Luke A. Powery: Brutalizing Black bodies is an assault against God
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.” 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,” 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. 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.
Growing up in the Black church, we used to say, “This joy I have; the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” Joy is unspoken hope that floods your being. It’s that “it is well with my soul” that resonates deeply within your spirit.
It took becoming an adult for me to understand the subversive power of a mantra that held joy as personally sacrosanct. What we were saying was that the conditions of this world didn’t produce joy for us; rather, something within us created the joy that the world continually tried to steal. Time and time again, systems of this world tried to steal our joy, our dignity, our hope and our future.
We fought as a community to get back what those systems took while keeping ourselves from internalizing what they said about us. We began to define ourselves. And out of defining ourselves came our ability to value ourselves. Out of defining and valuing ourselves came our ability to believe in ourselves. Out of defining, valuing and believing in ourselves came our ability to create joy. Hard, gritty, sustainable — our joy that the world didn’t give.
It is with that communal formation as my spiritual and sociocultural backdrop that I have renewed my commitment to being on the lookout for joy, even in the midst of a pandemic. As a New York City pastor, I have been proximate to such widespread sorrow and grief that they have made joy seem like a luxury, not a right.
I found myself so weighed down by the realities of this crisis that joy was the furthest thing from my mind. Black Americans are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans. My heart broke as I saw the economic and residential insecurity that the pandemic exposed, as well as the preexisting medical conditions of folks in my community that it exacerbated. As is said, when the nation gets a cold, marginalized folks get pneumonia.
Our community had to find a way to protect ourselves from an unseen virus, mind the preexisting socioeconomic inequalities, monitor our own pre-COVID health issues, and be on the lookout for potential exposure to a new disease that none of us had ever experienced.
On top of that, in the midst of the pandemic, fatal encounters with police or just everyday citizens made Black people’s names into viral hashtags — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop. It seemed that joy was hiding. I knew that I needed to access some form of joy for my own well-being, but bad news was all around me. I pushed myself to preach and teach about the very thing I was in search of: Black joy.
Barbara Holmes’ book “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church” has helped me. Holmes calls our attention to the concept that the most powerful response to Black death is Black joy, and she reminds us that we cannot live in an ongoing state of resistance. The joy that she speaks of is a kind of resilience that refuses to be dictated to despite the horrific conditions it is forced to transcend.
Among the practices Holmes encourages is being mindful of our breath — particularly powerful in a moment when our ability to breathe feels endangered on multiple levels. She writes: “Breath is the sustainer of life and also the vehicle for entry into the contemplative center. We take deep breaths to still our thoughts, center our being and connect to a wisdom that permeates the universe. We breathe together individually and communally to invoke the spiritual strength to withstand and resist injustice.”
In this difficult season, I am intentionally looking for unexpected joy, mindful of the quote attributed to Dinos Christianopoulos, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
People are buried under the pressures of life. They’re buried under the weight of having to say goodbye to loved ones taken by COVID-19. They’re buried under job loss and under health disparities, under foreclosure and landlord disputes. They’re buried under the inability to home-school their children, as well as a lack of child care. They’re buried under fear — hoping that their names aren’t the next ones converted into hashtags.
But I find joy by asking the “what if” questions. What if this societal burial is of seeds in the ground? What if, while buried under job loss, we discover new vocational purpose? What if, while buried under health disparities, we find natural ways to heal our bodies? What if, while buried under foreclosure, we spread our wealth by moving two or three families under one roof to ensure that we have what we need?
What if, while buried under home schooling and a lack of child care, we discover new things about our children and begin to teach them according to their own personalities and needs versus what the school system says they need?
The possibilities of “what if” connect to where my joy lies. This is the joy that the world didn’t give. It lies in our ability to redefine what these conditions might be able to produce.
The lesson from the seed is that it may have been dropped into the ground and forgotten, but it is going to live again. The seed is going to live into its possibilities and sprout into its best hopes and dreams. But seeds don’t sprout on their own. They need water, sunlight and external support.
Likewise, for us to make it, we all need a little support while we are buried. We need unjust systems to be overturned. We need ways out of no ways to be made. And we need joy. We need a counternarrative. We need to be reminded that joy is our right. And we need to be reminded, as Nehemiah 8:10 proclaims, that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Take a lesson from the seed. Find your joy. In that discovery you will also find your strength.
Languages carry stories. Oral Indigenous societies pass family and cultural stories down generation to generation to preserve culture. To be able to hear one of our Potawatomi stories in Potawatomi is an absolute honor, because it connects me back to who we once were and who we still are today. Even though colonization has taken so much from us, telling our creation narrative or our winter stories, even in English, still means something. Telling our experiences, like I’m expressing my experiences to you in this book, is a sacred kind of work, and as we pass our stories and experiences down to our children, we are changing our children, changing ourselves, and changing the world.
