Symposium Introduction

For centuries black women have worked diligently in the Black Church, providing a sure foundation for its efficacy, while being diminished, marginalized and neglected because of their bodily difference from men. This paradoxical relationship defies logic, given the impulse for liberation from which the Black Church was birthed, begging the question: how does the alienation and exploitation of black women, who remain so integral to its livelihood persist in a so-called justice-based institution? More importantly, what can be done about it? Eboni Marshall Turman’s Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon offers insight. It argues that the reification of oppression in justice-aimed institutions, even in the black community, is rooted in a concept of blackness distorted by the gaze of white supremacy and patriarchy. Such formulations, she argues inevitably exclude and belittle black women. Applying Chalcedon’s Christological mediating paradigm of kata sarka  (according to the flesh) and en sarki dei  (God’s active presence in the flesh), Marshall Turman proffers a life-giving approach to black female embodiment and identity that acknowledges the “isness” of black women as more than what their bodies have endured historically.

This symposium, composed of five essays exploring the Christological hermeneutics, and womanist dimensions of Marshall Turman’s argument, presents the unique perspectives of Adam Clark, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Jennifer Harvey, Monique Moultrie and Reggie Williams on Marshall Turman’s groundbreaking work and its implications for the Black Church, black theological thought, and beyond. Grounded in existential questions regarding the ontological value of black women, it interrogates the necessity and possibilities of Marshall Turman’s methodological shift in conceptualizing the ground of black women’s being, independent of the constraints of white supremacy.

Black theologian Adam Clark brings to bear questions of womanist tradition. Clark argues that Marshall Turman’s reliance on doctrinal Christianity, while unconventional for a womanist work, offers something new by way of her innovative repurposing and re-contextualizing of said doctrines in pursuit of a more authentic concept of the foundations of black women’s “isness.” He locates Marshall Turman’s identification of black women as homoousious, or of the same substance of Christ and her appropriation of an en sarki perspective of black female identity, as the praxis of the womanist tenant of self-love, “a radical epistemological orientation” that supplants distorted notions of blackness with the truth of black integrity that is born from the divine spark within. Christian social ethicist, Jennifer Harvey’s deeply introspective essay wrestles with the methodological conundrum of formulating black identity free from the constraints of whiteness. Impressing upon readers the imperative need to disentangle their thinking from the hierarchical modes of categorization that make black women’s subjugation and exclusion unavoidable, she articulates the importance of privileging the both/and thinking present in Marshall Turman’s womanist mediating ethic. Womanist systematic theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher’s essay has similar priorities. In addition, she amplifies the good news of Marshall Turman’s mediating ethic of incarnation for black women’s self-worth and the critique of the conflict present within sexist black institutions of their incarnational theory and praxis it facilitates.

Sexual ethicist Monique Moultrie highlights the liberative possibilities of Marshall Turman’s en sarki dei assertion that God is not only compassionate and in solidarity with black women, but resides within them.  Believing the argument to be supremely beneficial to black theology and discipline’s theorization of the black body and its sexual expression, Moultrie presses Marshall Turman and readers with incisive methodological critique. Finally, delving more deeply into the Chalcedonian debates, and the Du Boisian metaphor of the veil, Christian ethicist Reggie Williams delineates the ramifications of a womanist ethic of incarnation of all flesh and the call for renunciation and radical inclusivity it mandates.

Together these thinkers probe the many dimensions of Marshall Turman’s new orientation toward black women’s incarnate being and its contributions to the theological questions that inspire such a project. Moreover they challenge us to take seriously the disruption of dualistic modalities for the sake of cultivating just practices in the black community and the marriage of womanist thought and doctrinal Christianity as an effective methodology to accomplish this task.

Karen Baker-Fletcher

Response

Good News

Eboni Marshall Turman offers good news in Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation by clearly connecting the definition of incarnation at Chalcedon (AD 451) with the problem of broken Black bodies. Further, Marshall Turman expands womanist scholarship by reinforcing Jacquelyn Grant’s earlier observation that Black theology is not holistic without the liberation of Black. I would add along with other womanists that Black theology or womanist theology is not complete if it is does not also address heterosexism.1 Marshall Turman makes brief, quick, occasional references to the problem of sexualization of Black women’s bodies and heterosexism. Her work is sufficiently opened-ended to make room for further conversation on these and other matters, like ableism.

In Marshall Turman’s assessment failure to engage in both/and understanding of incarnation leaves Black churches with broken, unhealed bodies. The truth of God’s presence, however, moves in and through the fractures in “black churches,” in moments that reach, stand and sway in Black women’s bodies.2 The bodies of Black women incarnate God as God!3

Method and Hermeneutics

A womanist critical and prescriptive study of Black bodies in Black churches requires a womanist method and hermeneutics for the healing and wholeness of Black communities of faith, male and female.4 To fulfill this task, Marshall Turman employs the womanist mediating ethic of Marcia Riggs, which values wholistic both/and thinking in contrast to either/or thinking. She further includes Riggs’s method of uncoveringdebunking and demystifying texts.5 Theo-ethicist Emilie Townes’s hermeneutics of “truth telling” is a tool for discerning what is “truly true.” To connect Riggs’s method and Townes’s hermeneutic, Marshall Turman introduces an original choreographical method: (1) at barre, a warm-up similar to Riggs’s “methodological posture of unconvering”; (2) petit allegro, “swift, precise, almost undetectable” movement similar to Riggs’s “debunking social myths” and Townes’s “truth telling”; (3) the adagio, constructive ethics; and (4) the grande allegro, similar to Riggs’s “envisioning” the practice of mediating human social conditions among communities of faith and God to “transform communities beyond ourselves.”6 It seems that this fourth movement joins theory with practice to form womanist praxis. Finally, in envisioning God realizes incarnation in ways beyond our imaginings.

Discerning What Is True: Epistemology and Hermeneutics

Marshall Turman’s primary source and criterion for discerning the truth of incarnation is the open-ended definition of incarnation developed at Chalcedon (AD 451), a political and theological compromise on the divinity and humanity of the Logos. She begins with a perennial question regarding the incarnation of the Word of God. What manner of person is Jesus Christ, bodily and spiritually? Marshall Turman finds that professions of incarnation in Christian communities are not consistent with action. Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, in effect, conscientizes readers to critically reflect on events in which Black communities hear and profess belief in incarnation. What do we really believe when we examine our praxis? What types of thought processes contribute to privileging some bodies more than others?

Problem, Method, and Prescription

Marshall Turman is intrigued by “body politics,” which is “clearly identifiable in the American racial project.” This racial project “has historically thrust othered bodies into a dilemma of pained subjection.”7 Its white and androcentric gaze defines Black identity externally. It violently acts upon the body in contrast to the freeing gaze within the flesh. In spite of his efforts to resist it, Marshall Turman cautions, remnants of a white supremacist gaze remain in W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings on “double consciousness.” As a result Du Bois’s double-consciousness reproduces a broken self. Du Bois’s work fails to adequately move Black incarnation “beyond the veil.”8 Yet Du Bois’s concept of double-consciousness points to more, leaving later generations to name the more that is “beyond the veil” in which “the truth requires that neither of the former selves be lost.”9

Using Marcia Riggs’s womanist “both/and” mediating ethic along with the womanist hermeneutics of Emilie Townes to exegete Marshall Turman finds that Du Bois “commingles the sometimes true with the almost true.”10 Similarly, she finds a commingling of the “sometimes true and almost true” in Mays’s concept of “making men.” Her womanist mediating task is to “reach, stand and sway” with what Townes calls the “true, true” so that scholars and churches can see, hear and practice what Christians have been confessing for generations. An adequate understanding of incarnation can produce healing in Black women’s bodies. Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation prescribes a balm for broken, wounded bodies. Some may recall the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation embodies the balm Black ancestors of faith sang about. Living an “in the flesh” understanding of “incarnation” is a gift of divine grace that “makes the wounded whole.”11

As a systematic and constructive theologian, I am delighted that Marshall Turman discusses the doctrine of Christ in two chapters. Her focus is the fifth century. The council at Ephesus (AD 431), she notes, confirmed Cyril’s doctrine of the oneness of God and sent Nestorius with his understanding of two separate, human and divine, natures into exile around 433.12 This was not a satisfying solution for the Alexandrians and Antiochenes, which leads to the “Formula of Reunion,” a compromise in which Antioch concedes Mary as the mother of God (rather than receiver of Christ) and Cyril, representing the Alexandrian school, concedes to two distinct natures in Christ.13 The book notes that this formula, however, also has weaknesses. It is not clear how the two natures are “a unity of prosopon”—one person without separation, mixing or confusion.

Marshall Turman employs the open-ended “Definition at Chalcedon” (AD 451), another political and theological compromise, as a criterion of faith to discern what is true. The definition is ancient, not new. Yet, what she does with it as a scholar and choreographer is original. Examining the two natures of Christ as a dance between divine nature and human nature in relation to God’s love for Black bodies is refreshing. As a systematic and constructive theologian, who has written about “dancing with God,” 14 I find the book important not only for theo-ethics and social ethics, but also for systematic theology and constructive theology.

God in the Flesh

Chapter 2’s use of Sarah Coakley’s and Christopher Morse’s analysis of Chalcedon’s referencing of the creeds of Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381) helps readers contemplate “something that occurs in the flesh of Jesus” that “functions as the essential given or isness (Townes) of Jesus’ identity.”15 It is the “true, true.” This corrects kata sarka, which defines bodies according to what happens to them externally: the crucifixion, the white supremacist gaze, the classist gaze, and the androcentric gaze. The body of Jesus Christ is different from oppressive, status quo understandings of body, Marshall Turman argues. 16 The en sarki approach sees the divine reality that is in our flesh. As a relational womanist theologian influenced by process theism, I would like to ask if this “essential given” of Christ’s identity is stable and reliable, yet fluid. To be consistent with the metaphor and reality of dance, this identity is in ongoing movement, permeating creaturely existence as we accept the gift of incarnation in our bodies, consciously and unconsciously.

Critique

Marshall Turman is an excellent scholar/choreographer who gives the audience glimpses of her “grande allegro” all along the way.17 Although a lengthy chapter, the material in chapter 4 on “American liberal theology” and “Social Gospel” ethics sheds light on intellectual history that leads to strengths and weaknesses in Mays’s commitment to “making men” as president at Morehouse College. “American liberal theology” subjugates poor bodies. Social Gospel theo-ethics subjugates Black bodies. Mays’s “making of men” subjugates Black women’s bodies. I prefer the terminology “US liberal theology” to “American liberal theology,” which is not, as its producers suggested, the entire continent of America. I also wonder what engaging “a womanist ethic of incarnation” in conversations with global and postcolonial feminism might produce.

Marshall Turman has identified an important problem: “While embracing Chalcedon as the defining moment in Western Christianity, and therefore giving lip service to Christ as simultaneously fully human and fully divine, Christian communities, read churches, rarely embody and enact the both/and ways of thinking, knowing, and being that Chalcedon’s confession mandates.”18 Churches continue to think, know, and live according to a pre-Chalcedon either/or misunderstanding.19

This is a problem among Black communities of faith and it is a global problem, whether in Baltimore, the Sudan, or Latin America.

In a world in which Black bodies are violently acted upon, Black women’s lives matter globally. In the United States, Marshall Turman’s work is profoundly relevant in a society that permits state-authorized violence by law enforcement officers against Black bodies. In Kenya and the Sudan, when Black young women are kidnapped, raped, and if returned are pregnant with the offspring of their enslavers, Black women’s bodies matter. She offers constructive foretastes of a fuller womanist mediating ethic of incarnation. I look forward to further constructive work on resurrected bodies and Parousia’s presence in Black women’s bodies when dancing and living through the “tension that inevitably accompanies seemingly opposing identities.”20Finally, a “womanist ethic of incarnation” is significant for conversations on violence against women, police brutality, postcolonial feminist thought and understandings of gender and sexuality. Breaking Black bodies is partly an economic problem, nationally and globally. We live in a Western economic empire that is built on Black bodies and other bodies of color. As we daily confront a neoliberal form of capitalism in which Du Bois’s and Mays’s middle class is disappearing, what can we learn from marginalized Black women? The grassroots is moving and making it plain that our activist leaders are no longer charismatic, church-sanctioned, academically privileged and/or politically elite Black public intellectuals. Ella Baker’s vision of “group-centered” leadership is at hand.


  1. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 8; Katie Geneva Cannon, “Womanist Interpretation and Preaching in the Black Church,” in Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, 1995), 14, and in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), 57; Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies / Christian Souls (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005), 146–47, 174–85, 190–201, 212–15.

  2. Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 39–57, 77–84, 88–111, 111–23, 125–27, 169–71.

  3. Ibid., 169–71.

  4. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xi–xii, for Alice Walker’s poetic description of “womanist.” For Walker a womanist loves other women and men, sexually and/or nonsexually. A womanist “is not a separatist” except occasionally “for health.”

  5. One finds the influence of Katie Cannon’s method synthesized with Riggs’s original approach of a mediating ethic.

  6. Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, 7–11.

  7. Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, 2.

  8. Ibid., 80–81, 82–85, 121–32.

  9. Ibid., 81. I am influenced by William James’s discussion of the reality of something more than the unseen world and the divided self in religious experience. Du Bois, as Marshall Turman notes, was somewhat influenced by James at Harvard. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin, 1982.)

  10. Ibid., 9. As Marshall Turman puts it, “Like womanist theo-ethicist Emilie m. Townes, debunking contends that the work of resisting the multiplicity of oppressive norms that materialize at the seam of patriarch and white racism begins with the defiant act of ‘truth-telling.’ This work requires the commingling of the sometimes true and the almost true in order to approximate the true true, rather what really happened.” Townes, “Legends Are Memories Greater than Memories: Black Reparations in the United States as Subtext to Christian Triumphalism and Empire,” in Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 79–110.

  11. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan contributes an exegesis of “A Balm in Gilead,” in Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 138–39. “‘There is a balm . . . [that] revives my soul again,’” Kirk-Dugan writes. “The reality of the balm is the impetus that causes change for the better when confronting systemic and personal evil” (138). See also Jeremiah 46:11, for the primary biblical basis of “A Balm in Gilead.” The spiritual states that it is the Holy Spirit who revives the soul. While Jeremiah 46:11 is not about incarnation in Christ, it does pertain to healing and wholeness of bodies.

  12. Ibid., 30–33.

  13. Ibid., 33–34.

  14. Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing With God: A Womanist Reflection on the Trinity (St. Louis: Chalice, 2006).

  15. Ibid., 43.

  16. Ibid., 36–38, 50–57.

  17. Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, 8–10.

  18. Ibid., 38.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., 171. Marshall Turman envisions “that the body should never be held hostage by the tension that arises from mediating between apparent opposites,” but rather dance into the sway of fitting action that respects the integrity of the body.

  • Eboni Marshall Turman

    Reply

    Response to Karen Baker-Fletcher: Black Women’s Lives Matter

    It is an overwhelming honor to engage Karen Baker-Fletcher’s reflections on Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation. Her distinguished contributions to systematic and constructive theology have been especially significant in my formation as a womanist theological ethicist. Baker-Fletcher’s audacious probing of the interior theological logics of womanist faith as an act of redemptive self-love diffuses her scholarship. In her Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective the womanist who “loves dance” collides with the perichoretic mobility of a trinitarian God who dances-with-us—perhaps it’s a waltz, maybe the Lamban, or even the Harlem shake depending on who you ask—toward enfleshed redemption. In Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and the Spirit, Baker-Fletcher considers black women who “love the moon” in her womanist reflection on God’s creation and the theoethical implications of living as “dust and spirit.” Black women who “love the folk” compel Baker-Fletcher’s coauthored My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk and its contemplation of theological system that is accountable to the “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

    I cannot overstate the centrality of Baker-Fletcher’s womanist theological imagination to my assertion of the significance of attending to the particular intersections of Christian doctrine and black women’s lives, in ways that contend with the “flesh and blood” implications of doctrinal confession, that is, what un/faith(ful) communities believe about God. Along with Baker-Fletcher’s strong affirmation of the originality and importance of my methodology and hermeneutic, I am especially grateful for the three critical questions she has posed about the decidedly womanist Christology that emerges in my work as the progeny of the confluence of the Chalcedonian definition of faith and the faith of black Christian women concerning: (1) the function and viability of the en sarki, the essential given-ness of Christ, for black women; (2) the potential of womanist incarnation ethics for black life matters beyond the Black Church; (3) the global implications of womanist theoethical discourse as it emerges from the inclusive exclusivity of Jesus Christ.

    Black Women & Jesus Christ

    In response to my assertion of the viability of the Pauline en sarki / kata sarka distinction for womanist Christology, Baker-Fletcher, as a relational womanist theologian who is influenced by process theism, raises an important flag that indicates the problematic potential of the stability of the en sarki, that “essential given” in Christ’s ethical identity, for black women. Affirming dance as an apt metaphor and reality of God, she posits that God in Christ is an ongoing movement. The permanence and immovability of the en sarki lacks consistency with a dancing God in Christ who, as indicated, in the final chapter of the book, is revealed or “comes again” in the moving bodies of black women, even amidst their social and ecclesial oppression.

    This is precisely where womanist choreographic methodology is central to my claim of the both/and nature of the identity of Christ that is revealed in the Chalcedonian Definition of Faith and that is given to black women through the paradox of grace. At face value it appears that the stability of en sarki “givenness” contradicts the transforming and redemptive possibilities that the movement and/or continuity of black womanist incarnational logic presupposes. The question rightly emerges contemporarily as it did at Chalcedon in 451 CE: what is the relationship between the fixed nature of the en sarki and the ebb and flow of the kata sarka that, according to the folly of empire, is everywhere and nowhere at once, inasmuch as black women are demonized as phantasms (everywhere a problem) and invisibilized as pariahs (but nowhere visible) in church and society. It is Sarah Coakley’s Chalcedon as horos that leaves an opening for dance composition to respond to the theological problem of the body, toward which Chalcedon was oriented, in ways that are christologically significant to the contemporary social and moral crucifixion of black women.

    Dance composition studies assert “theme & variation” as a foundational framework for any narrative choreographic practice. During my days dancing and studying composition under the direction of acclaimed Japanese dancer and choreographer Kazuko Hirabayashi I distinctly remember “Kaz,” as she is lovingly called, explaining the significance of “theme & variation” for the dance. Choreographically, the “theme” is often the first word of the movement. The “theme” is established in the first moments of a ballet and functions as the center and stabilizing phrase from which the movement expands. Although productive in its variations, the theme is unchanging and offers a strand of continuity that makes sense of the choreography.

