The Frisson in the Air M. Shawn Copeland electrifies the atmosphere with her passion for social justice, pushing people to think about the tangled and unbreakable nature of the relationship between theology and their world.

A 12-year-old girl danced around the kitchen of her Motor City home, arm extended in a graceful third position to reach the top shelf of the refrigerator as she began to concoct her sandwich of the day. Her thoughts capered from place to place as she trotted on her tiptoes around the linoleum floor. The Detroit outside of her walls was throbbing, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. Amid the bustle of the ’60s, the city was simultaneously transforming into “Motown,” but the little girl’s radio was not on, as she put a tune to the words her grandmother had imparted to her again and again:

“Everybody can’t like you.”

Everybody can’t like you, hummed the little girl, thinking about the plot of the novel she had been swimming in at dawn that day. Everybody can’t like you, she whispered, slathering peanut butter in long, smooth motions her bread. Everybody can’t like you, she said aloud, pausing the innocuous choreography of the characteristic summer day. She enunciated, then savored the words. The more she sucked on them, the more bitter they began to taste.

“It occured to me that when some people don’t like you and have power over you, they can kill you,” said M. Shawn Copeland, a professor of systematic theology (who has a joint appointment in the Program in African and African Diaspora Studies).

Copeland got her B.A. in English at Madonna College (now Madonna University) in 1969, then her Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston College. She has taught theology at St. Norbert College, Yale University Divinity School, Marquette University, Xavier University, and has held a visiting position at Harvard Divinity School. She was a convener of the Black Theological Symposium, and the first African American woman to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. She is, in a word, accomplished.

Copeland’s first exposure to social issues was through documentaries she watched, released by unspecified news media on poverty in America. After seeing a few, she knew she wanted to aid the afflicted.

“You want to be a million different things when you are a little person, and I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought this was a really important way to help people,” she said.

The summer of her watershed realization, Copeland went to school and took classes on French and world history, where she learned, for the first time, about World War II and Adolf Hitler’s extermination of Jewish people. She read about the Chancellor’s rise to power, use of propaganda, and creation of Nazi Germany—soon becoming disillusioned with her desire to be a lawyer.

“It occured to me that when some people don’t like you and have power over you, they can kill you.” M. Shawn Copeland

“It left me with an impression that maybe laws aren’t the best way [to help people], because we can change laws,” Copeland said.

So the Catholic Copeland started thinking theology was a good avenue for her to take in her pursuit of transformation, as she believed it could change people’s hearts and minds. Resolved at 12 years old to be a theologian, Copeland didn’t know exactly what it would entail—but she knew she would get to read and write and assumed it would involve teaching.

“It was real to me, it was very real to me,” Copeland said.

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he saw the brightly painted boundaries of her segregated city when she traveled to her school that was located across town on a public bus every morning. Young Copeland was not allowed to go to the Catholic school closest her house, as the sister in charge of the school told Copeland’s mother they did not take colored children. This denial did not affect her faith in any way. She said her parents did not show their anger to her, thus she did not harbor resentment in her heart, but she soon became aware of problems within the Church and world around her—her early morning bus rides served as trial-runs to the lack of acceptance she was to experience over the course of her life, being an African American woman.

“I think when you’re young and impressionable Catholicism really can shape you in an important way, it can alert you to sacred power in very deep and symbolic ways,” Copeland said. “I think even though our church [was] very small, and segregated, and very plain, there were ways in which our little church building … actually impressed upon me the power of the sacred.”  

As she grew older, Copeland retained a notion of the power of the sacred, but began to have a lot of questions about the way in which the Church worked and operated. She was particularly interested in discovering why the Church didn’t take a risky or important stand on the tensions existing in the United States surrounding race.

“I didn’t see, during that period of time, a real push for considerations of equality from the Catholic Church,” Copeland said. “And sadly, I still don’t see that today … We don’t have any substantive response from our bishops about the deleterious racial situation we’re living in.”

Though careful not to condemn anyone—as she says, “judgement in the largest sense is up to God”—Copeland is disappointed in Church leaders’ lack of direction on matters of social and racial justice and lack of response to matters of social and racial injustice.

“For some people its very difficult to take stands, for some people its frightening,” she said. “But if you open yourself up to religious leadership, if you think this is your call from God, if you think this is what you are to do, then we all—all of us—have the expectation—and the right to expect it—that you would do your best to try to step forward to give us some guidance … to show your leadership.”

“I didn’t see, during that period of time, a real push for considerations of equality from the Catholic Church. And sadly, I still don’t see that today … We don’t have any substantive response from our bishops about the deleterious racial situation we’re living in.” M. Shawn Copeland

Copeland has an expectation for the leadership of the Church, and is unapologetic about it. She points out that although the church never separated over the question of slavery, it still practiced segregation. Copeland expressed worry at the Church’s willingness to forget chattel slavery, and the way in which it participated in the buying and selling of bodies, claiming that it is the responsibility of theology to preserve these memories without minimizing them, thus reducing them to a story of the past.

