By Nannette Banks, Isabel Docampo, Allison St. Louis, Trudy Hawkins Stringer, Laura Tuach
“The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14a) calls us to embrace the embodiment of God’s grace through Christ.
This article is a collaborative project. A living, breathing, and evolving endeavor by five ordained women of differing faith communities, differing bodies and stories, differing experiences of the Divine. We are five religious professionals located within the academy, training and supporting the next generation of congregational leaders. We are of Cuban descent, African American descent, Anglo descent, and African and Indian descent. We are deeply faithful women, serving our calls in academia while maintaining our connections to the Episcopal, Progressive Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ denominations. We are each embodied, fleshy, and beautifully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14a), reflecting God’s complexity, diversity, and magnificence. Over the past three years, we gathered virtually and in person for mutual professional support and to produce writing that reflects our deepest commitments and beliefs. In this article we lament, confess, celebrate, and ultimately reclaim an embodied and faithful way to move in our professional, spiritual, and personal lives.
We begin exploring the theme of this issue with lament. As an all-female community of practice, we lament our individual and collective traumas. We tell the truth about the violence inflicted on women’s bodies, bodies of those who are “othered,” and our own bodies. We lament the barrage of images and messages we cannot escape in a culture that worships consumerism and productivity and a prescribed definition of beauty. We lament this injustice and ask for forgiveness for our own complicity in systems of oppression that deny full human expression through the body. We hear the good news that the word became flesh and lived among us. We respond by creating ritual and worshiping together. In this article, we invite you to explore these words of John without divorcing them from your own body and the bodies of the women and girls you minister to. As women of all shapes, colors, sizes, and experiences, we are called to celebrate our bodies and the ways in which the living God is enfleshed in each of us.
“But flesh has ambiguous connotations. Indeed its materiality often carries the weight of sin.” —Mayra Rivera
How is it that in the Christian tradition we hold the radical claim that God became flesh and dwelt among us, and yet in the same tradition, flesh, as Rivera writes, “carries the weight of sin”?
We begin with lament, an ancient practice of weeping and wailing, of grieving loss. Lament as an embodied, communal practice has fallen out of favor, so we turn our mourning inward, silencing it and forcing it to molder in the nether reaches of our bodies.
We seek to reclaim lament as a necessary step in re-membering our being, calling “flesh,spirit,mind,soul” from the long loneliness of dichotomies of: spirit slash flesh, soul slash body, mind slash body.
In Enfleshing Freedom, M. Shawn Copeland writes:
The ambivalence with which Christian thought focuses on the sex of the matter may be traced to a persistent somatophobia or fear of flesh. This fear stems from a conceptual axis that compounds both distortions of Neoplatonism, with its tendency to idealism, suspicion of ambiguity, and discomfort with matter, and Pauline and Augustinian warnings about flesh and its pleasures.
We lament somatophobia entrenched in Christian traditions.
We lament all cultural constructions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and able-ness that encourage exclusion, domination, and violence.
We lament the violence acted out on bodies—raced bodies, gendered bodies, ethnic bodies, queer (homosexual) bodies, dis-eased bodies, dis-abled bodies. We lament masculinities that teach violence and debasement of women and emotional numbness to men. We lament raced identities that construct white supremacy and condone slavery and Jim Crow in old and new iterations.
We lament sexual teaching that denies the sacred worth of human sexuality.
We lament the role of religion in creating and perpetuating cultural distortions of flesh.
We lament and confess our own complicity, by commission and omission, in cultural, societal, and religious systems that distort, degrade, and commodify flesh.
We ask forgiveness. We seek to participate in the re-sacrilizing of our flesh: flesh as a source of our knowing and of joy, flesh welcome in worship, flesh necessary for ritual, flesh foundational to sacramental practices of baptism and Eucharist.
We seek forgiveness and the collective courage to reimagine flesh as sacred gift.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” the tragically famous last words of Brother Eric Garner, and according to Yale ethicist, the Rev. Dr. Ebony Marshall Turman, declaring his “isness.” As we watch that black male body struggle to survive while being choked to the ground, we hear him proclaim his existence: “I CAN’T BREATHE.” This moment is reminiscent of Malcolm X’s father (movie version) being tied to active train tracks with the sound of the train’s horn and the blinding light shining on him, shouting, “I AM A MAN!” and the screen goes blank. It is reminiscent of Fannie Lou Hammer rebuffing—without reticence and with clarity—the oppressors with, “I AM SICK AND TIRED OF BEING SICK AND TIRED!” These are not defeatist statements; instead, they are declarations of “isness,” existence and “I am somebody.” To unapologetically declare your space, place and “isness” as human in the face of hatred, brute force, and injustice is the zenith of resistance; giving no one real power over your being—body or mind.
