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Tender Flesh: Charlottesville, White Supremacy and Resistance as Revelatory Vulnerability

by Sharon R. Fennema, Assistant Professor of Christian Worship, Director of Certificate in Sexuality and Religion, Director of Worship Life

In the last several years, I have been involved in many protests, direct actions, and the sacred work of resistance. In my experience, when we take to the streets in protest and resistance, we do so to refuse to go along with unbearable and unjustifiable actions that deny what I would call the sacred worth and flourishing of human beings, creatures, and all creation. This action is often required because normal avenues for addressing injustices have failed to bring change and dominant narratives have failed to recognize the situations that demand change. One definition of direct action, this strategy of non-violent resistance, describes it as actions taken to directly interrupt the status quo and reveal what has been hidden, unseen or under-reported. It is revelatory work, the sacred and prophetic action of people calling our communities to account for the ways we treat each other and the earth and demanding that we do better. It is this sacred work that many of those who gathered in Charlottesville, VA to offer a presence of resistance to the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists and supremacists were engaged in. While the rally itself only reinforced the status quo of racism and white supremacy that pervades our society, albeit to the extreme, those who gathered in response were refusing to let these death-dealing expressions of hatred go on without offering a counter-witness. And that counter-witness took form in their tender and precious flesh.

For me, one of the most beautiful and challenging parts of doing this kind of social justice work and anti-racist activism (and there are many other kinds to be sure) is that the primary tool we use to accomplish this sacred vocation is our bodies. It is a ministry and spiritual leadership of presence – embodied, fleshly, blood and bone, presence. And the very vulnerability of this flesh is its strength, because it is through these bodies that the hidden and unseen injustices come into view. Through these bodies, God’s love and justice become incarnate again and again, and the absence of this love and justice is revealed. Those who participate put our bodies on the line by choice and calling because the bodies of so many of our beloved kin are already and always on the line, at risk and suffering many forms of injustice because of fear and hatred. The Christian story of incarnation, God-with-us in the blood and bone of one named Jesus, teaches us much about the vulnerability and fleshly strength of bodies resisting injustice and imagining love. Perhaps the Holy-become-Flesh was God’s own direct action: revelatory, disruptive, and transformational.

Like many of you, I watched in horror the news coverage of events unfolding in Charlottesville this past weekend. Witnessing the unabashed hatred and brazen hostility of the white nationalists and supremacists was truly terrifying, though in some ways not surprising and not at all new. What I kept coming back to, however, was the courage, strength, and wisdom of those vulnerable incarnations of justice and love that showed up to put their bodies on the line, and how the sacredness of their ministries and leadership was desecrated by unbearable violence and even death. As I watched social media feeds from colleagues, friends and former students who were present, I thought, this is precisely what racism, what hatred, what misogyny, what white supremacy, what colonialism does on the daily; it attacks vulnerable bodies and disregards the precious tenderness of flesh that is always a revelation of the Divine. In resisting injustice these counter-protestors were showing us precisely the cost and effect of injustice. But more than that, they were also showing us what it means to imagine and embody alternatives.

Participating in protests, direct actions, and the work of resistance is a spiritual practice for me. And it is in and through this spiritual practice that I have experienced time and time again a foretaste of what it is I believe we are called to create: beloved community. Experiences of solidarity across difference, of opening space for articulating and holding each other’s traumas, of genuine care, support, protection and healing, of decision-making that honors the wisdom of the most marginalized, of holistic concern for well-being in body, mind and spirit, of treasuring and finding ways to use the gifts of each and all, of complete trust and reliance on others, of acting with intentionality rooted in love – these and many, many more elements are what I have encountered in this spiritual practice and they help me learn and practice the world I and so many others are striving to create.

Hearing about folks gathering in Charlottesville to be inspired by compassion and rooted in love as they prepared on Friday night with torch-bearing people marching around them, watching spiritual leaders linked arm and arm walking toward the rally and singing about letting their lights shine, witnessing people moving others out of harm’s way and offering care to the injured, inspired me to remember the truth that Audre Lorde reminded us of when she said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Sister Outsider, 1984). Despite the hate and the violence, if we can keep showing up and living into our dreams through our actions, we can continue to reveal that alternatives to the status quo – to white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism – are possible, and, in fact, are already present among us, even if only in glimpses.

As I write this reflection, Bay Area faith leaders are continuing to consider what response we might have to the rally being planned by similar white nationalist and supremacists groups right here in Berkeley, especially now given what we have witnessed in Charlottesville. I imagine that in the coming days and weeks we will all continue to have to ask ourselves what a faithful response to this renewed and emboldened hate, violence, and aggression might be. I hope that communities of faith will consider what it means to minister to vulnerable bodies that have been traumatized by violence in the process of showing up, by opening up space for people to come to voice about their trauma, by helping people develop resiliency by cultivating practices of compassion, by listening to what people and communities need and offering it. For some of us, the call may be to put the vulnerable strength of our tender flesh on the line to resist and reveal injustice. As we consider participating in this spiritual practice, I hope that we will also strive to show up differently as we show up to resist. What would it take for us to demonstrate love as we demonstrate? How can we take steps toward freedom when we take steps into the streets? What does it look like to profess compassion as we protest?

No words seem adequate to the task of responding to the hatred, violence and death that happened in Charlottesville this weekend. But the sound that keeps echoing in my head since I began to hear the news reports are words from a song by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou called the “The Revolution Has Come.” May they bring you comfort, courage and conviction: 

What a time to be alive, what a time to be alive;

the revolution has come.

What a time to be alive, what a time to be alive!

When we stand up, we’ve already won.