    The variations that determine the color, breadth, and depth of the ballet, however, are always shifting in time, rhythm, breath, and dynamic. For as many variations as a ballet might include, without the stable continuity of a theme, the narrative that the dance intends, even if abstract, cannot be conveyed. To the question, then, of the problem of stability (en sarki) and fluidity (kata sarka) in womanist incarnation ethics, I propose the interiority of dance composition that undergirds my womanist choreographic methodology as a faithful response. The divine story of the relational interiority of a dancing God to which Baker-Fletcher attests in her most recent work, and more importantly, this dancing God’s relationship to black women who move in spite of, as in “I’m [moon]walking to Canada and I am bringing you and a bunch of other slaves with me,” cannot be told fully, that is, it never approximates what womanist ethicist Emilie M. Townes would assert as the “true, true,” without a theme, that is the essential given of the en sarki. My choreographic methodology asserts this essential given-ness as “theme” as that which makes sense of and thus preserves redemptive possibilities for all manner of variations that manifest according to kata sarka sociohistorical realities.

    Baker-Fletcher finally raises an important question about the relevance of my book for black life matters beyond the Black Church; one that resonates for me with Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” where he asserts that “it is best for us to first see that we have . . . a common problem . . . that will make you catch hell whether you are a Baptist or a Methodist or a Muslim . . . whether you are educated or illiterate . . . whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley.” I would go as far as to argue that black and womanist theologies do not matter if they are not enlivened by social witness that responds to the flesh and blood realities of black life beyond the black church, most especially in this moment of #blacklivesmatter activism as it is situated in the historical spectrum of the movement for black lives. While my book offers distinct theological, ethical, and ecclesiological contributions to the theological academy broadly speaking, make no mistake about it, in the tradition of Marcia Y. Riggs and Emilie M. Townes among others, this book is first and foremost an intracommunal conversation—a conversation among black people for black people which is precisely why Baker-Fletcher’s clarifying concern is so essential. The primary and intersectional social indices that guide the book’s argument, namely, race, gender, and class, inevitably exist beyond the Black Church as both reality and moral dilemma. In other words, as I argue in chapter 4 of my book where I assert the Black Church as a supportive rather than determinative institution, the lines that we draw between church and society are often mere figments of our imagination, certainly as it relates to how racism, sexual-gender discrimination, and class stratification function in sacred spaces. The fact is that black people are catching hell everywhere—in church, academy, and society. Simply stated, my argument is that black bodies articulate even without words and resist even amidst social brokenness. We see this forthrightly with black women and the Black Church, but this claim and its guiding principles are visible in the embodied resistance of people of African descent throughout the world. Womanist theological reflection always affirms that while particularities are not universal they can have universal implications. It is my hope that the particularity of black women’s subjugation and resistance in Black churches might locate strands of continuity with black life outside of the black church, for instance, with Black Muslim women as I engage elsewhere and the lives of black queer women who have given birth to a re-newed ecclesiology in the Black Lives Matter movement. Insofar as black women artists who do not self-identify as Black churchwomen, Christian, or even religiously affiliated, have served as conversation/dance partners for this project, it seems that the book methodologically intends to stretch beyond the church in its theological imagination and engagement so that the church might be strengthened. This is a black womanist mediating ethic at its best.

Adam Clark

Response

The Logic of the Incarnation

 A New Orientation in Womanist Thought

The problem of difference has been one of the most fundamental problems of Western intellectual culture. Thinking without dualism or hierarchy is an epistemological challenge. Difference, in the West, is equated with deviance, specifically embodied difference. Eboni Marshall Turman’s Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon is situated in a broad conversation about how to frame and value difference—specifically embodied difference. Her primary concern is with black bodies—black female bodies to be precise, that have been mismeasured and marked as nonnormative.

The mismeasurement of black female bodies is nothing new, but what makes this text innovative is Marshall Turman arguing that the “brokenness” of black female bodies has structural similarities to the “brokenness” of the body of Christ. The logic of incarnation that posits Christ as having “two seeming opposing natures” coming together as one, according to Marshall Turman, is useful for addressing the internal fragmentation and divisions within black ecclesial and social spaces.

The aim of this paper is to examine Marshall Turman’s use of the logic of incarnation, derived from the Council of Chalcedon, to introduce a new orientation to womanist thought. I begin by exploring a hermeneutics of suspicion against doctrinal Christianity through discussing Marshall Thurman’s appeal to the Council of Chalcedon’s doctrine of incarnation as a source for womanist ethics. This discussion is followed by a brief examination of what Marshall Turman refers to as “the modern problem of incarnation”—race—in the writings of W. E. B Du Bois’s and Benjamin E. Mays. I conclude by examining this new orientation in womanist thought put forth by Marshall Turman through her outlining of two distinct paradigms—sara karta (according to the flesh) paradigm and en kata (what happens in the flesh) paradigm. Marshall Turman argues that womanist thought has been guided by a sara karta paradigm to which she has deep misgivings, she puts forth a en sarta paradigm as the basis for a new orientation from which a redemptive ethical practice evolves.

Womanism, Doctrinal Christianity and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

At first glance, Marshall Turman’s use of a Christological formulation at Chalcedon as paradigmatic for womanist theological ethics may strike one as odd. The Council of Chalcedon, as with all fourth- and fifth-century ecclesial councils, are Christian articulations under Roman imperial pressures. Synod Fathers threatened to oppose, expel and drive away clerics who held contrasting positions. They developed a long list of condemnations against theological positions, demonstrating no tolerance for difference. Ecclesial officials exercised normalizing power by which the church established rules, sanctioned violence and sacralized power.

Christian doctrines are commonly understood as propositional truths, closely associated with Christianity from above not below. They are expressions of Constantinian Christianity, not prophetic faith, more dependent on the “otherworldliness” of Paul than the concretism of the historical Jesus. A contemporary liberationist who reviewed the Chalcedonian definition of faith might wonder, “Isn’t the Chalcedonian Christ, a Christ from above; the same Christ that the lyncher, the enslaver, the colonialist held as authoritative?”

There is a hermeneutics of suspicion against doctrinal Christianity within womanist and black theology because doctrinal traditions have been complicit in supporting unjust power over black bodies. The development of Christian doctrine did not prevent the commencement of slavery, colonialism, genocide, land annexation, apartheid or Jim Crow. An imperial impulse at the heart of the faith disrupts and erases the histories and cultures of peoples of color and the world’s poor. This impulse created the conditions of possibility for the emergence of black and liberationist theologies as traditions of imperial critique and affirmation from below.

Womanist theological interpreters, following the lead of liberation theologians, make an epistemological break with dominant forms of Christianity. Doctrinal Christianity is regarded as an address to the nonbeliever, womanist and black theologians address the nonperson. Human beings, within this framing, are not only alienated from faith in Christ but alienated from the fullness of their own humanity. Such theological positions don’t typically appeal to patristic doctrine, they place subjugated knowledges (i.e., excluded knowledges and ways of knowing) as primary sources for construction. These sources range from ethnographic approaches, black women’s literary tradition, social movements from below, black women’s historiography, syncretic black religiosity, nineteenth-century black women leaders, black women’s ecclesial traditions, and African American women under slavery.

If black women’s traditions and experiences are the primary sources and criteria for truth, why does Marshall Turman run so radically against the grain by embracing aspects of Christianity’s androcentric doctrinal heritage? Conciliar traditions notwithstanding, the incarnation may be the most important doctrine in liberationist and contextual theologies. The advent of the Word becoming flesh gave theologians permission to talk about God in human terms. Jesus, for Christians, is God’s self-disclosure in human life. God choosing to disclose Godself in a poor and oppressed minority community, to an unwed mother has much to say about God’s identity and character. Liberationists sum up God’s self-disclosure though the well-known affirmation: God’s solidarity with the poor. This becomes the dominant hermeneutical orientation for black and womanist theological reflection. It situates the God of biblical faith within the messiness of an unjust world. While the incarnation is a significant feature of womanist and black theology, it stands mostly as background rather than foreground. The incarnation, in the liberationist tradition, is treated as a springboard to push forward more socially and historically relevant insights about biblical faith rather than a statue hailing us to return to an apostolic age.

Marshall Turman’s privileging of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) declaration that Christ is “truly God and truly human” feels at first like some kind of advocacy to impose fifth-century doctrinal consensuses on black life. But this is not the case, Marshall Turman doesn’t merely repeat fixed dogma about the person of Christ. She uses insights from modern theologians such as Coakley, Morse, and Baillie to offer a more open textured understanding of doctrine. What’s stressed by Marshall Turman is not the content but the logic of incarnation. “God” and “human,” in the context of Greek metaphysics, are conceived as having antithetical attributes. In traditional theism, God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and essentially good, whereas human beings are contingent, limited in power, limited by their bodies. To believe that a single person could have both sets of divine and human attributes seems incomprehensible. The Chalcedonian Definition of Faith used a “both/and” logic to negotiate these presumed opposites, the Alexandrian narrative of “one divine subject” and the “two nature Christological” narrative of Antiochenes. The Chalcedonian definition represented a coming-togetherness beyond dualism and antagonism. What’s appealing about the Chalcedonian Council to Marshall Turman is that despite these different attributes, there is a negotiated unity that points toward redemption. How? The incarnation, according to Marshall Turman, does not only refer exclusively to the birth of Jesus. The incarnation refers to Jesus’ lifespan. “It is only when what happens in Jesus (the incarnation) is held together with what happens to Jesus (the Passion and Resurrection) and what will happen as the future of Jesus (the Parousia), that the Christ event approximates any justice-making, transformative sense at all.” 1.