“We had an issue we just can’t seem to wrestle with well, and that’s the truth of the matter,” Copeland said.

She points out that even what was to become the prestigious Catholic beacon of education, Georgetown University, was saved by slavery: In 1838, two Jesuit priests organized the sale of 272 slaves to pay off the university’s debt. In her article, “Chattel Slavery As Dangerous Memory,” she highlights the views of past church leadership saying, “Southern bishops and priests maintained that slavery, as a legal, economic, and societal institution was legitimate as long as the slaveholder’s title of ownership was valid and the slave cared for materially and spiritually.”

The church, she found, placed respect for law above respect for the body, which complicated the concept of imago dei—if man is created in the image and likeness of God, how was it that people could be sold?  

“I’m loathed to think people are simply indifferent, no one’s life is insignificant, and there is no price on life,” Copeland said. “Although, we have to face up to the fact that for the last 500 years we’ve commodified life.”

She also pointed out the Bible’s role in that commodification.

“The Bible has been used so often to justify oppression of people, so it was used quite handily in the United States to justify slavery and to try to keep people enslaved,” she said.

But, Copeland said, the use of the Bible in such a way occurs when people take verses and stories out of context and twist them to justify privilege and supremacy. Religion, though, is untainted by such manipulation. Copeland uses the example of Hernán Cortés, who plunged into the Valley of Oaxaca and told the Aztecs to convert or die—they converted, but blood still flowed from Tenochtitlan, showing that the greed, hatred, and violence are human engagements separate from scripture.

Copeland also draws a distinct line between the Church and God.

“I’m loathed to think people are simply indifferent, no one’s life is insignificant, and there is no price on life. Although, we have to face up to the fact that for the last 500 years we’ve commodified life.” M. Shawn Copeland

“The thing is that the Church is not God, the Church may be mediating the grace of God to us through sacraments, but the church is not to be identified as exclusively, exhaustively, and solely God,” Copeland said. “It is also a human institution, and as a human institution it is deeply flawed on this matter [race], as well as on the matter of women, as well as on the matter of LGBTQ people.”

Besides being what her colleagues describe as an important face for BC’s theology department, Copeland recently made the news for cancelling a lecture at Madonna University, her Alma Mater. Copeland was contacted to speak on Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, and its agenda for social justice in the church.

A right wing group called “Church Militant,” which objects to inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in the Church, got a hold of Copeland’s book Enfleshing Freedom, took quotes from it out of context, and proclaimed her as dangerously against their agenda, calling for the cancellation of her talk, “so that young, impressionable Catholics are not led into sin by anti-Catholic discourse.”

“Someone, apparently, on the faculty [of the university] complained that I had written these things and the person that invited me wrote back ‘well I think we should all have open minds, we should be able to disagree, isn’t that what academic life is about?” Copeland said.

But, things quickly escalated—the group decided they would protest if she came to speak. Copeland’s 91-year-old mother was to be present.

“I’m not going to have my 91-year-old mother see people with placards—that’s beyond—I wasn’t going to do that,” she said.  

The university would also have to hire extra security for what was supposed to be a low-key ordeal.

“I just thought that it wasn’t a good use of their resources or a good use of my emotional resources … what do you tell your mother?” Copeland said. “It was very sad. Since that was my college, it was even sadder in that sense.”

She was also troubled that the group’s goal was not to converse.

“I realized that if you wanted to talk about this then … maybe the people that were protesting would ask if they could be respondents if they wanted to really get at what I was saying, but they didn’t.”

Copeland and the University came to the joint conclusion to cancel the talk, but the Church Militant soon published a piece with a headline saying she was disinvited.

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heology professor Lisa Sowle Cahill, another former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, has worked with Copeland in various contexts. Sowle Cahill was on faculty when Copeland was a graduate student (and still is now that she is a tenured professor), and they both served together on Barack Obama’s Catholic Advisory Council, through which they advocated for policies in line with Catholic social teaching and discussed social questions. She says that Copeland has been an important face and voice for the theology department, as she has a clear sense for what she wants to see happen within the field.

“As time has gone on, of course she has been more and more visible in the area of African American theology, more and more prioritizing the question of women and gender,” Sowle Cahill said. “Certainly at Boston College and in our culture as a whole those voices, voices such as hers—really speaking to racial justice and gender justice—you know, those are increasingly important.”  

Sowle Cahill thinks that Copeland has a gift for bringing people together and points to a lecture she gave earlier this year on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as a good example of this talent. She says that Copeland’s lecture was prophetic, and “called people to a shared vision, for self-criticism, and to look to the future.” During the lecture, Copeland called for the examination of society’s conscience, and remembrance of the time where “young black men wearing the uniform of the United States Marine Corps [could not] feel safe from physical assault in white Southern towns.” She asserted that King was sensitive to the word of God, and thus, able to scrutinize the signs of the times.

