"Who is that?": M. Shawn Copeland on Theology for Us and for God

M. Shawn Copeland is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Bostson College. She is the author of several books, most recently of Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being.

The picture hung in my great-grandmother’s bedroom, a place my four or five year-old self knew well. It was spare and dim and comforting and familiar. The picture—strange, fascinating, and mysterious—hung over my great-grandmother’s bed. Like all else in that room, I took it for granted; then, one day, I saw it. “Who is that?” She replied, “Jesus; he loves us and died for our sins.” Such was my first introduction to the Crucified Jesus.
William H. Johnson, "Jesus and the Three Marys" (1939)
[this image is not addressed in Dr. Copeland's post,
but it reflects ideas she raises in Enfleshing Freedom

I now know the picture had little, if any, artistic merit, probably an inexpensive reproduction of a crude rendering of the crucifixion. The suffering was obvious:  Jesus’ body twisted away from the wood, even as the nails pinned his arms against it; his head was thrown back, the long hair matted and limp against his face; his flesh tinted sickly blue and bloodied. “Who is that?” “Jesus; he loves us and died for our sins.” The elderly woman who answered my question was a mid-wife and a tailor, a woman who knew life and who knew saving.

My great-grandmother, Mary Hunt, died just a little less than a year after this exchange; still, the recollection of the picture and the question and answer lingers. For me, images of the Crucified Jewish Jesus evoke awe and prayer and theologizing. This childhood experience remains an orienting moment in my effort to grapple toward understanding the meaning, mystery, and power of the cross. Such graphic depictions disturb our sense of divine power and hold us within the realm of divine logic. For in his passion, in submitting himself to being handled and seized, beaten and tortured, mocked and spit upon, Jesus disclosed for us a distinctive and daunting quality of God—vulnerability, the willingness of God to suffer with us and for us. Such images unsettle us, bring us to anguish:  If our God so suffers, is so exposed to the brutality and power of the world, what shall become of us? This is a daring and daunting theological project–for us and for God. For God invites us to stand beside and act with the Crucified Jewish Jesus in solidarity with crucified peoples. We are charged to bring about with him and with them that trajectory of expectation released at the entrance of our God into history, signified in Jesus’ Resurrection, and to be realized at the table of the eschatological banquet.


Edward J. Blum said…
For CNN on images of holy week around the world, go to: