (125)” 

On Tuesday, at the same time that the church secretary was helping two Hispanic women get gas vouchers (one had three days of CNA training left, 40 miles north of Pocatello, and the other had to travel to a Lupus doctor who would take Medicaid), I was talking with a woman who was trying to keep her power turned on.  The women needing gas had teenagers in tow who were talking on their cell phones.  The women left the church with gas vouchers, a payment plan for the power bill, and bottles of water, but I couldn’t help feeling that what we offered that day was only marginally helpful.  We only delayed the crisis for another month.  Next month, the women will probably need more gas and more money for the light bill.  I suspect we strengthened a system of dependence rather than invested despised bodies with eschatological meaning. 

I wonder what it might mean to reveal Christ’s hidden presence in these situations.  For the women needing gas, could someone in the congregation help the newly trained CNA secure a job?  Could the congregation petition local doctors to take Medicaid patients?  Thinking about the teenager with a cell phone, have she and her family confused luxuries with necessities?  Is the teen locked into a multi-year contract?  Could the congregation provide help with budgeting?  Could the congregation work with cell-phone companies or government regulators to make it less expensive for people to get out of multi-year contracts?  Can members embody an example of simple living, where luxuries like cell phone service don’t create conflicts with necessities like medical care and food?  And if the congregation took these actions of solidarity, would they be received as body-honoring, unity-creating incarnations of Jesus’ love?  Or would the people just prefer to forage the social net for monthly needs?  I suspect that the people we serve are in as much need for new imagination about their situation as we are.  How do we begin to foster that new imagination?  The great news is that I have great conversation partners and experienced advocates in the Pocatello congregation.  They’ll be delighted to teach me.

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