In 2017 I hosted an event in our city focused on the conversation surrounding Indigenous people and the events that unfolded in Standing Rock, North Dakota. The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally set to go through Bismarck, North Dakota, a predominantly white city, but it was rerouted to go through an area near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, so that it impacted Indigenous peoples and their water supply. In response, Indigenous peoples and their allies gathered from all over the world to fight against a pipeline that would poison the water in Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. The event was created to give voice to Indigenous peoples and allies who went to Standing Rock to show support to water protectors, and as someone who did not go to Standing Rock, I wanted to listen, engage, and learn for myself. As the event drew closer, many of the people who were going to share were unable to come, so there were only a few of us left. I decided to open up the microphone to anyone attending and make it a public storytelling event. My friend Jonathan from the Navajo Nation stepped up to the microphone. He reminded us that we belong to each other, that we must stick together and have honest conversations for the sake of a better future. I deeply felt every word, remembering how much language and expression matter, how important it is that we speak to each other in peace and with honesty, especially when we are so divided around so many things. Can you imagine if all over the country we hosted storytelling events, inviting people to step up to a microphone? Yes, it could go wrong, but it could also go so right when people are given space to lead with vulnerability and humility. People could tell their stories of surviving trauma, their stories of beating cancer or still fighting against it. Others might tell about what it’s like to be a queer woman of color in America or a Sikh man in America who battles hate crimes against his community daily. Still others might talk about what it’s like to be lonely or in love or both. You see, our human expressions, no matter how varied, still bring us together in ways that we cannot always understand, and language is the force that guides us.
One of the church’s biggest blind spots is ignoring the stories of those on the outside. We hide behind dogma and theology instead of leaning into our humanity to connect with one another or to the land. But when we stop to look out a window and see what is happening outside, or when we step outside the door of our home to breathe the fresh, cold air, we are taking in the stories of the earth. As Anishinaabe author Richard Wagamese writes, “When you break the connection that binds you to money, time, obligations, expectations and concerns, the land enters you. It transports you.” And when we step back into those spaces again, those spaces filled with noise, we have stories to tell. I find that when I go outside to listen to the language that only the land speaks, she sends me back with poetry. She sends me back with a connectedness to both her soul and mine that can be expressed only in words that have rhythm and movement and life to them.
When the wind blows, we imagine she is erasing every injustice,
sweeping misdoings from the east to the west,
making room for something new, a more whole world.
Instead, what we don’t realize is that she is rustling the tree branches
to sing us a song.
Instead, she is sowing seeds across the landscapes,
seeds that tomorrow will become the beauty that restores us.
Instead, she is whispering for us to hold on, to keep going,
to water those seeds, because one day, they will show us the way home.
Poetry is life to us and to those around us. Throughout time, our poets are often our prophets, the ones who dance and sing and write, expressing things we did not know were stirring inside us for years. Our poets, our storytellers, are the bridge between the languages of the earth and our spoken languages, between the stories of the earth and our stories. May we all learn what it means to be poets who step outside and back inside, made new, sacred language flowing from our lips to and for one another.
We live in an era in which we are beginning to dig deeper into questions of how we got here. We are asking why there is so much injustice, why so many of our police are corrupt, why Black men can’t kneel during the national anthem, and why a holiday called Columbus Day is offensive. Language creates cultures, cultures create nations, and leaders of nations tend to write history, and we must ask what our language evokes, whether we are using it for good or for evil.
We live in a time when Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color are speaking up, sharing our stories, redefining what it means to be alive in America — but let’s acknowledge that many of these people have been speaking up for a long time and are only now being heard, if heard at all.
Thanksgiving 2018 was a really difficult time for me. Native American Heritage Month happens in November, so while we are celebrating that we are still here, we are bombarded with Thanksgiving myths and people asking us for all the resources they should have been asking about any other month of the year. Kind, well-intentioned parents message me asking for book lists to read to their children, churches email me asking for Thanksgiving reflections that don’t center celebration of Pilgrims or sometimes even inviting me to preach, unpaid, on a topic that is really difficult for me, and I struggle to find the right language to express my exhaustion.
In 2018, when my inboxes were full of these messages, I finally went to my social media accounts and made an announcement asking people to stop messaging me, to do the work themselves, and to stop expecting Indigenous peoples to give more than we already give every day of the year, especially at Thanksgiving. It is a time of confusion and mourning, and I honestly don’t have anything left to give others in that space. Non-Native people responded, held me up, thanked me for speaking, and some of my white friends apologized. One friend sent me a gift a few months later, with a note of both thanks and apology, a bag of coffee mailed with it. I drank that coffee and thought of my friend every day, thought of the kind of ally she wants to become. We all make mistakes in these conversations, and we have to be willing to step beyond our fear of saying the wrong thing to ask hard questions and have honest conversations about where we go from here. My non-Native friends have to understand that the myths told at Thanksgiving only continue the toxic stereotypes and hateful language that has always been spewed at us, and they have to do the work to educate themselves about a better way. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote a book on this topic called “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. In the introduction, they write, “For five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.”
