Knowing Christ Crucified

The Witness of African American Religious Experience

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M. Shawn Copeland
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , December
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience centers communities eager to reframe violent and violating hermeneutics around the person and work of Jesus Christ and interpret them in their truest form—with the intent to liberate the world from the ills of itself back to God.

Copeland’s interpretive attempt occurs through interrogating a symbol and act of violence: Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross (and what it means for violated life) - a literal cross-examination of violence. The crucifixion’s impact and meaning varies according to how one’s community identifies historically; this is a problem. The critical analysis of interpretive positioning and its stark importance—of why certain readings are even so—renders the necessity of careful readings of histories of violence and the violence of the cross as essential.

The cross on which Jesus was crucified becomes the audience in front of (or the stage on) which the Christian church lives out its transformation, its “lived conversion of heart, mind, and action” (xxiv). African American hermeneutical tools, reflective embodiment through song and self, illumine that one knows Jesus through the body within which one exists.

Copeland’s black Christological and soteriological hermeneutic does not allow the church to escape its tragic reality. It does not get to forget its past and present in order to focus on superficial spiritual meditations. It instead reminds the Christian church that Jesus’ ministry faced past and present in order to teach God’s will on earth. History is not to be bypassed; it is to be confronted in order for life in God to be fully known.

Copeland constructively engages blackness, that which the white Christian church in the United States in particular has historically weaponized. Black slave music is spiritual resource. Slaves created a world a topos in which they met and saw Jesus singing that world into being (41, 43). It was liberative because the song’s literal existence provided hope and a different truth amidst a white supremacist homiletical culture (slave-master homiletics) that verily and urgently tried to press a message of docility into the ears of slaves (9-13). Spirituals resisted supremacist hermeneutics and extended variations of understanding spiritual principles alert to justice, freedom, joy, livelihood, and thriving. Spirituals reminded the world that every life was a life created to be free; they resisted by claiming black life, a life, a good life, and a life loved by God.

Copeland positions slave/black life as prolific. Darkness yields theological insight. It is a generative, holy space curved and crafted by God. For Copeland, a black religious hermeneutic expands theological imagination and re-imagines darkness in order for slaves and their descendants to better understand themselves instead of being forced to justify their existence. 

Black religious hermeneutics understands the nuance that God is in the dark. It does not offer a reaching apologetic in order to substantiate the holiness of black life; it instead asserts the holiness of the darkness in which God dwells. Darkness is holy space (35).

These hermeneutics suggest imagination and awareness. The wisdom of black enslaved religious communities, what Copeland calls “dark wisdom,” is living in spite of white death's tight grip and relentless efforts. It is showing love critically (36)—to love as a human being attentive to both the conditions of the world and one's own reality. It is to think one’s self human.

Black Christian hermeneutics likens a paradox of misinterpreted body and being to the figure of Jesus. Black slaves found ways to express how they recognized and knew Jesus in their bones. This recognition is a queer one for what Jesus' body "knew" was social order, religious expectation, and cultural assumption; what his body "means" is a divine queering of such (64-65).

To not live fully into one's body and being is to turn one's self away from rightly being human. It is to disorder ones own self. Homophobia, homo-anxiety, and anti-queer litigation and theologizing asks the church to undo itself, to unbound itself from Christian precepts, and join instead to an inhuman dismantling practice (69). This, Copeland argues, is not what Jesus died for but it is in large part why he died. Jesus did not align himself with the cultural norms of his time. His presence and action are queer not only because he refutes normative assumptions around his body and ministry but because he cared to be, do, and demonstrate something humanity had not yet seen. His being God enfleshed introduced permission to be, care, do, and live in directions opposite that which had been known and socially accepted (75). Again, for this he suffered unto death; in this, in his being different, black religious hermeneutics can identify. The connection between Jesus’ life and black life is constant.

Throughout the book, Copeland speaks for the church universal. She does not glaringly separate its African and European iterations but asserts a theo-logic committed to the truth that both parties (and those in between) can apply to their respective ecclesial contexts. While understandable her intentionality of writing the Christian ecclesial “we” somewhat diverts from the historical and cultural analysis offered in various places, the spirituals and dark wisdom sections for example. Is the interlocution mutual? Can Augustine and N.T. Wright’s work speak to black embodiment or solely the life of Jesus as a distinct Westernized point of scholastic conversation? Is the direction of Copeland’s “we-work” solely unilateral? 

Despite the questions, Copeland grants black hermeneutics a rightful platform. Blackness is its own hermeneutical center. The crux of the witness of African American religious experience is dark, wise in scriptural and spiritual hermeneutics, attentive to Jesus' ulterior sociality, owns the fullness of one's self/the responsibility to remember, identifies theological "cross-roads", lets crucifixion euphemisms die, and supports resurrected thought. These all interest a new world, coaxes it out of its “not yet” into the “now.” In Jesus’ enfleshment Knowing Christ Crucified courageously reminds us of the miracle of life made new.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oluwatomisin Oredein is Assistant Professor in Black Religious Traditions and Constructive Theology and Ethics as well as the Director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX. 

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Shawn Copeland is Professor of Theology at Boston College. A former President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, she is also a recipient of the Society’s highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award. Her books in­clude Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Fortress), and (with LaReine-Marie Mosely and Albert Raboteau) Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience (Orbis 2009).


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