“If the bishops are not going to speak out, or cardinals, or leaders—then ordinary Catholics should be speaking out. Ordinary Christians should be speaking out. We should be responding to these events in ways that are appropriate to our training, our preparation, our circumstance. For me, teaching is a really serious way to do that.” M. Shawn Copeland

Copland believes that this examination of society, and contextual reading of human experience, is important.

“This the whole thrust of the Second Vatican Council, to read the signs of the times—to scrutinize the signs of the times and to tell us where God is acting,” Copeland said.

But as Copeland does not see this happening to her liking, she calls for a much more democratic approach, and has taken it upon herself to do her part.

“If the bishops are not going to speak out, or cardinals, or leaders—then ordinary Catholics should be speaking out. Ordinary Christians should be speaking out,” Copeland said. “We should be responding to these events in ways that are appropriate to our training, our preparation, our circumstance. For me, teaching is a really serious way to do that.”

Copeland is enthusiastic about the fact that students have lots of life before them, and with that, they carry the ability to shape, then reshape the world—molding it toward perfection.

“What I’ve learned over the years is theology is not a disembodied activity. It’s not as if you’re just always talking about concepts,” Copeland said. “Concepts are all important but there are real people that are enduring the concept of violence, or enduring the concept of oppression,”

She believes theology has the ability to shape, then reshape the person a little bit, toward understanding the connections compounded upon connections through which all life is interrelated. Such shaping can help people understand that difference is a gift, not an issue.

Her scholarly work embraces such differences, as she focuses on the body and race. She sees questions about these subjects as present at BC. Specifically, the Hebrew Bible has a very positive image of the body, but she doesn’t always see that image of the body being upheld on campus.

“I think young women’s concerns about sexual assault and harassment on campus are real,” Copeland said.

Though sexual harassment and violence should not be tolerated anywhere, she is especially troubled that such issues exist on BC’s campus—a campus which, in its status as Catholic, was built on the sentiment that God became Incarnate through Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, she believes the institution and its surrounding culture should operate with bounds of respect for the human body. Copeland sees gender on campus as an important topic of discussion.

“The studies say—they keep saying, I don’t know what the next study will say—that women who come to BC are very successful when they come and they wind up feeling less successful, less empowered, when they are about to leave,” Copeland said. “One would hope that by directing our attention to women in class that this would change.”

She takes her concept of respect for the body further when thinking about racial violence in the world.

“Black people in the United States are like canaries in the coal mine long ago,” Copeland said.  

In the 1900s, before technology improved, coal miners would take canaries in cages into the bowels of the earth with them. The job of the canaries was to warn the miners of the presence of toxic gases. When the little bird grew weary, or woozy, and began falling over, the miners knew it was time to leave—that conditions were dangerous.

“What happens to black people happens to all people,” Copeland said. “The neglect of any one group of people in this country really portends the neglect of all.”

“What I’ve learned over the years is theology is not a disembodied activity. It's not as if you're just always talking about concepts. Concepts are all important but there are real people that are enduring the concept of violence, or enduring the concept of oppression.” M. Shawn Copeland

She points to the opioid crisis as a good example of the relationship she describes. Copeland asserts that all people are deeply intertwined—that one person’s call for engagement and yelp for respect should be answered with compassion and concern, since humans have the God-given right to call on one another for “action and assistance.” She says that the Black Lives Matter movement, which notably manifested itself on BC’s campus with the Silence is Still Violence march, is not just about black people.

“When people say ‘black lives matter,’ they’re not saying anyone else’s life does not matter,” Copeland said. “What they’re saying is that these lives have been treated with such disrespect that we have to say they matter—its telling yourself you matter, its telling people who’ve been hurt ‘you matter.’”

Copeland believes that movements like the one that happened on campus earlier this year are excessively important not only in checking and critiquing our imperfect society, but in the formation of individuals’ voices.

“I realize that we’ve now scripted student protest into ‘you need to get a permit to protest, you need to get a permit for a march, no chalking on the sidewalk,’ … I think these are venerable traditions of academic freedom,” Copeland said.

Though she acknowledges that students don’t have “to a certain extent real academic freedom,” she stands by the fact that students should be able to, by some measure, resist what they think is wrong, as students at BC are smart, innovative, and vivacious. Through protest and conversing over disagreement, students can both listen to dissent improve their own arguments, both of which are important in formation of the person.

“When people say ‘black lives matter,’ they’re not saying anyone else's life does not matter. What they’re saying is that these lives have been treated with such disrespect that we have to say they matter—its telling yourself you matter, its telling people who've been hurt ‘you matter.’” M. Shawn Copeland

“I don’t think we should penalize people simply because we can,” Copeland said.

To her, BC as a community (markedly, as she points out, a community that includes her) is too self-satisfied at its success.

“One wishes that we were more alert and alive to the systems in which we are operating, the structures in which we are operating—and I don’t just mean in the University but in the nation,” she said.

As a faculty member with tenure, Copeland supposes that she needs to reflect on her own privilege and comfort. Looking out onto the green grass from her third-story office window, she shook her hands in frustration.

“You don’t feel the frisson in the air,” Copeland said.

Photo Courtesy of M. Shawn Copeland

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