DESPITE the fact that we have woken up in them every day of our lives, our bodies, the very flesh we wear, our “birthday suits”, are perhaps the things we pay the least attention to. Many of us do not love, adequately tend to, or know our bodies as well as we could. Perhaps we would even be surprised at what parts of our bodies look like or feel like when seen or touched by the eyes or hands of another — yet it is we who live in them and have done so our entire lives.
Our bodies are sites of memory, of transgenerational trauma, and of contradiction. We pray with them, experience sickness in them, grieve with them, reach ecstasy in them, and at the end of everything surrender them, or rather have them surrendered by the bodies we have known and loved, to flames or to the earth when we die.
We live in this knowledge that our bodies, no matter how much we love or detest them, are both our own and not our own — that they are matter that we must one day lay down.
Though we are made from dust and will return to dust, we spend our lives in our bodies mostly running away from this fact, and even doing things to deny our bodies’ natural ageing processes through the use of serums and surgery.
The beauty of our bodies, for some of us, is a source of pride, and for those who see no beauty in them they can be a source of shame, humiliation, pain, and hardship.
Most of us know our bodies only as flesh that has been faithful to us, carrying us where we need to be, bending into the shapes we put them in, enduring our clumsiness and stupidity. Yet we have seen or witnessed those whose bodies are frail and weak — who may feel that their bodies are no longer keeping their word.
Only grace can hold us together when Black begins to crack, and sickness takes hold of us. It is grace that tells us that we are more than our appearance — that our value in God is unchanging, that we are more than enough in the eyes of God whose gaze can become the only one that matters. This attention to our bodies is something that Womanist scholars in particular have been helping to push us towards.
Phillis Sheppard, a Womanist practical theologian and psychotherapist, does so beautifully when she remarks: “We need to consider ‘the body’ in the context of a society where certain bodies are exploited to create a desire for commodities regardless of the need or ability to afford them; where the colour of our skin continues to greatly influence our quality of life, our experiences in society, and our economic locations . . . where sex and sexuality are used to sell ‘entertainment’ infused with violence. We need to hear what the body has to tell us about being created in the image of God.”
AS A society, we have decided whose bodies matter and whose bodies do not. Whose bodies are fully “functional” and whose bodies are less than. Whose bodies are desirable and whose bodies are undesirable. We live in a world in which the body has been abused not just in history but in the present. Crucified, drowned, burned, torn apart.
This is part of the body’s contradiction, its paradox, its beauty, its grace — that it is the site of so much. As children, most of us are taught about how to keep our bodies clean, tidy, and presentable more than we are taught to enjoy the freedom of walking barefoot on a moist lawn or paddling in a brook. Bodies are things that are kept, managed, and controlled.
Although not a universal experience by any means, when you stop and ponder this for those of us for whom it is true, and reflect deeply on its consequences, you realize that not only does our bodily neglect make no sense: it is fundamentally something we cannot afford to do for ever without some great cost both to ourselves and the other bodies around us.
Your body has held the unseen you for however many years you have lived, survived perhaps, on this earth; your body has persisted, through things it should not have, bent itself into the shape you have shaped it into, held stresses and strains, and still through it all persisted. It deserves your attention, your love, your care.
Although we have already seen in earlier chapters that grace is, in Christ, an embodied thing, it is important to explicitly say here that the grace of God is not only in the Body of Christ but, because of where Christ placed his body, grace is embodied too in the sacred bodies of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and Queer people.
The doctrine of the incarnation and the grace that flows from Christ’s birth and death and resurrection really has no currency if our bodies, Black and Queer, along with all other bodies, are not connected to the doctrine of the “imago Dei”: the image of God.
When in Genesis 1.31 we hear that “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good,” we must hear this about our flesh and all the flesh in the bodies around us.
There has been a tendency, however, in church communities, particularly Black church communities, where White culture has had a dominating control, of viewing our Black Queer bodies as sites of sin, evil, and lust. In these spaces, the Black Queer body becomes a scapegoat similar to the scapegoat of Leviticus 16.21-22, which, on the day of atonement, has hands laid upon it by those wanting to be “holy” and “pure”, to the extent that “all [their] iniquities . . . all their transgressions, all their sins” are laid upon it until it is driven out into the wilderness.
The Black Queer body in the Christian community so often takes the place of this scapegoat — heterosexual Christians, having identified the location of “sinfulness” in bodies other than their own, rid themselves of their need of grace and forgiveness, leaving the Black Queer body apparently in need of a redemption of which the heterosexual has no need.
We, as Black Queer bodies, are often the scapegoat and the sacrificial offering (Leviticus 16.27): we are both harmed by our exclusion and then also find ourselves in an exile and wilderness that we have not chosen.
IT IS here that we begin to see our bodies as we have been told to see them. It is here that we can develop low self-esteem, self-hatred, and shame. This shame makes the wilderness a preferable place to be, because to return “home” is to return to those who see us as “unclean”.
The profound sickness of exclusive Christian communities is that, as they create environments that teach us to be ashamed of ourselves and to despise our bodies, that sense of shame is then used as evidence for the “sin” of non-heterosexual sexuality or gender identity.
To call the Church “sex-negative” is not accurate enough a description of the kind of stance it takes towards us as Black LGBTQ+ people, because the inclusion we seek goes beyond our sex lives.
We must call the Church “body-phobic”, “pleasure-denying”, and “freedom-fearing” if we are truly to get to the heart of its negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. Whatever our theologies of sex might be, the image of the chaste Black body is a problematic one when left unchallenged.
What does it mean for Black LGBTQ+ bodies to deny themselves the pleasure of intimacy, of romance, of sex in a White, racist world where the “respectability” of the Black body is already demanded in every space? What does it mean for Black LGBTQ+ bodies to engage in spiritual practices that cause low self-esteem, self-hatred, even suicide, in a world where Black bodies are already endangered?
How is it, although Jesus never opens his mouth once in any of the four Gospels regarding homosexuality, that the one real criterion for salvation (despite what the Church says officially) is the discipline of homoerotic desire and the upholding of gender binaries?
It seems to me that, if we want to be set free from the entanglements that our fear of the body has led us into, we must trust more what our bodies really tell us when they experience freedom, pleasure, and love.
This is an extract from Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and the famine of grace by Jarel Robinson-Brown, published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times special offer price £15.99); 978-0-334-06048-2), and to be launched (free) online on 20 September at 7 p.m. More information here.
Read a review of the book here
The Revd Jarel Robinson-Brown will be speaking at this year’s Church Times’s Festival of Preaching online and at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 13 and 14 September.