The logic of incarnation dismisses the binary logic of “either/or” models that privilege certain aspects of the life of Christ (e.g., some constructions start with either the cross or the ministry or the teachings) and stress the coherence of Christ. Each aspect of Jesus’ life is integral to one another, Marshall Turman refers to this as both/and logic (from dualistic to relational logic).

Equally important as Chalcedonian logic, Marshall Turman uses Christopher Morse’s classification of the lifespan of Jesus using two Greek categories—en sarki what happens “in the flesh” and kata sarka what occurs “according to the flesh.” En sarki (in the flesh)—is about God’s activity manifest in the body of Christ. Kata sarka (according to the flesh) is the reality of what happened to Jesus (i.e., suffering and crucifixion). These two categories classify the lifespan of Jesus and become analytical categories for Marshall Turman’s interpretation of black experience.

For Marshall Turman, they become ways of understanding and assessing God’s relationship to black women’s experiences. The en sarki experience expresses God’s activity in the body prior to cultural and historical conditioning, it defines one’s ultimate worth prior to experience, similar to the imago Dei. The kata sarka is how your body has been acted upon in the world, the worth assigned to your humanity through historical and cultural circumstances. What seems to concern Marshall Turman is how do we locate the center of meaning and value of black humanity? Is it in God (en sarki) or the world (kata sarka)? Her argument proceeds as follows: the world has defined black people in denigrating terms but God has defined us as we truly are. We should begin with understanding who we are in God (Christ) and then use that for resisting the world’s definitions.

Marshall Turman’s framework contrasts traditional liberationist frameworks in black theology. Liberationists are deeply committed to the conviction that all social and religious ideals, values, and institutions are products of history. This orientation initiated a new understanding of the relationship between revelation and history. History became the central organizing principle, the realm of meaning and goal-directed purpose of the divine-human encounter. The priority of history used by liberationist theories would be categorized under kata sarka (according to the flesh—events that happened to a subject) in Marshall Turman’s usage. However, for liberationists, history is a conduit of meaning though which divine things become known. God, through Jesus, incarnates into history, preaches good news to the poor, liberation of the captives, the setting at liberty of those who are oppressed (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). In so doing Jesus also reveals God’s critical judgment against the rich and the powerful and the liberation of the poor becomes the critical locus for God’s action in history.

For liberationists such as Cone, one’s personal identity (God’s activity in our body) is defined in light of the historical freedom struggle (kata sarka). This is a “God is with us” paradigm, God is in solidarity with us in the struggle for liberation on behalf of the poor. Liberationist constructions notwithstanding, Marshall Turman argues that the prioritization of kata sarka constructions of black experience are misdirected. They allow the worth of black people to be assigned through external not internal determinants. The primacy of God’s involvement in “what happens to black bodies” for liberationists is not persuasive for Marshall Turman, she believes these black responses are reactionary and too circumscribed by white norms. This common misapprehension drives black churches to be complicit in reinscribing bodily injustice upon marginalized female bodies under the guise of liberation.

Blackness as Truly Human

How does the fifth-century problem of incarnation translate into the modern period? Race, in the modern period, is the most visible marker of bodily difference. The African body was rendered black, deviant, morally and mentally inferior. Blackness signified the nonhuman. How can a people who have been designated as non- or subhuman become truly or authentically human? In a world where whiteness represents godliness and blackness is associated with beastliness, the problem of black enfleshment becomes a theological problem. That is to say, the problem of being fully black and fully human is a theological issue. The negative cultural myths about blackness embedded in Western culture make regarding expressions of blackness with equal dignity to other human expressions a challenge. From Trayvon Martin to Rekia Boyd, from Mike Brown to Shantel Davis, from Eric Garner to Natasha McKenna and from Freddie Gray to Tashina Anderson, the legacy of the color line, theologically conceived, remains a fundamental marker of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century life. Black bodies, Marshall Turman asserts, are the “ground zero for America’s modern crisis of enfleshment.”

Black theological discourse was initiated by radical black clergy using the legacies of Martin and Malcolm to address the problem of being black and Christian. Marshall Turman uses W. E. B Du Bois and Benjamin E. Mays to address the problem of blackness and Christian leadership. She begins by using Du Bois’s classic Souls of Black Folk as the exemplary text to address the modern problem of incarnation. Du Bois’s musing about blackness—how does it feel to be a problem?—gestures to this dilemma. The title of Du Bois’s work begins with religious terminology—Souls. This terminology strategically disrupts white supremacists’ renderings of black folks as creatures without souls (e.g., chattel). A counter narrative emerges that resituates black bodies in the context of the authorizing narrative of the Bible: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh of them that lived within the Veil.” Here, Du Bois rhetorically links black flesh and bone to the Adam who had hitherto been conceived as a white man. (75)

Marshall Turman devotes the majority of her energies to discussing two Du Boisian metaphors—the Veil and double consciousness. Each metaphor has multiple meanings. The Veil is a metaphor for the boundary between white and black society. Black people exist “behind” the Veil. Blacks can see into the white world but could rarely pass through. On the other side of the partition exists a blackness outside of the white gaze. For whites, on the other side, black life is unobservable, therefore unknowable. There’s a sense of its existence but it’s shrouded with mystery and intrigue.

The metaphor of the Veil, according to Marshall Turman, is a Bible allusion from the book of Exodus. A veil separates the holy of holies from ordinary reality. Du Bois uses this to signify that the world of the Negro is sacred space, while the white world is profane. There are vital aspects of Black America, according to Du Bois, that are hidden, and exist as a “holy of holies” outside the gaze of white normativity.

If the Veil is the visual representation of the modern problem of incarnation, double consciousness is its psychic consequence. Just as Chalcedon mediated “two seemingly opposed identities”—God and “man” — Du Bois’s double consciousness mediates “two seemingly opposed identities” “Americanness” and “Negroness.” Double consciousness is an oppressive modality that suggests the black body is either American or Negro not both American and Negro. It is the normative dilemma that emerges from the internalization of racialized oppression. “The black body’s being caught between Americanness and Negroness, functions as a boundary insofar as it prevents black people from self-actualization and results in a psychic break that is precipitated by the very identity that it is, and yet that it simultaneously seeks it claim.” (80)

Using the logic of incarnation, Du Boisian twoness isn’t an “either/or” dualistic proposition, it’s a “both/and” approach. The choice isn’t an either American or Negro phenomenon, Du Bois realized that the potential of America could only be reached through a hyphenated identity. He simply wished to make it possible for a person to be both a Negro and an American. “Social circumstances might urge the American Negro to merge his double self into [one] better and truer self. Truth requires that neither former selves be lost.” (81) This is a third way, it asserts the “both/and” dimension of double consciousness that resists white normativity.

The life and legacy of Benjamin E. Mays serves as a platform to discuss gendered forms of bodily oppression internal to black communities that inhibit access to true humanity. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College for twenty-seven years, devoted his life to educating black men for service to the nation and the world, and of reestablishing Morehouse College as a world-class institution. While his mentee, Martin Luther King Jr., is generally seen as more prominent in shaping Christian identity, Marshal Turman makes a persuasive case for Mays’s enormous influence in shaping the religious leadership of black churches either directly or indirectly through his promotion of the social gospel tradition. The social gospel tradition is important because it deals with the problem of “saving bodies.” It interprets Christian faith by examining the social aims of Jesus, which consists of building the kingdom of God on earth and working on the world’s imperfections. Mays saw his tenure at Morehouse as a “kingdom building opportunity.”

Benjamin E. Mays was the quintessential Race Man in the best sense of the term, a man who used his skills and genius for racial uplift and service to humanity. The college and the church were privileged as areas of impact. Mays believed his students were the intellectual and moral equals to Ivy League white men despite the burden of race. The salvation of the race, according to Mays, was dependent on the moral task of “making men” or race leaders, committed to having a positive impact on the church and society. Political advancement was dependent on qualified black leadership in churches because the church was the only institution blacks controlled.

Du Boisian “twoness” as well as Mays’s “making men” made significant contributions to the struggle for justice, nevertheless their participation in reinscribing oppression, albeit unconsciously, cannot be ignored. While the struggle for a black self-consciousness is a constituent part of the struggle to become fully human, what Marshall Turman argues is that this determinant of identity positions the white gaze as a catalyst for negotiating black personhood. The quest for self-consciousness is triggered by a “look,” the rejection of a white girl. Du Bois’s shock became revelatory and launched a journey toward self-understanding. Du Bois engaged both sides of the Veil, after he experience rejection, he became aware he was racially different from whites. Du Bois explored the meaning of this difference for the rest of his career.

Mays’s conception of racial leadership ignored the enormous contributions of black women to black advancement. The project of “making men” assumes a deeply androcentric conception of black humanity. In Mays’s thought, black leadership and black masculinity were one. Marshall Turman argues that Mays’s teachings allowed certain bodies (read: black male) to assert themselves as “divinely authorized to value and/or devalue other bodies.” Marshall Turman argues that Mays’s project of “making men” has a similar problem to Du Bois’s project, “making men” prioritizes what happens externally to black bodies and subordinates what occurs inwardly. Making men reduces black identity to a reactive event, dependent on white gaze and contrary to the logic of incarnation. Both Du Bois and Mays are useful but insufficient for the cause of liberation, according to Marshal Turman, because they’re too circumscribed by a sarta karta “according the flesh” paradigm.

God With Us

Marshall Turman’s rejection of what she refers to as an “according to the flesh” paradigm runs counter to the established liberationist traditions in black and womanist theological thought. Her use of en sarta and kata sarta categories bears much of the conceptual baggage of Greek metaphysics. These categories float independent of space, time, and culture. For liberationists, metaphysics has no appreciable meaning outside of history. For example, in Exodus, Hebrew resistance to the Egyptians is not adequately captured by the category of kata sarka, God is understood to be actively involved in historical affairs. Likewise, black resistance to racial oppression isn’t understood as a reactionary response. It’s read by theologians as God’s activity in black life to overcome evil. For black liberation theologians such as James Cone, Exodus and the cross are redemptive symbols that reveal God’s involvement encompasses the social, political and material affairs of life.

The womanist tradition emerged as a theological corrective to the female-exclusive ideas of first-generation black male liberation theologians. Their conception of black history and cultural experience were deeply androcentric. Womanists insisted that the heroines and foremothers of black history be regarded as credible theological sources. What both black and womanist theology contribute to the broader theological tradition is the positioning of black history and culture as reliable sources of theological reflection. These sources serve to mediate our understanding and interpretation of Christian narratives. Most of these constructions of black experience would fall under the “according to the flesh” paradigm, nevertheless they became the basis for a radical reinterpretation of Christian faith.

God In Us

Marshall Turman makes an epistemological break from received traditions of black and womanist theologies. God is not only with us in terms of God’s siding with the oppressed but more importantly she notes: “God is in us, God is in the flesh of the oppressed.” Marshall Turman has fundamental misgivings about womanist and black theological discourse. Womanists privileged the history of oppression (slavery, Jim Crow, poverty, colorism) over the inherent worth of black womanhood. Or in her words, they prioritize “bodies [that have] been acted upon” becoming the “primary determinants of black women’s identity.” For example, according to Marshall Turman, Delores Williams’s critique of atonement and advancement of the ministerial vision of Jesus as salvific is only apparent after her sustained engagement of the historical suffering of black women. Moreover, Kelly Brown Douglas uses the socio-historical sins of whiteness as a starting point to determine the contours of her theology of black sexuality. The problem with this privileging of the history of oppression is that it makes black theological identity reactionary and contingent. It is circumscribed by the white supremacist discourse it claims it wants to abolish. In this sense, Marshal Turman echoes Victor Anderson’s critique that the construction of blackness in black and womanist theology is the “blackness that whiteness created.” Marshall Turman wants to have black Christian identity centered in Christ (an in and of itself a priori, in her language) and not in socio-historical circumstances.

Most scholars assess the womanist project through the works of first-generation womanists such as Williams, Cannon, Grant; however, Marshall Turman grounds her assessment in Alice Walker’s initial definition of womanism. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker offers a four-part definition of womanism. She argues that Walker’s womanism is rooted in self-love (she selects the third part as opposed to the first part of the definition) as a radical epistemological orientation. Self-love is the basis of a radical womanist subjectivity. It is a first step that occurs before the operations of power act to discipline and regulate black female bodies. Marshall Turman refers to self-love as the first precept of womanist ethics. Therefore, the womanist project does not begin by examining the historical resistance of black women against racialized patriarchy, it is centered in “what happens in black women apart from the injustice that restricts their personhood.” This, according to Marshal Turman, should be its new center of gravity and its interpretive priority. It follows the logic of incarnation. The incarnation, according to Marshall Turman, does not merely position “God as Emmanu-el, that is, God with us, but more importantly suggests that God is ‘in us’ (en sarki dei)” (48) and shapes the circumstances already given by God.

This new orientation in womanist thought moves its discourse from a “God with us” (God sides with the oppressed) to a “God in us” paradigm. A “God in us” paradigm presumes an already “there-ness” of God and compels the church to recognize injustice against anybody as injustice against God—especially those bodies that are mismeasured and marginalized. As the logic of incarnation negotiates two seemingly opposed positions, God and human, a womanist ethic negotiates the activity of “God in us” and the activity of “God with us.” The “God in us” (en sarka) orientation is always hermeneutically prior to and in accordance with the “God with us” (what happens to our flesh in the world—kata sarka in this discourse.) This repositioning impels a future of redemptive possibilities.

Toward a New Orientation

Womanist and black theologians are typically the troublemakers of Christological discourse. The proclamation that Christ is black and Christ is a black woman are the common currency of Christological discourse in the black theological academy. Since doctrinal discourse did nothing to prevent historical atrocities such as slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and Jim Crow, black and womanist theological interpreters aimed to destabilize doctrinal discourse not honor it. It is not seen as a neutral discourse offering objective knowledge about faith but deeply interested discourse that serves imperial interests.

I don’t read Marshall Turman’s advocacy for the Council of Chalcedon as an effort to supplant the anti-imperial orientation of womanist and black theology, rather I interpret her as challenging womanist and black theologians to be more bilingual—to deepen their conversation with both the received theological tradition and black and womanist theological resources. Bilingualism, from a womanist perspective, is an emancipatory intellectual practice that produces religious knowledge to support human freedom and well-being.

For black churches to effectively address racial-sexual-gender oppression, they must engage in the critical work of repositioning the “according to the flesh” paradigm with the “in the flesh” paradigm. Just as Christ’s personhood and soteriological significance is rooted in God’s promise in the flesh (en sarka phenomenon), the valuing of black womanhood needs to be grounded on God’s promise “in the flesh,” an a priori phenomenon. The history of oppression and black resistance should not become the primary determinant of black Christian identity. The self-understanding of black faith communities should be centered on God dwelling in black bodies. What occurs is the revaluing of embodied difference (e.g., black female bodies). This does not mean a jettisoning of the socio-historical, it means the socio-historical must be negotiated with God’s activity in the flesh.

Taking Marshall Turman seriously means introducing a new orientation to womanist thought. Following the logic of incarnation, what happens “in black women” apart from injustice becomes a starting point for womanist engagement. Marshall Turman flips the script of traditional approaches that begin with the socio-historical conditioning of black women’s experience and emphasizes valuing the divine presence dwelling in black women as a new starting point. This starting point rejects the authority of external hierarchies that diminish black womanhood and embraces a radical subjectivity of self-love. Black women are empowered to reconceive of themselves as “homoousious with Christ.” Or in Marshall Turman’s words, “black women as the incarnate image of God in the world—the ‘same substance’ of God as to his humanity.” (161) With this new self-image, black women become primary resources for resisting injustice in the black church.

This new positionality grounds black women’s identity in Christ and Christ’s identity in black women. The problem of difference and fragmentation, perennial problems in Western culture, become situated within a broader womanist vision of God’s justice. This vision of justice consists of three ethical components: renunciation (relationally), inclusivity (community), and responsibility (ethic of responsibility). The racial-gender hierarchies that demonize certain bodies and divinize others are rethought and reframed. “Brokenness” in this new womanist orientation is an antecedent to wholeness (Christological unity). While some liberationists, especially feminists, argue that doctrinal traditions deny difference and support empire, Marshall Turman finds a redemptive logic operative in the Council of Chalcedon. A womanist ethic that follows Chacedonian logic, she argues, addresses the brokenness of bodily injustice as it manifests in church and society. The Council of Chalcedon was able to take the narratives of Alexandria and Antioch that had been constructed about who Jesus is prior the council, and generate a different way of telling the Jesus story using a “ both/and” logic. Likewise, a womanist orientation that parallels Chalcedon empowers women to tell their story in a different way. Identity is not restricted by previous stories that have been told about oneself. The “othered” bodies of Jesus and black women are rooted in an activity of God that is beyond human circumstances. This means disavowing “either/or hierarchical frameworks” that devalue the marginalized and developing a new body politic.

I situate Marshal Turman’s work in the womanist tradition of “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” and using “some of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” The Council of Chalcedon is regarded by liberationists as a council that was intolerant of difference and expressive of imperial hierarchy, nevertheless Marshall Turman demonstrates how its logic can be used to escape the circularity of human oppression by initiating a new orientation in womanist theo-ethics that overcomes fragmentation and division and points toward redemptive possibilities.


  1. Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon, 42.

  • Eboni Marshall Turman

    Reply

    Response to Adam Clark

    The Logic of Incarnation: A New Orientation in Womanist Thought

    In the black church tradition, there is a song that begins with the words, “When I look back over my life and think things over. . . .” Indeed, when I look back over my life and recall my early days of masters level theological inquiry at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, I am reminded that Professor Clark (who was a doctoral student at Union at the time) has proven to be a mentor and friend across the years. I am grateful for his liberationist contributions to the field and his critical consideration of my book.

