Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience

M. Shawn Copeland
Orbis Books, 160 pages

This book by a prominent womanist theologian could not be more timely for our present moment of racial and political reckoning. For Shawn Copeland, the connection between the cross of Jesus and the suffering of our world is deep and broad. She argues that theology must help us “work out the relation between the murderous crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the murderous crucifixion of countless poor, excluded, and despised children, women, and men whom we have impoverished, marginalized, and excluded through our power privilege, and position.” Indeed, the cross of Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of neutrality or innocence with respect to the suffering of countless people on account of racism, economic exploitation and homophobia in our communities and world. The social disorders that create oppression are not someone else’s disorder or oppression, they are ours. As she puts it, it is “our consciousness, not someone else’s, that is permeated with and troubled by disgraces of social sin.”

This connection between the cross and suffering extends into the earliest history of enslaved people in America. Copeland poignantly recounts how the story of Jesus’ crucifixion “hooked them in the heart,” for just as Jesus had been beaten, tortured and murdered, so also Africans from the Middle Passage saw in Jesus’ cross their own cross. They saw that Jesus was one of them.

Our public memory conceals our involvement in slavery. But Copeland contends that blotting out that memory is not possible, for living Black bodies descended from enslaved Africans represent the “dangerous memory” of chattel slavery and “signify the nation’s unexamined questions and unresolved anxieties.” So Christians must stand both at the foot of the cross and amid disruptive memory in the present, for Jesus interrupts “our amnesia, our forgetfulness of enslaved bodes, and our indifference to living black children, women, and men.” In my view, the dangerous memory that Copeland articulates provides a foundation for an antiracist theology of the cross that can empower us to confront the lie of racism in our churches, communities and nation at a time when it is sorely needed.

I commend this book to pastors, educators and those planning book studies as an important resource for Lenten reflection. It contains seven chapters, but the final two chapters could be read during Holy Week for a six-week study (or the final chapter, on resurrection, could be read during the week after Easter for a seven-week study). The book’s subject matter is challenging, but it is accessible for most, especially with the help of a pastor or Christian educator. Reading the book in an interracial setting would make the Lenten journey an even more transformative experience.

Let me close with Copeland’s reflections being “in Christ” and Galatians 3:28: “In the very act of nourishing our flesh with his flesh, Christ makes us women and men new again, emboldens us to surrender position and privilege and power and wealth, to abolish all claims to racial and cultural superiority, to contradict repressive codes of gender formation and sexual orientation. … We are all transformed in Christ: we are his very own flesh.”

Roger J. Gench is an editorial consultant for the Presbyterian Outlook. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.