Indigenous peoples cannot fight against these mistruths alone. Conversations about replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day shouldn’t be happening just once every year or just within circles of Native people. It should be discussed in city planning meetings, and our street signs should be renamed if they carry traumatic names or celebrate the people who committed atrocities throughout history, because language is about the fabric of a place, what we create, how we explain who we are, who God is, and what the responsibility of those in power must be. To be a place of “we the people,” we have to be a place that is truly for all people, and how do we do this if we don’t talk about the stolen land that America rests on? How do we do this if we don’t talk about Confederate monuments and schools named after racists? The answer is with all of us; to tell the truth is to give language to experiences that are often ignored by society.
From the book “Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God” (Brazos Press, 2020), by Kaitlin Curtice. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
There comes a time when being nice is the worst kind of violence. This is especially true for the many Christians who erroneously conflate being nice with following Jesus. No more euphemisms. No more pretending. No more craving the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Kumbaya.”
I believe it is time for those who claim to follow Jesus to declare, without equivocation, that white evangelicalism is a morally bankrupt, bone-crushing theological system devoid of any semblance of the deity incarnate in Christ.
Multiple factors are responsible for the alarming death rates that black, brown, Native American and poor white communities are experiencing from the novel coronavirus.
Mendacious, misanthropic political leadership. A so-called health care system driven by profit and not human flourishing. An economic reality where even the below-a-living-wage money earned by poor and working-class people is siphoned off to the wealthy via tax cuts and tax policies that force wage earners to pay a larger share than dividend earners.
I am a preacher. So as I dust the COVID-19 crime scene, I am ultimately in search of theological fingerprints.
What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to provide the universal health care that may have mitigated this crisis? What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to invest the money necessary to end homelessness? What kind of God-talk makes possible the racializing of criminality and poverty? What kind of God-talk gives political power to science-denying policymakers?
The answer? White evangelical God-talk. The injustices that many communities are experiencing as a result of the novel coronavirus are inextricably linked to this theology. The evidence is irrefutable.
Political systems require a theological system. Constantine glommed onto Christianity to strengthen Rome. The French, British and Dutch empires all used the signs and symbols of Christianity to plunder and to pillage. Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham were largely quiescent in the face of American warmongering abroad and racialized violence at home. (Integrating revivals is hardly enough.)
From what I can see, their purpose was access to power, not its conversion to the ways of Jesus. Even Vladimir Putin deploys the deep, symbolic well of Russian Orthodoxy to strengthen his dictatorial machinations.
The political order that presides over the United States would fall overnight if white evangelicals withdrew their support. But they will not.
Why won’t they break ranks with race-baiting, xenophobic politics? Why won’t they break ranks with economic policies that have destroyed wages and benefits and safety? Why won’t they break ranks with a politics that is clearly nourished by white supremacy? I believe there is no Christianity to be found here.
American white evangelicalism is the offspring of the religion of settler colonialists, and the raison d’etre of settler colonialism is to remove an existing population and replace it with another.
Settler colonialism is always violent, and it always has a theological system to support it.
The settlers who came to these shores were convinced that God was with them and that God commanded them to take what belonged to others. The idea that “what I survey I own” is deeply ingrained in white evangelicalism. Those who think, look or act differently are summarily marginalized, silenced and removed.
The fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery — chased down by two armed white men while jogging through their neighborhood — is just one recent example of this in action. And it’s why I argue that white evangelical theology’s settler colonial impulse fosters the conditions for the novel coronavirus to thrive.
Push black people onto islands of poverty and deny them health care, adequate housing and equal education. Keep them away. Send brown people, whether they were born in the United States or not, back home.
In the white evangelical imagination, certain bodies will never belong. This is why Mr. Trump knew that birtherism and calling Mr. Obama a Muslim would catapult him to white evangelical prominence even though he does not hold to its purported moral code.
Owning space and controlling bodies has always been more important than personal morality in that imagination.
Even a “liberal” city like Washington, D.C., is marked by policies born of white evangelical assumptions about who belongs and who should flourish.
Would majority-white, middle-class neighborhoods not have hospitals? Would white people be forced from public housing without an offer of viable alternatives so that fat-cat developers could feast on public land and make exorbitant profits?
COVID-19 — and its impact on black and brown communities — is the American empire in viral form. It lodges itself among the poor and feasts upon them.
They cannot socially distance in tight, squalid quarters. They cannot wash their hands in lead-ridden water in Flint. We are having digital funerals for people who live in a city where Congress refuses to extend the health benefits that they themselves enjoy.
This bad theology of who belongs and who does not, of who is worthy and who is not, has the blood of my parishioners on its hands.
Jesus is a strange figure. In Luke 4, he went to his home “church” and told the people gathered there that God did not love just them. And he used the Scriptures to buttress his claim.
The folks at that church tried to kill Jesus by hurling him off a cliff. But he made his way through the crowd and kept showing, in word and deed, that God was for everybody.
How would the novel coronavirus be affecting my community if the God-talk of white evangelicals, whose theology controls our political landscape, sounded more like Jesus?