    I am especially provoked by Clark’s initial reflection on my engagement with Chalcedon as a primary source for womanist theology and ethics in relationship to the more traditional liberationist “epistemological break with dominant forms of Christianity”; one that is propelled by “hermeneutics of suspicion against doctrinal” faith claims. At first glance, Clark appears to situate my womanist work with doctrine in opposition to the liberationist theological canon, suggesting that my wrestling with conciliar tradition feels like an androcentric imposition of “fifth-century doctrinal consensuses on black life.” He quickly follows this initial framing, however, with consideration of the import and significance of the doctrine of the incarnation as the most important doctrine in liberationist and contextual theologies. In doing so, Clark points to the core of my womanist liberationist methodological intent; that is, engaging the historicity of God’s self-disclosure in Christ as it is confessed Sunday after Sunday by black Christians in order to better understand the theological underpinnings of black women’s oppression in the black church, or as Clark so brilliantly suggests, to “push forward more socially and historically relevant insights about . . . faith rather than a statue hailing us to return to an apostolic age.” My ethnographic work in black churches has revealed a consistent christological confession—for the black church, Jesus is “Mary’s baby and God’s only begotten Son.” Although not reflexively ascribed to conciliar tradition, this claim that guides the theological reflection and ethical practice of many Black churches is in fact a doctrinal statement in colloquial terms. This is precisely the womanist liberationist corrective that I hope my project offers to dogmatic inquiry; namely, that doctrine is a living phenomenon in history, it is precisely, the “now” dance with God that womanist systematic theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher alludes to in her work. Moreover, it is not the possession of the arbiters of status quo “tradition,” but it belongs to all of us, even black women. In this project and in my work, more broadly, it is my intention to interrogate doctrinal significance, test the spirit, and “take it back” in ways that reveal its significance for black life and others who have been “tradition-ally” silenced and invisibilized in church and society. In this way, there is no doubt about the liberationist scope and aim of my work.

    I cannot agree more with Clark’s assertion of the relational logic that I stress with help from the Pauline en sarki kata sarka paradigm and that I further affirm with my assertion of the feasibility of a womanist mediating ethic. My one minor reservation here, however, has to do with Clark’s pointing toward “bilingualism” as the new orientation that potentially functions as an emancipatory praxis. I can see how bilingualism functions as an apt metaphor for the project as it relates to the primary social indicators that I engage in the book, namely, race and gender. I would have hoped that my discussion of the kata sarka as indicative of the “broken body” could be read as any number of other sites of social fragmentation, including class, sexuality, generationality, as well as postcolonial and decolonial realities. In this way, the project is not so much pushing toward bilingualism as a new theological and ethical orientation, but a multilingualism that is very much aligned with the Pentecostal work of God in Christ. This “many different color flowers in the flower garden” evaluation is inherently womanist and I am grateful for Clark’s implicitly pointing toward the next steps of my theological inquiry as it relates to womanist pneumatology in his pointing toward the “new orientation” that emerges in the project.

    Clark makes two claims that I decidedly take exception to—the first has to do with what he identifies as my “rejection” of the kata sarka, although Clark later reverses course on this claim by asserting that I am not in fact “jettisoning . . . the social-historical [for] God’s activity in the flesh.” The significance of the logic of incarnation has everything to do with holding black women’s flesh and blood realities (kata sarka) in tension with God’s en sarki reality. It serves to deepen the foundational liberationist claim that God acts in history by proposing black women’s bodies as primary evidence of God’s presence and action in the world. Black women are not God in Christ, but in their knowing, being, and doing, black women embody the ethical capacity that offers evidence of who Jesus Christ is for us today. Clark further contends that unlike most scholars who “assess the womanist project through the works of first-generation womanists such as Williams, Cannon, and Grant,” I instead ground my assessment in “Alice Walker’s initial definition of womanism.” While I am interested in uncovering the significance of radical subjectivity for the womanist theological project in such a way that black women’s bodies are methodologically centralized, to claim that my project entirely deviates from first-generation womanist contributions is regrettably mistaken. In fact, my questioning of who Jesus is for black women and the Black Church directly emerges from the questions that Jacquelyn Grant explores in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, that Delores S. Williams grapples with in the radical womanist Christology found in her Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Kelly Brown Douglas’s The Black Christ, and even Joanne Terrell’s Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience. Christology is a foundational project within womanist theological inquiry, one that has proximally and for the most part been abandoned in succeeding generations of womanist theological and ethical thought, even as black women continue to face many of the same challenges in church, academy, and society as the first generation womanist matriarchs. Forasmuch as I have attempted to push the field forward in Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation by engaging [the intersections of] non-traditional sources like conciliar tradition, Alice Walker, Du Bois, and the black social gospel, I hope my work suggests without equivocation that Jesus matters now for black women, the black church, womanist theology, and my proposal of the feasibility of incarnation ethics as much as Jesus mattered then, at the birthing of systematized womanist theological imagination.

Jennifer Harvey

Response

Blackness and Bodily Freedom

At the end of the day, can “blackness” be honored, embraced, celebrated—can its meaning for people of African descent be articulated—without prior reference to and, thus, a kind of a priori containment by, whiteness and white supremacy?

I have heard variations of this question posed as a critique or with suspicion more times than I can count. It emerges in a myriad of contexts where the significance and meaning of race in the theological project or the religious studies landscape is being contemplated. The responses the question generates vary and while I admit to having been less troubled by the presumptions that give rise to the question than are some scholars, I have also encountered numerous replies that have seemed more than satisfying.

Yet, deploying the cut-to-the-quick analysis characteristic of so much of her work, Eboni Marshall Turman has done something new and unexpected with (and to) this question. In the process, she has caused me to rethink my level of concern about whether whiteness frames blackness, even in many liberation-committed scholarly formulations.

It may very well be, in fact, that Marshall Turman has actually laid this particular question to rest with her incisive analysis of and response to it. Such a possibility does not emerge because Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation offers a more persuasive argument still for why we should be confident that “‘no,’ the theorizing of blackness in theology does not remain ensconced in the gaze of white supremacy.” On the contrary, Marshall Turman charges quite the opposite. In the process of laying out the charge, she opens new theological vistas for how we might think about this question and points to a shift required in order for us to adequately engage notions of race and the body in theology.

Taking up the theological problem of the body, or the question of incarnation, Marshall Turman demonstrates with precision how the prioritization of sociohistorical categories combined with moves to rest one’s theological starting point on the ground of empiricism allows “that which occurs ‘according to the flesh’ of a specific individual and/or community, . . . to determine the fullness or no-thingness of who and how God is” (109). In the context of a sociohistorical reality drenched in white supremacy’s ideology, logic and material practices, such an approach is devastating. It cannot hope to avoid prioritizing, accepting, and even reifying notions of blackness that are already, always, then, defined and constrained by white supremacist presuppositions. Meanwhile, this was, asserts Marshall Turman, the theological method assumed and promulgated in Social Gospel thinking and the same method has been incorporated into liberationist theologies.

Marshall Turman’s precision here is wielded in the interest of articulating her most salient question and argument. She hones in on the “thorny” problem of body in Christian thought because she wants to know why and how it is that the African American church has demonstrated itself to be, in many ways, content to live with injustice against black women. Why or how is it that the black church continually practices intracommunal injustice? “More importantly,” Marshall Turman asks, “what are we going to do about it?”

Before coming back to Marshall Turman’s contribution on this front, allow me to identify the moves she makes to get there. For, enacting one of the hallmarks of womanist methodology—in which attention to the particular is relentlessly pursued in order to shed insight on truths that might be more universally valid—Marshall Turman’s moves to get to a salient, urgent focus on the lives of black women are themselves significant and make discrete contributions even beyond her specific primary focus.

A powerful paradigm recurs in Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation. Marshall Turman repeatedly distinguishes “according to the flesh” (kata sarki) and “in the flesh” (en sarki) ways of thinking about the body. She goes back to the Council of Chalcedon to argue for a more sound theological understanding of the body in than that which manifests today even in liberal and liberationist theologies. At Chalcedon she not only finds evidence that the problem of the body has long vexed Christian thought. More importantly, she reads Chalcedon to reclaim orthodox ground on which to assert the irrefutable reality of the “in the flesh” activity and presence of God, and to insist that theology inclined toward justice must reclaim and re-root itself on that ground.

The body does not become a place where we may recognize the presence of the divine—the reality of “God with us”—vis-à-vis what transpires on the sociohistorical plane. Rather, it’s only in a full embrace of en sarkie dei—“God is in us”—that we know (or, more to her point, we remember) that the body is an actual site of divine presence in and of itself. It is always and already that place.

It is the rending of the body in its articulation of the doctrine of the incarnation—a rending that makes the divine radically distinct and distant from the human—that Chalcedon rejected. In Marshall Turman’s terms Chalcedon arrived at an insistence that “the isness of Jesus Christ is determined by nothing other than the perfect mediation of divine and human natures in one Person” (36). This, she says, is a “both/and way of thinking, knowing and being” (37) in regard to the body.

But such thinking is endlessly forgotten in Christian thought and practice despite the formal recognition given to notions of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. Instead, the tendency is to displace such both/and thinking with the either/or; this either/or is inevitably hierarchical and leaves the human ensconced in “according to the flesh” realities. More nefariously, when sociohistorical realities become the primary way in which we see the body and recognize bodies, as a result of the either/or, it is inevitable that some bodies will be left and regarded as less than human, innately fractured, problems—at best—that need to be solved. For that vision can only reproduce the injustice and violence that exists in the sociohistorical.

It is here where Marshall Turman’s argument crystallizes most powerfully, and the real possibility that liberationist religion has succumbed to a “thorny dialect wherein God acts in history through a specific group of people who alone are the arbiters of the godly gaze” (109) becomes all but irrefutable. With each analytical piece of the puzzle Marshall Turman laid down, I found myself as reader inexorably drawn closer to an encounter with a chilling recognition. That, indeed, the intracommunal subjugation of black women in the black church is not an aberration nor easily dislodged problematic; it’s not a matter of liberationist thought and praxis somehow not having reached far enough . . . yet. Instead, to the extent the view of body assumed through distorted (and deeply racialized) articulations of embodiment made normative in the Social Gospel have been incorporated into liberationist religion, the intracommunal subjugation of black women within the black church became almost inevitable.

