Enfleshing Theology

Embodiment, Discipleship, and Politics in the Work of M. Shawn Copeland

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M. Shawn Copeland
Michele Saracino, Robert J. Rivera
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     324 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In an acknowledgment in this volume, the editors dedicate the work to a “theologian par excellence.” To this end the collected essays do not disappoint in their assessment of M. Shawn Copeland’s masterful and timely contributions to the intersections of Christian theology, womanist religious thought, and the material constructions of race and gender. Enfleshing Theology: Embodiment, Discipleship, and Politics in the Work of M. Shawn Copeland is a tribute to the theological scholarship of Copeland, a pioneer in Catholic womanist theology. Capturing the scope of this towering voice is a challenge, but the editors and contributors provide an excellent glimpse into the critical features of Copeland’s insights. The anthology is organized in three sections that correspond to the hallmarks of Copeland’s theology: embodiment, discipleship, and the political/personal.

The embodiment chapters explore body theology, in which Copeland privileges the black female body, and frames the flesh as a signifier and conveyor of significance and meaning. The authors elaborate upon the empirical reality of black flesh and black female bodies to comment upon how minoritized, restricted, marginalized, and oppressed bodies “reveal, mediate, and shape human existence” (xiii).

The chapters from Roberto Goizueta and Eboni Marshall Turman center black women’s bodies as a means of articulating a theological anthropology of marginalized existence under the weight of a racist and sexist regime. Turman’s chapter is particularly powerful, calling for a remembrance of all broken and displaced bodies by centralizing Sandra Bland’s lynching by lethal police force—thereby concomitantly indicting the American criminal justice system as a wing of terrorism against black and brown bodies. Stephen Ray rounds out this portion of the anthology, centering the “salvific consequence” of black flesh, reading the #BlackLivesMatter movement as enfleshed theology.

Copeland’s framing of discipleship centers cultural-critical, pedagogical, theological, and literary perspectives on the intersections of Christian faith and social injustices. Following the embodiment theme from the previous section, the authors of the chapters on discipleship envision it as thoroughly engaged and relational.

Mary Ann Hinsdale offers an anthropological reading of Christian discipleship as compassion, conversion, and solidarity within community, citing Copeland’s framing as “living at the disposal of the cross” (97) in the specificity of one’s social location. Nancy Pineda-Madrid offers a similar interpretation, arguing that adherence to the lessons of the cross prompts radical empathy—whereby the praxis of discipleship becomes an exercise of solidarity through which one is never in isolation from others .

Shawnee Daniels-Sykes and Willie Jennings prioritize Copeland’s placement of marginalized black (women’s) bodies as theological parallels to the body of Christ in the present age. Daniels-Sykes ties marginalized bodies to Christ in the call for true discipleship to dismantle racism, sexism, and other forms of dehumanization as an affront to Christian faith and life. In his essay, Jennings proffers a theology of marginality as commentary on conceptualizing Christian intellectual thinking to acknowledge and embrace the material worlds of those on the underside of colonialist and patriarchal regimes as we work toward a humane world.

The last set of chapters highlight the political implications of Copeland’s thought. The first two chapters document the influence of Bernard Lonergan’s dialectical theology on Copeland’s emphasis on the intersection between otherness and the theologian’s own situatedness. Susan Gray accents this dimension by drawing upon Lonergan and Copeland to emphasize the need for “attention/attentiveness” to the consciousness of marginalized communities as a means of expanding and heightening the horizons of respective self-understanding. When located in and modeled through the lives of black women and queer communities, for example, their agency reveals both authentic Christian witness and provides an actionable methodology for the practice of solidarity in theological and religious community among those most vulnerable.

The remaining chapters feature an eclectic mix of observations on racism and Christianity, and consider the incarnational focus of Copeland’s Catholic perspective and its approach to social sin. Karen Teel argues that white American Catholic theologians in particular have a “nonnegotiable responsibility” to address white supremacy as an affront to Christian teaching—one that impacts not only personal lives and relationships but also the discipline of theology (209). Maureen O’Connell develops an aesthetics of race, citing Copeland’s configuration of beauty as that which mobilizes theology to both mediate the word of God and safeguard the capacity for human transcendence (237). Noting that warped notions of beauty (and anthropology) have not boded well for black and brown bodies, O’Connell, echoing Copeland, envisions a reconfiguration of beauty through the full participation of all persons in the sustaining work(s) of creation and in the uplift of the social and communal body.

Bryan Massingale fuses the autobiographical representation of Malcolm X with Carmelite spirituality and the “dark night of the soul.” Massingale links the mystical quality of this tradition in Catholic thought with the phases of Malcolm X’s spiritual and political crises of faith and rejuvenation, thereby introducing Catholic thinkers to another wing of mystical expression in African American spirituality. Christine Hinze completes the book with a powerful reflection on the “incarnational imperative” central to Copeland’s demand upon embodied presence in both Christian praxis and theological pedagogy. As a response to racism in US Christianity and beyond, what she conceptualizes as “radical sin” (254), Hinze presses for incarnational solidarity with non-whites—a radical openness toward, and engagement with, oppressed communities driven by “seeing” and reorienting our values with respect to the humanity of “others,” and acting responsibly on their behalf.

This collection of essays is a thorough introduction to the theological sophistication of Copeland’s thinking. Those contributions that freely deviate from a specific read of Copeland but rather highlight the range of her theology to address other topics beyond religion and theology proper add to the posterity of the volume. Because the authors represent a range of intellectual, theological, and religious disciplines, Enfleshing Theology is a must-read for scholars who value Copeland’s contribution to Catholic, black, and womanist theologies. The book is also accessible for the layperson seeking a stronger foundation for the application of faith to contemporary social issues linked to race, gender, and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darrius Hills is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Morgan State University.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Shawn Copeland is Professor of Theology at Boston College.

Robert J. Rivera is Assistant Professor of Theology at St. John's University.

Michele Saracino is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College.


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