In the essay Andrew reflects on theological notion of embodiment in light of the experiences of death row inmates. During multiple visits in 2012 and 2013 Andrew interviewed five prisoners facing death sentences at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. And what Andrew discovered through those interviews is that when you live on death row, when you don't control your own body, the issue of "embodiment" becomes very complicated.
As Andrew writes:
[T]o be human is to be embodied.When Andrew and I talked last week at the Christians Scholars Conference I shared how the old gospel song "I'll Fly Away" has been rehabilitated ever since I started singing it with inmates. Prior to that experience I felt that "I'll Fly Away" was too dualistic and escapist. Contra to "I'll Fly Away" I wanted a song that embraced this world and our material existence. I didn't want a song that yearned for "flying away" to "a home on God's celestial shore."
And yet, for people living in especially fragmented and fragmenting material contexts, such as Tennessee’s death row, embodiment is often much more complicated. To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.
And yet, when you sing "I'll Fly Away" inside a prison you come to understand that the song is, to use Andrew's words, an act of "soulful resistance." When the body has become trapped and is no longer under your control your only way to resist is to retreat into interiority and spirituality. The spiritual must resist the oppression and dehumanization of material existence where life has become, as Andrew describes it, a "living death." Oppressed persons have long known this, and it goes a long way toward explaining why dualistic and charismatic spirituality flourishes in oppressed contexts.
For people like me, it's all well and good to embrace material existence when you are well-fed and safe. But when material existence is oppressive and dehumanizing the cry to "fly away" functions as a lament, a prophetic rebuke, and an act of soulful resistance.
Cynicism about "I'll Fly Away" is a luxury of the privileged.
A final reflection from Andrew's essay:
...As the last bastion of freedom and dignity, the soul/mind/spirit thus functions powerfully as the site from which imprisoned subjects assert themselves over against the material, spatial, and relational inscriptions on the body that would seek to define them as little more than irredeemable pieces of property. And though for my interviewees such resistance may seem, in part, to deny the body, it nevertheless requires the body in order to take concrete shape through the body-based practices they employ on a daily basis, practices that serve to rehumanize an otherwise dehumanizing environment.Read the whole thing here.
When the body’s knowledge is formed through strict material, spatial, and relational delimitation, one has little option but to root one’s sense of self beyond a strict materiality of the body alone, seeking postures and practices, rather, that allow the body to transcend its corporeal confinement by embodying that part of oneself that cannot be contained by concrete walls, steel doors, and razor wire. And as my interviewees demonstrate, this embodiment of the transcendent aspects of one’s selfhood can serve to transform spaces that might otherwise fragment and dissolve one’s sense of self and one’s community. By cultivating and living from a deeply rooted interiority, my interviewees on Tennessee’s death row creatively and soulfully resist those mechanisms of control that would otherwise dehumanize and fragment them to the point of death—quite literally. By creatively transcending their subjugated immanence—in the sense of both “moving beyond” and “deploying transcendentally”—they demonstrate the capacity of confined peoples to articulate and embody real freedom, even in the confines of an eight-by-ten cell.