Marshall Turman’s argument need not only bear on the black church community, of course. The either/or pattern of thought that forgets the both/and presumes bodies have to be made into something else in order to fully participate in divine realities. And it will always be the case, when the sociohistorical is thus prioritized, that some bodies will need more “making” and “re-making” than other bodies and along lines those other bodies (the arbiters dictate).

But it is the black church, of course, and the lives of black woman with which Marshall Turman is concerned. Here she traces the genealogy of this “thorny” problem from the white social gospelers through the history of the thought and work of Benjamin Elijah Mays, who is credited with having developed a generation of black male church leaders. Marshall Turman repeatedly describes these leaders as the “moral managers” of the black community, products of Mays’s commitment to “making men” through his work at Morehouse College.

The very notion of “making men” is infused with a prioritization of the sociohistorical. It presumes, if unwittingly, that there is something a priori that thus needs to be fixed; to be made. Such presumption stands in radical contrast to “the logic of incarnation [which] asserts divine activity as the a priori of the flesh, [a logic in which] godliness is always both yours and mine despite embodied difference” (167). This logic would produce a different kind of justice entirely.

The theological genealogy that begins with the Social Gospel is the reason the black church can have simultaneously been successful in distinguishing “itself as a justice-seeking institution that rebels against racial injustice perpetrated on black bodies” and yet have remained so complicit in sanctioning injustice and even violence against black women. Frankly, writes Marshall Turman, the black church remains “circumscribed by a narrative of white supremacy” (140).

It’s problematic enough that such circumscription thus validates a project that assumes black men need to somehow be made. But the impact on black women is more devastating. Black women in this logic are not only incapable of being made into men (deemed “devoid of maleness”), but legitimation is theologically granted to black men as the arbiters of the godly gaze.

Marshall Turman’s deconstruction and genealogical tracing here leads to her insistence that a return to theological ground that understands incarnation in Chalcedonian terms is imperative. Only in such a turn might it become possible to see, recognize and honor the black woman as herself manifesting an “in-itself a priori” (157)Only then does the necessary—that is, the refusal to make fragmentation and constraint by white supremacist, heteropatriarchal violence the starting point for black women’s lives and the move to see, recognize and honor “black woman apart from the injustice that restricts their personhood” (158)—become possible.

Of course, clarity about the isness of black women is not a unique claim. Marshall Turman appropriately locates this commitment as one starting point of womanist theology generally. She then moves from affirmation of the methodological and ethical commitments of womanism, to engage in a powerful dialogue with womanist thought so as to begin (to only just begin) her constructive work. She starts to imagine what it might look like to deploy a method that truly encounters the isness of black women’s lives—a method that requires a doctrine of incarnation that claims the realities of the experience of the divine in the body—in the paradoxical dance between what happens in the flesh and what happens according to the flesh.

Some of the most powerful and evocative moments in this book are found in such constructive work. One such moment is when Marshall Turman draws on the mediating ethic of Maricia Riggs to insist that “the fullness of Christ’s identity is . . . birthed from the constant negotiation of the inconceivable divine activity in the flesh with the narrative strands, images, and activity that occur in history according to the flesh” (166). This is what a womanist doctrine of incarnation looks like.

Another such moment is when Marshall Turman identifies the hegemonic imagination laid bare by Emilie M. Townes to name some of what it takes to render visible the “true truths” about black women’s lives; namely, a recognition of the possibility that communal memory “does not always correspond with what really happened” (152). Understanding the hegemonic imagination enables us to see and to admit the ease with which “white racist-sexist-patriarchal norms” are replicated “under the guise of liberation” (131). This replication if what ultimately, of course, lays at the root of Marshall Turman’s challenge to the black church.

Provocatively enough, Marshall Turman claims that even womanist thought has not completely escaped the trap of kata sarki, however. Womanism too, she says, tends to prioritize the sociohistorical despite its stated commitment to the a priori isness of black women’s lives. I wanted to hear more about this, if only to identify the ways I too have surely succumbed to the sociohistorical and “according to the flesh” thinking in ways I might actually rather reject.

I wanted to hear more as well about the “black body electric.” In Marshall Turman’s final chapter, after having necessarily devoted so much attention to the genealogy, she could finally begin to lean into the vistas that her deconstruction opens up. Drawing on her identity as dancer, Marshall Turman begins a rich query into what it might mean and/or generate if the dance between “in the flesh” and “according to the flesh” was actually choreographed in the lives of women who dance. And then, what truths might be seen and known if the insights of such embodied liturgy and theology might be brought to bear on the presence of the bodies of black women literally as they be and move in the black church in all their isness.

In her final chapter, Marshall Turman begins the work I am most excited to read. Having convinced me with her incisive and exhaustive scholarly analysis, she lays down a gauntlet for the black church that I believe might be appropriately taken up in any number of theologically committed projects and communities. She writes, “The church’s escape from its complicity in reproducing injustice is dependent on its displacing the primacy of the sociohistorical, and its appealing to its God-image in order to better understand how the image of God manifests in the world” (163).

Having convinced me of the need for a radical shift I eagerly await Marshall Turman’s ongoing work to bring into further view the constructive possibilities that can and will come, possibilities that emerge if we equip ourselves to see such manifestations in their full in-itself a priori.

  • Eboni Marshall Turman

    Reply

    Response to Jennifer Harvey: A Challenge for the Black Church

    As I came to the conclusion of Jennifer Harvey’s review I audibly exhaled and realized that I had been holding my breath the entire time while reading her response to my work. This, of course, could have been for a number of reasons, especially since I count Dr. Harvey as a close friend and colleague in the guild. Reflecting, however, on the peculiarity of my very visceral reaction to her written assessment I recognize my embodied posture as evidence of Harvey’s sharp ethical lens that, without question, got me—that is, Harvey has incisively grasped not only the scope of my project, but its primary aim. As Harvey astutely insists, above all else Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation is a distinctly womanist and Christian “challenge to the Black church” emerging from the lived realities of black church women who disproportionately constitute the membership and lay ministry of Black churches. Harvey’s examination rightly uncovers my deep love for the Black Church of my spiritual and intellectual birth even amidst its moral impoverishment, and situates the text as an indictment against a spectrum of twentieth-century theological liberalisms in the United States, with particular theological and ethical implications for the Black Church in America. Harvey further notes my “insistence that a return to theological ground that understands incarnation . . . is imperative” for the Black Church whose Christian identity is rooted in the Jesus event. Jesus matters for Black church women because it is in Jesus that Black women see a reflection of themselves and thus of the redemptive possibilities of their too often socially impoverished lives; a reality that lends itself to my claim of Jesus’ similitude with black women as to his ethical identity.

    In a recent engagement with a retired Black pastor, one who I would identify as a moral manager of the Black Church at least in his former capacity as the senior pastor of a prominent black church in the Midwest for well over a quarter of a century, I was shocked (although admittedly I should not have been) by his public claim that “Jesus is not Lord because of his birth; but, Jesus is Lord because of his death on a cross.” While almost true, this theological claim peremptorily lays the groundwork for the glorification of suffering and the veneration of patterns of coerced and voluntary surrogacy that, according to womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, typifies so many of the lives of Black Christian women. It further dismisses the immense significance of the incarnation, the very enfleshment of God in Christ, that necessarily precedes and simultaneously makes sense of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, for God cannot die unless God first lives. It is precisely the normative claim of the primacy of the cross that I seek to challenge—not toward a dismissal of Jesus’ suffering but toward the inclusion of the significance of Jesus being born and dwelling in history with humanity full of grace and truth. It is the adventus, the coming of the living God in flesh, that makes sense of the lifespan of Jesus. Jesus’ life reveals something to us about the nature of God that must always be held in tension with the sufferings of the cross; that is, that by grace, God is in the flesh, en sarki dei. As it relates to Jesus’ ethical identity, this theological claim also means something most critical for despised and seemingly broken bodies—in this instance, black women’s bodies. God in the flesh of bodies broken because of their defiance of the embodied normativity of the arbiters of the status quo, which is a Chalcedonian reality, means that sociohistorical brokenness is not devoid of hope precisely because, contrary to appearances, God is there, broken, and thus where brokenness is. Jesus is the mediating ethic that holds the incarnation, the fleshy beginning, in tension with the end for the glory forevermore.

    I am enthused by Harvey’s serious engagement with my work and her interest in the next steps of my evolving project that is primarily concerned with black women and the reality of God in Christ. Harvey notes that she is particularly intrigued by my critical treatment of womanist theological inquiry that privileges the “sociohistorical despite its stated commitment to the a priori isness of black women’s lives.” Rightly, womanist theology and ethics has focused careful attention on the haunting social realities of black womanhood as a subordinate class, subjugated at the intersections of racial, gender, economic, and sexual oppressions and thus subject to concomitant discipline, pathologies, and disproportionate negative representations. This matters and so my critique of this overwhelming focus is certainly not a dismissal but an invitation to attend to what else is happening in black women’s broken social spaces.