Continual blows of dehumanization can leave the being—body and mind—bereft and without hope, unless you know that you exist! It is the spirit of resistance that stirs in us to confront the oppressors’/dehumanizers’ glare and physical force with the fact of our existence and place. Recall Jesus on the cross, declaring his “isness” with his last few words, even while he was being mocked. The embodiment of such gumption and spirit destabilizes governments’; economic, political platforms; unjust systems; privilege; ancestral supremacy; and religion. This very spirit is present in each of our bodies, limbs, “isness,” and declarations. It’s in our showing up and in our very flesh (hard to unravel the two, impossible really)—spirit and flesh together. One without the other leaves a gaping hole of prayers with no protest or protest with no prayers; a gaping hole of embodiment with no sure housing, words with no real meaning, and life with no real point.
Again, recall Jesus: the word became flesh! God inhabits/embodies the praises, the declarations of the people. Show up, inhabit, embody, become flesh with your very first, until your very last, word and breath.
The encounters of Simon, the social outcast and unclean leper, a nameless woman, and Jesus in the Gospel of Mark’s 14th chapter offer good news of the Divine’s transfiguration of oppression to hope. When these three hurting people encounter one another in the Gospel story, they are moved to care for one another’s flesh: their bodily and emotional wounds. Simon offers shelter and fills Jesus’ hungry stomach. The woman offers human touch as she spreads the oil on his head, shoulders, and feet. Jesus, the Divine made flesh, gratefully receives these gifts. Here the Divine is embraced and embraces, crossing the boundaries between Creator and Creature. In the compassionate embrace of the Other’s wounds and pain, these three experience the Divine “touch” that helps them transcend their bodily oppression and move forward in hope!
The body is the pathway by which we experience the world. The body is an historical receptacle. It carries our ancestors’ stories in its DNA—of intermarriages, diseases, migrations, and the truth of our inescapable biological and cultural hybridity—for survival within political and economic histories.
Our perception of our own bodies and that of the Other’s body reveals the marks of these histories on our emotional psyche that is an extension of our body. Latina studies have explored the legacies of colonialism, whose violence on all indigenous bodies (particularly the female body) was enacted to produce “bodily traits” for a perfect economic commodity. Colonialism’s power persists in our subconscious, producing a self-desire for certain bodily traits to the point of masochistic surgeries in a quest for bodies deemed safe and most likely to succeed.
Emilie Townes says it well: “We do not love ourselves. We have become cavalier with each other’s lives . . . we live in a time when the disregard for human lives in general is astoundingly sanctioned by a legal system that fails all of us when black and brown and native lives are taken and no one is responsible.” Ultimately, we are responsible for all of the bodies that we see on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds, and on podcasts, with eyes glazed over by trauma.
These bodies are collateral damage in the quest for postcolonial, global economic stability. Categorizing the human body as a commodity remains as much a moral act of oppression today as it was in colonial times. Powerful nations are not helpless, but rather hesitant, to enact new policies and disrupt their geopolitical and economic arrangements. Their hesitancy in the postcolonial reality is counter to our moral imperative as Christians: to love God and love one another as ourselves.
Like the nameless woman, we need to get out of the shadows and enter into the space, bravely, and anoint our collective body with oil.
The good news is that the Divine loves the Creation so much that the Godself chose the limitations of the complex human body. Why? That remains a mystery. Yet our experiences of the flesh help us unravel it. Stories from across the ages tell of life-changing moments when human beings from different groups transcend limitations to commune together for truth-telling, justice, and mercy. In those intimate moments of vulnerability and shared bodily knowledge of pain, power is experienced outside and within the self that engenders inexplicable hope in the face of losing odds. It becomes holy ground as we are able to see in the faces looking back at us that we are love-able. And, so, by loving one another, we begin to be healed so we can love ourselves.
Biblical references to glory frequently allude to the transfiguration of the ordinary in its encounter with the divine. . . . Thus the glory of God is always encountered as flesh. . . . Past relations leave their marks in our bodies . . . —signs of renewal as well as scars. These scars are never absent from our encounters. When we see, hear, or touch the Other, we touch upon the Other’s scars. . . . become transfigured in the divine embrace. Again, and again, and again.
