We need a mystical spirituality of “somebodiness.” Not to be confused with celebrity status or self-righteousness, there is a need for a deep sense of knowing who we are as human beings.

This is not a new idea but a renewed call for an ontology – the nature of being and becoming – that we don’t have to buy into. It is the unequivocal self-awareness that I am somebody.

Not a packaged deal, it is not a sermon series with three points and neat alliterations, or seven steps to becoming a better version of yourself. Instead, it is an embodied practice of faith that is aligned with who we have always been — children of God.

On April 26, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. asked the student body at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, to cultivate their self-worth.

On October 26, 1967, he spoke to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the speech titled “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”, he said: “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth. And always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”

I am somebody. The statement was later popularized by Jesse Jackson, who shared a poem titled “I am — Somebody,” written by William Holmes Borders Sr., during an episode of Sesame Street in 1972. The poem concludes, “I am God’s child. I am somebody.”

I wasn’t even alive then and, to be fair, the sentiment of this self-declaration goes farther back than this. The need for self-awareness has been discussed by biblical figures, philosophers, preachers, poets and artists alike.

David wrote about this self-knowledge: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (Psalm 51:6, NRSV).

Jesus invited persons who judged others to self-reflect: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NRSV).

“Know thyself.” The legend is that these two words were carved in stone at the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi in Greece. “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” Aristotle believed.

French theologian and reformer John Calvin made this connection in 1536: “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.”

“Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny,” Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. He told readers to “pray for our own discovery.”

Consequently, Toni Morrison’s words are my sentiments exactly. “Don’t let anybody, anybody convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be. It must be the way it ought to be,” Morrison wrote in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations.

Recently, I was at the University of Mississippi for a conversation on race, antiracism and beloved community. During the Q&A period, Sonia, an African American neurosurgeon, shared that her patients were experiencing poverty and, quite frankly, while she could appreciate my position intellectually, she wondered how it could be practically applied in a racialized society.

A brain surgeon, she understood the concept of racelessness, of seeing oneself outside of the “white gaze,” of existing apart from the categorizations of race, but the crippling conditions of poverty coupled with racism made it hard to believe that it was indeed possible for her patients.

She wanted to know how she could make this moderated discussion in a university classroom a reality. With several follow up questions, she continued to press me on it. She argued that their social condition doesn’t afford them days off to do the work of self-actualization.

In that moment, I was reminded that while I speak from a deep sense knowing who I am apart from race, many of us need to be reminded, “I am somebody.” This “I am” statement is a cure-all for me and speaks to an inward orientation that is not dependent on external factors or the fluctuating opinions of others.

Mystic and theologian Howard Thurman names it precisely in his book, The Search for Common Ground: “I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”

With the trappings of capitalism, sexism, racism and militarism, human beings rely heavily on external signs of success and self-worth: You are what you have. You are worth as much as you possess or have amassed. Personal validation has been outsourced to things and other people.

“She’s going to be somebody.” “He is somebody you should know!”

While Christians espouse the view that we are all God’s children, too often we point to those who have gifts or talents we value. Saying that everyone is somebody is not comparable to giving everyone a trophy for merely existing but treating everyone as valuable regardless of their contributions to society.

The raceless gospel and The Raceless Gospel Initiative is rooted in a mystical spirituality of somebodiness, a belief in indivisible individuality or selfhood apart from “ruling relationships” that maintain social hierarchies.

This aligns with the early church’s first creed: “For you are children of God in the Spirit. There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male and female. For you are all on one in the Spirit.”

It is a message that bears repeating. So, repeat after me a summary of the raceless gospel, “I am God’s child. I am somebody.”

Editor’s note: This article was amended to reflect the correct year that King spoke at Barratt Junior High School.

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