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September 9, 2020

Brutalizing Black bodies is an assault against God

By Luke A. Powery

Dean of Duke Chapel
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the dean of Duke Chapel and an associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. Prior to his appointment at Duke, he served as the Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He received his B.A. in music with a concentration in vocal performance from Stanford University, his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto. His teaching and research interests are located at the intersection of preaching, worship, pneumatology, performance studies, and culture, particularly expressions of the African diaspora. He is the author of "Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching," "Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope" and “Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals.” Though nurtured in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition, Powery was ordained by the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and has served in an ecumenical capacity in churches throughout Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. He is a member of the Academy of Homiletics, the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Study of Black Religion.

"Don't kill my son" reads the face mask of a woman who holds her child during a demonstration. Unsplash / Photo by Nechirwan Kavian

The torture inflicted on Black people dates back to enslavement and continues to this day as a denial of their humanity, writes the dean of Duke Chapel.

Sometimes, being shot in the back is just another day of living while Black. The case of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is only one example, its visibility heightened through protests, politics and, most recently, professional athletes who stepped away to redirect our focus.

Some strive to see isolated incidents, but in fact they are part of a long, long line of real-life stories revealing anti-Blackness, in our country and in American Christianity. As a Christian minister, I must name this truth. I must also name another truth of the gospel: The incarnation of Jesus shows us a different vision for human life, in which God embraces Black bodies, all bodies, all flesh, so that being for God means being against anti-Black violence.

The torturous terror against Black bodies has roots in the history of this nation through the brutal and inhumane colonial practices of enslavement, humans transported in the belly of slave ships on a bloody trail from Africa to the Americas known as the middle passage. Cargo enrobed in Black flesh bled, moaned and groaned through a ritual of oppression and death.

Upon arrival in the “land of the free,” these Africans were deemed property, not humanity. As Allen Dwight Callahan has noted, “American slavery unleashed an all-out assault on the black body.”(link is external) Assaulted Black bodies were deemed nobodies, nonbeings and chattel to be sold at auction blocks. They were dehumanized and dishonored. The enslaved were possessions that at the liturgy of the auction block were just bodies. Their humanity erased, their bodies were wounded, broken and even murdered by such heinous acts as lynching. Today, we see that this story of Black torture is not just past history but present reality.

The horrific heritage of slavery, dehumanization and corporeal devaluation is interwoven with religious practice, particularly Christianity. Christian slave masters prioritized the soul over the body, and the Black body was especially purported to signify evil and the demonic, worthless for the life of faith, valued only for what it could perform; thus, anything could be done to it.

Neoplatonic philosophy has influenced Christianity for centuries with its emphasis on the immortal, spiritual realm and discount of the material, bodily realm as “less than” and not a part of the spiritual life. The goal becomes to escape bodily reality as a path to a deeper spirituality. Historically, this disembodied Christian legacy has viewed the body as threatening and dangerous if not controlled -- a perspective that opened the door for nations to torture, exploit, shoot and murder bodies, particularly dark bodies, because they were deemed irrelevant to faith.

Yet despite the hurtful legacy of Christianity that denigrates the body’s potential, at the heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation of the divine into a human physical body, signifying the divine embrace of the human body.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in “An Altar in the World,”(link is external) explores the incarnation’s claim “that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth,” revealing that if one wants to become more spiritual, one should become more embodied as a human and person of faith. Religious faith is a material one, not just a spiritual or a virtual one on Twitter. It takes place in and through bodies. Thus, bodies are vital to the practice of faith, and how we treat Black bodies, and every body, matters.

Whether wounded or whole, the incarnation of Jesus is the affirmation and embrace of all bodies, all flesh, all Blacks. Our bodies have been graced with the presence of God; indeed, human beings are created in the image of God.

This is the power in symbolic actions by athletes, especially Black athletes. By interrupting the entertainment provided by sports, they are using their hearts and minds to make the point that Black bodies are valuable beyond their labor. In their way, the athletes are reminding us that Black bodies are image bearers of God.

As a Christian, I recognize that Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns and struck in the face. He carried the cross by himself, was crucified and was pierced in his side with a spear, blood and water flowing out. The Gospel writings reveal that his body was tortured on crucified lockdown and that he died gangsta style, like all the crucified peoples of the world.

In many ways, the heart of the Christian faith is a tortured, bruised and wounded body of God, which is an aspect of theological memory that interweaves with Black cultural memory, such that theologian James Cone calls the tortured Christ a lynched Black body.(link is external) A tortured Black body ignites the cultural spiritual song -- “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you there in Kenosha? Were you there in Minneapolis?

The death and torture of the Christ is neither a glorification of violence and torture against bodies nor a promotion of it. It is an indictment against the way we live, the way we promote violence, even state-sanctioned violence, and the way we perpetuate death. Jesus’ death is supposed to put an end to death altogether, representing the death of death and the end of violence ultimately. Modern-day police brutality is a modern-day form of crucifixion, and it says that nobody matters, which is antithetical to the life of faith.

Every time we enact violence against another human being -- like Jacob Blake -- we destroy the beautiful image of God found in the human collective body, and we reveal a distorted, immature and anorexic spirituality. Any move toward the destruction of a body is a gesture in the direction of the destruction of God; to embrace a human body is to embrace an enfleshed God.

To embrace and love a Black body is to embrace and love God. To be human is to have a body, and to be a person of faith is to affirm the body as vital to the spiritual life. Thus, to be anti-Black body is to be anti-human and anti-God, because within the Christian tradition at least, God became a human body to redeem and heal bodies and claim them as vital for life in the Spirit.

You can’t be pro humanitate, pro-human, and be for anti-Black violence. You can’t be for God and be for anti-Black violence, regardless of the source of the brutal violence, because all human bodies are temples of the Spirit, and what we do with them and to them should matter for people of faith. Every body matters, and any body is a somebody to God.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.