We may not fully understand the unconditional love of the Godself choosing embodiment. Nevertheless, we can bear witness that by doing so the Divine’s identity is revealed as one that can never be reduced to historically frozen faith tenets. Instead, the Godself can be many things, and is, and is all things at one time, and is differentiated yet never separated from the Creation.
The good news is that as children of the Creator, we, too, have multiple identities that we move in and out of, and the Divine delights in our complexity! The good news is that we are differentiated yet tethered to one another without fear. Fear has no place in love; and the Divine loves completely.
If God is to be found in the Other . . . ethics becomes a central concern of theology. Theology . . . shall call us to transform our bodies so that they become capable of embracing without grasping, to transform our eyes to see and ears to hear. Theology shall encourage us to perceive the transcendence of the Other as the glory of God.
We are invited to repeatedly encounter the Divine within, between, and beyond us as we reach toward one another to fearlessly re-order life without the categorization and commodification of bodies. We are freed by love to mutually offer and receive shelter, food, and healing oil. Good news, indeed!
Ritual practices are ways of remembering. Ritual practices can also serve to help communities “re-member.” The ritual below is a call for our bodies to enter into their rightful place in the kingdom come.
L: Let us give thanks to our Creator God,
R: Who made heaven and earth.
L: Let us give thanks to our Creator God,
R: Who knit us together in our mothers’ womb.
L: Let us give thanks to our Creator God,
R: Whose life-giving spirit dwells in us.
Silent Reflection on the Wonder of Embodied Life
(Read the psalm slowly in unison, or participants can take turns reading verses.)
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end*—I am still with you.
Reader: A reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians:
“[D]o you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”(6:19-20)
Reader: The Word of the Lord
People: Thanks be to God
(e.g., personal stories about being embodied; joys and sorrows about oppression of bodies; fears and hopes of being a temple of the Holy Spirit)
L: For forgetting that we are created in your image:
R: Forgive us, Holy God.
L: For colluding with cultural standards of beauty and worth:
R: Forgive us, Holy God.
L: For remaining silent about oppression, abuse, and violence:
R: Forgive us, Holy God.
L: With embracing the holiness of our bodies:
R: Gift us, Healer God.
L: With appreciating the beauty of all bodies:
R: Gift us, Healer God.
L: With unrelenting courage to speak up for the voiceless:
R: Gift us, Healer God.
(May be sung softly or prerecorded so group may listen)
L: The Word became flesh! God embodies the praises, the declaration of the people.
R: Show up, embody, become flesh from your very first, until your very last, word!
L: Let us bless the Word become Flesh.
R: Thanks be to God!
 The Rev. Nannette Banks, Chicago Metropolitan Association of the United Church of Christ, director of Alumni/ae and Church Relations; The Rev. Isabel N. Docampo, professor of Supervised Ministry/associate director of the Intern Program, Perkins School of Theology/Southern Methodist University; the Rev. Dr. J. Allison St. Louis, Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, director of Field Education and the Second Three Years Program, Virginia Theological Seminary; the Rev. Trudy Hawkins Stringer, Tennessee Annual Conference, assistant professor of the Practice of Ministry, associate director of Field Education Vanderbilt University Divinity School; the Rev. Laura S. Tuach, Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ, assistant director of Field Education, Harvard Divinity School.
 Mayra Rivera, “Carnal Corporeality: Tensions in Continental and Caribbean Thought,” http://mayrarivera.com/files/mayrarivera/files/carnal_corporeality-concordia.pdf, accessed September 20, 2016.
 Rivera and other authors make distinctions between flesh and body. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore this further. See Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (Duke University Press, 2015).
M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 24.
 The term queer has been used as a derogatory term in some communities. It has come into use as an umbrella term for persons who express their sexuality in a variety of ways,
 I am exegeting this text through the lens of the scholarship of Mayra Rivera in her book, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial theology of God (Louisville: WJK Press), 2007.
 Mayra Rivera, “Unsettling Bodies” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26, Vol. 2 (Fall, 2010): 120.
 Emilie Townes, “The Problem We All Live With: Bearing Witness, But Never Finding Justice,” Religion Dispatches(July 10, 2016), http://religiondispatches.org/author/emilietownes/, accessed September 20, 2016.
 The Truth and Reconciliation meetings that Bishop Desmond Tutu and the late President Nelson Mandela held throughout South Africa after apartheid was brought down are an example.
Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 139.
2019 – Unity in the Church
2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ
2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel
2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church
2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations
2014 – Empowerment for All
2013 – What’s Next?
2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?
2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing
2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace
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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Editor: HiRho Y. Park
Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick
Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer