Historically, the disembodiment of religion and spirituality has justified wars and called for the slaughtering of whole ethnic groups and communities, displacing entire indigenous peoples. In the Christian religion disembodiment is dangerous and antithetical to its central message: God came and dwelled with us incarnationally – in a human body. All other religions share this idea of incarnation in various ways too. Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad in Arabia. Buddhism, although a pathway of personal spiritual development, claims Siddharta Gautama as the Buddha and his narrative of spiritual enlightenment. Shirer’s comment disembodies her from her Christian faith effectively communicating that, regardless of her blackness, she relates with God in Christ and the Christian faith just like all other Christians. This sentiment is simply untrue. I am certain Shirer does not view Christ’s death and resurrection in the same way that a white Christian woman may. I am certain Shirer does not view confession of and deliverance from sin in the same way that a white Christian woman may. I know because as a fellow black Christian woman, I do not view these doctrines and ideologies in the same way my white Christian siblings do.
I have served in cross-racial ministry settings for most of my ministry. In these settings, I have served predominantly white congregations as the pastoral leader. I have observed, in various conversations with pastoral staff and congregants in white churches, that confession of sin in public worship is approached from an individualistic standpoint. The words said in worship may sound like this: “I confess my sins before God because I have done something wrong or hurt another person.” However, originating from the Black Church context, I know, through experience, that confession of sin in public worship for most communities of color is approached from a communal standpoint. We tend to confess sin before God on behalf of the entire community that are caught in systems of domination, racism, and oppression. Our words in worship may sound something like this: “God, we confess our participation in the sinful systems of racism, domination, and oppression.” Usually, in public worship for communities of color, our confession is followed by prayers of deliverance due to our historical and present interactions with oppressive and racist systems. The disembodiment of religion and spirituality does not allow any of us to see the diverse contexts and identities of human beings. Disembodiment simply permits us to live in our heads accepting every religious doctrine and ideology as having one way of application and one way of understanding. This does violence to individuals, groups, communities and nations. Consider King Leopold II of Belgium and the Congo Free State - presently the Democratic Republic of Congo. The monarch commissioned Belgian Christian missionaries to not teach the Congolese people about God. King Leopold II, in a letter, instructed the missionaries to use their understanding of the Scriptures to subjugate and enslave the Congolese people. This action led to the genocide and dismembering of 10 million people. The monarch amassed a large personal fortune from these acts of violence.
Embodiment, or incarnation, of religion and spirituality – in Shirer’s case, Christianity – redeems and reclaims human beings in all their varied contexts and identities – gender, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, place of origin, social location, and color. Embodiment calls for the presence of an Incarnate God always and, therefore, always affirms us – the created – as full, complex human beings with equally complex identities that God does not call us to dismiss or erase. If we pay attention to the biblical narratives, when God broke into human history again and again, God always came at a specific time, to a specific people, and to a specific place. God spoke to Moses - a Jewish man with Egyptian identity due to his adoption as a baby by Pharoah’s daughter - in the wilderness out of a burning bush while he was still a murderer on the run. God met Elijah – depressed and discouraged – in sheer silence in the cleft of a rock. God met two teenage immigrants telling them they were going to be the parents of Christ – God Incarnate – in the city of Bethlehem in a stable among stinky animals. This is Who the Divine is and always will be – with us, in us, and among us calling us to employ all the contexts and identities the Divine has given us to live whole and well.
If Priscilla Shirer were standing in front of me, I would share these words with her:
“My sister, God has given us the identities we hold. None of these were given to us or fashioned for us by human beings which means we are supposed to use them for divine, life-giving purposes. My challenge to you is not to create a hierarchy of identities. White supremacy does enough of that for us in our society espousing that one race, gender, and class is superior to everyone else. My challenge to you is to discern and reflect on how you might use all the identities God has given you to impact and shape the world for divine good, and to love the world to life all the time. How does God call you to do that in your context? How does God call you to do that as black, as woman, as able-bodied, as cis-hetero, and as upper middle-class?”
My challenge is the same for all of us, too. In this current climate of immigrant children in cages, labeling those seeking safer and better lives in other countries as a “migrant caravan,” and the uptick of gun violence and hate crimes across the country, we cannot afford for our religious and spiritual practices to be intellectualized. Now is the time for each of us to embody love. Now is the time for each of us to embody hope. Now is the time for each of us to embody faith. We all need to see God in all her blackness and woman-ness.