United Methodist Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta hosted American womanist and Black Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland to discuss the “historical Jesus” and the 2020 election. A “womanist” advocates a black feminist theology. Copeland was delivering the annual McDonald Lecture with her talk “The Political Imagination of Jesus of Nazareth.”
“This is a national moment of disgrace, but Jesus dares us to hope,” Copeland said. “To wait is to hope, to hope is to wait, and to wait actively.”
Connecting Jesus’ ministry to the radical message of John the Baptist, Copeland stressed Jesus’ reaction to John’s message as he responded with baptism and a “transformative religious experience” in the desert. The result was a call to public ministry in which he “related in total freedom to people considered impure, didn’t care about criticism, disregarded laws and customs… and shielded the weak and the vulnerable.”
Copeland characterized Jesus as an individual in a population “experiencing military occupation and colonization, migration and refugee status, surveillance and control.” The Herodian economics of the day and even the census taking place at Jesus’ birth was meant to subjugate the Jews and create a strict monopoly of power for Rome.
Yet many Jews still rebelled, especially in Galilee, because they would rather die than disobey God’s law. It is against this backdrop that we ought to understand Jesus’ “prophetic praxis of the kingdom of God,” Copeland said. “He advanced the renewal of Israel, a call to build up community life, taking up the slack in light of the disintegration of some family units, and enacted a larger program of social healing addressing illnesses brought on by Roman imperialism.”
Copeland proposed that Jesus’ imagination inspired his political practice and dedication to his ministry. Although he likely did not have any formal education, Jesus had a natural intelligence and well-developed memory.
Taking cues from the cultural context, the Hebrew tradition, and John the Baptist’s execution for his ministry, Jesus “preached the God of Israel as one who comes to everyone as savior, not judge,” Copeland said. “He didn’t focus on purification, he didn’t preach divine wrath and judgment. Instead he invites them to encounter and to relationship, preaching amazing compassion, not devastating wrath.”
Copeland described Jesus’ message as a radicalized version of John’s logic, prophetic manner, and strategies. She said Jesus’ political imagination aims to “dispel the fantastic hegemonic imagination and discover a way through debilitating fantasy to discern… and seize the truth of reality and compose a new and creative response of hope to sustain people in crisis.”
Stimulated by his cultural geography and traditions and committed to God’s desire for justice, Jesus conducted his ministry through metaphors and parables resulting from his imagination, and this is part of what made his ministry so unique and drew people to him.
Jesus’ imagination factored into his ministry to advance the kingdom of God, according to Copeland. Although it was not an original idea, Copeland says Jesus recreated how people conceived of a personal relationship with God based on his own experience with God. “He advanced a distinctive prophetic praxis on behalf of the reign of God,” Copeland said. “He performed acts of healing, stories, and parables and inverted ways of thinking about power and authority.”
Through his parables, Jesus exhorted his followers to “live jubilee traditions in the here and now,” meaning there ought to be a greater emphasis on loving one’s community and risking all to maintain the mission of announcing God’s kingdom, Copeland said.
Copeland issued a final challenge to repentance and moral reparations based on these points. Just as Jesus understood his historical, cultural, and political context, so too must Christians in the United States. “We cannot elude our historical and cultural association or ignore our relation to embodied human indifference,” Copeland said.
There’s a litany of vices from Jesus’s perspective, Copeland said, including exploitation, “individuality as license,” the criminalization of poverty, misogyny, hate crimes against LGBTQI persons, and the commercialization of desire. She also highlighted racial disparities in the U.S. and promoted Jesus’ “life praxis” as a solution to challenge unjust structures and introduce the politics of a community defined by love and active waiting.
This active waiting, according to Copeland, is an opportunity to advance God’s kingdom through social action. She called BLM the “cri du coeur” shaking the nation. By following Jesus’ life praxis, Copeland says we may better engage in lasting change and loving community.
“We ought to cast a light on the solution to realization of the common good, and this can only be lit by the example of Jesus of Nazareth who reveals transcendent passion… and whose crucifixion discloses radical risk. We are currently in nightmares of our own making which are urging us to repent.”
During the Q&A session following the lecture, Copeland expanded on her vision for how Jesus’ political imagination draws from Jewish history yet translates to the 21st century. “The history of the Jewish people teaches us that God is for our liberation, for our life, and for our flourishing. God’s action in history must be our action.” Copeland lamented the “whitewashing” of Jesus by denying his Jewishness through artistic interpretations.
“One of the saddest dimensions of American religious history is the way we have substituted what is white for what is divine,” Copeland said. “[Heresy] fixes one meaning, one definition. It does not allow any question… it responds by suppressing with violence… We need to rethink what it means for Jesus to be Jewish as a chance to confront the ways we have responded to Jews in the United States and a way to move away from that image. We’re denying a Black Christ, a brown Christ, Christ as an indigenous person when the body of the risen Christ defies all sense of containment.”
To avoid this, Copeland said she ascribes to an inclusive theological anthropology. “If we’re all made in the image and likeness of God, then that’s it.” Her inclusive theological anthropology formed the basis for her answers in which she did not affirm Jesus as the son of God, saying that it varies according to gospels that develop over time.
Copeland said her points were only intended to provoke critical thought and that “my Jesus [a Jesus in good company with liberation theologians] is in line with a large community of biblical scholars. This Jesus brings together a number of perspectives: womanist, feminist, Black theological.”