    A trend that has gained traction among black feminist/womanist intellectuals like Brittney Cooper, artist intellectuals like Takiyah Nur Amin, millennial black church leaders like Candice Yonina Simpson and Whitney Bond, and even the one and only Beyoncé in non-theistic and transtheistic public spaces alike toward the end of black women’s “what else” is identifiable in contemporary hashtag movements and chatter like: #blackjoy, #blackgirlmagic, #blackgirlbrilliance, #LEMONADE, which affirm that there is always a “both/and” mediating reality functioning in the lives of black women. This is where black dance and, more specifically, black women’s dance—as a mechanism of black women’s joy, magic, brilliance, and capacity to take lemons and make lemonade, that is in more womanist colloquial form, black women’s ability to make a way out of no way—becomes extremely important for my work. I intend to mine dance theologically and ethically as black woman evidence of an unrelenting a priori isness in order to remind black women and those who love them of the incarnational reality of Jesus—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. This is the “black body electric” that defies Whitman’s prose and instead is etched in the embodied memory of performing arts and the distinction of Debbie Allen’s Fame. The black woman’s body reimagined which I gesture toward at the conclusion of this first project is electric [sliding], shocking and empowering the church for the work ahead.

Monique Moultrie

Response

Bodies (In the Flesh)

As a womanist sexual ethicist, bodies matter to me. Bodies are one of the many ways we experience our sexuality, in and through our sensuous and sexual responses to others and ourselves. As a womanist, black female bodies matter to me as I join Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman in her interest in what is going on in black female bodies and not just to black female bodies.

When sexuality is restricted it is often done through the corporeal. Black female bodies are bound, shamed, and subjugated. Yet, these bodies are also pleasured, embraced, and highlighted. (Black body traits are the going rage, just as long as they are not on/in actual black bodies. Just look at the recent Vogue article highlighting 2014 as the era of the booty in which white women’s derrieres were mostly portrayed.1 Black bodies represent a “two-ness” that Marshall Turman reminds us is much deeper than Du Bois’s initial writings.

Reading Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon also reiterates that there has and still is a hierarchy of valuing bodies. Some bodies matter more than others or at least that is what our historical and religious narratives confirm. She boldly states that her work seeks to problematize Christianity’s privileging certain kinds of bodies over others by offering instead a womanist corrective that contends that all bodies count (52). Participating in a reality where all bodies count means that we must interrogate those spaces where we are led to believe that bodies are problematic or even broken.

One of the true gems of her work is her attention to the isness of human bodies especially as it relates to racialized and gendered experiences of embodiment. Her theorizing seeks to respond to her own rhetorical questioning of what “does it mean for black women to acknowledge their isness as more than a reactionary residuum of crisis, rather more than ‘what happened’ to them” (7). It is this question I wish to probe further in my discussion of her work.

Marshall Turman’s astute observation challenges our conversations on incarnation and embodiment to be more than merely reactionary. This is a significant move with major theological implications. Starting with black women’s isness as their primary subjectivity counters the historical narrative of oppression that seldom acknowledges black female resistance. She remarks that societal images and narratives “portray the ‘who’ of black women as rarely informed by the ‘in the flesh’ experience of black women themselves, but rather by ‘what happened to them’ under the sinister gaze of whiteness and patriarchy” (147). Her claim resonates deeply with my work as I have found that it is difficult to discuss the pleasure and joys of black female sexuality without always having to address the terrors of black sexual subjugation. What Marshall Turman proffers is not an either-or model where one chooses to discuss what happened to the body versus what or who is in the body. I believe her work presents an example of a healthy integration of the divine presence in the body which signals attention to additional reasons why we should care what happens to the body.

Her description of en sarka or “in the flesh” experience of black women bestows to black women a divine heritage reminding them that God is not solely with us but God is in us. Her womanist ethic of incarnation envisions black women as the “incarnate image of God in the world—the ‘same substance’ of God” (161) a liberatory concept for women who are often solely discussed as they are subjugated in their societal and ecclesial worlds. Living into the promise of the truth of en sarka reality is often a difficult to acknowledge, as our depictions of Christ and deity are typically male. Even when they are not white they remain male (with a few notable exceptions like Marcella Althaus-Reed, author of Indecent Theology) so it is not shocking that women could posit that divine authority has a preferential option for males. This hierarchy of valuing male bodies as being more divine or more appropriately divine is also represented in the male ecclesial leadership models in many black churches. Presenting a womanist ethic of incarnation in this setting is needed but it will not necessarily be welcome. Yet, this is one arena I had hoped for more concrete examples from Dr. Marshall Turman. In her role as clergyperson and one who held significant authority at Abyssinian Baptist Church I presume she encountered parishioners unwilling to accept her authority or even her being created in divine image with divine essence in her. If one of the first steps for liberation is conscientization, how is this done for those who make up the majority of congregations and remain unwilling to understand or appreciate the God in themselves? Marshall Turman presents a vision for the future but few illustrations from the present of how one moves a congregation to this vision.

While her chapter on the “making of men” rightly connects the process of training Morehouse men to the submission of black women in their churches, it would have been useful to see her work develop the counter perspective more. For instance, if in Dr. Michael Franklin’s inaugural address he quotes Genesis 1: 26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, . . . and let them rule over all the earth,” can this message be affirming for black women? Can black women be told that they are made in God’s image and are to rule the earth? Marshall Turman argues that the type of reading could suggest that God is more present with some rather than others such that certain bodies are endowed with divine authority to act upon other bodies, which simply recreates another hierarchal model. I concur that this type of reading does not get the liberatory path very far, and yet I still wonder if there are some useful applications of this message for black churchwomen. For example, the black women’s club movement and black sororities were all potentially involved in a particular method of “making women” and most of these organizations claimed to be doing so within the realm of Christianity. Yes, they duplicated classism and pigmentocracy, but they also educated and served the masses. They are examples of our complicated isness where their embodiment reflects both the reaction to white oppression and a divine resistance imbued in their DNA. If we take seriously that we are like Jesus, that we are human and divine, we can also investigate if something redemptive can come from dominion ideology.

Like Marshall Turman I recognize that to address gender inequalities in black churches demands discussions of actual bodies. These bodies are not just “made,” they are not just social constructs. They are problematic and precious bodies that matter. Our “in the flesh” experiences as black women can and should be the starting point for ethical reflection because to quote lyrics from Michael Jackson we live in a world where “they don’t really care about us.” Marshall Turman reminds us that we cannot afford to privilege what is supposed to happen over what is actually happening because justice demands more.

In a framework that emphasizes a concrete embodiment, we are called to see with a “second sight.” We are to gaze outward beyond those that erase our bodies and their significance. We are called to be not just subtly present as the dancer image on the book cover connotes. Our bodies in all our hues represent the divine. They matter not just when we put them in the paths of bodily harm as seen from the frontlines of Selma to our contemporary movements in Ferguson, Missouri. My work also posits that our bodies matter in their everyday isness. Our bodies reverberate with poet Dr. Maya Angelou’s words that our sexiness should not upset you or come as a surprise; neither should the fact “that I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs?”2 Our sexual selves are a part of our black churchwoman identities especially since a black woman’s relationship with her body is mediated through her spiritual consciousness. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas (whose newer works on black embodiment are curiously missing from Marshall Turman’s text) joins this perspective as she argues that it is in the incarnation that the God of Jesus is revealed to be a sensuous God.3 Brown Douglas’s work asserts that our body is meant to be sensuous, not ashamed of itself, and since Christ took a bodily form he also took on our bodily sensuality. This connection of body and sensuality is important for my work and I contend that it is also relevant for the work Marshall Turman is presenting to black churches. I take seriously Kelly Brown Douglas’s reminder that black churches are body centered, and this claim is reiterated by Turman questioning, “what can be gleaned from the bodies of black women, not merely the word of black male pastors and preachers” (7). When we look to bodies in their fullness we rend the Veil that separates our bodies from our souls. When black churchwomen remember their bodies are divine we glimpse true liberation. It is in those moments when Michael Jackson’s refrain that “I look to heaven to fulfill its prophecy—Set me free”4 becomes tangible, and Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman’s work starts this hard task.


  1. Patricia Garcia, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty,” Vogue, September 9, 2014, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.vogue.com/1342927/booty-in-pop-culture-jennifer-lopez-iggy-azalea/. See also Marisa Meltzer, “For Posterior’s Sake,” New York Times, September 17, 2014, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/fashion/more-women-seeking-curvaceous-posteriors.html.

  2. Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise (New York: Random House, 1978).

  3. Kelly Brown Douglas, Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 157. See also Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies / Christian Souls (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005).

  4. Michael Jackson, “They Don’t Care about Us,” on HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, CD (Sony/Epic, 1995)

  • Eboni Marshall Turman

    Reply

    Response to Monique Moultrie: When the Body Is Free

    I am grateful for Dr. Moultrie’s serious consideration of my work especially given that there are so many critical sites of intersection between her work as a sexual ethicist and mine, most importantly our deep concern for black women’s embodied liberation; liberation that must carefully consider “the pleasure and joys of black female [bodies] without always having to address the terror of black sexual subjugation.” I am most appreciative of Moultrie’s intimate knowledge of the sexual and gender politics of Black churches that leads her to rightly claim that in many Black churches womanist theology and my womanist incarnation ethic in particular will not be welcome. I would probably push further here and argue that my work will not only be unwelcome, but explicitly rejected in order to uphold and continue to make sense of the logics of domination and submission (and the [un]ethical projects of demonization and invisibilization that obviously follow) that are fundamental to so many trinitarian Christian metanarratives.

    Without turning the project into more of a memoir—because as Moultrie indicates, I do have receipts—in chapter 4, “Bodies and Souls: The Moral Problem of ‘Making Men,’” I attempted to uncover my firsthand encounters with gender bias in the Black church by focusing on conversations I had with three black male clergymen who I count as dear colleagues, brothers even, and friends in ministry, who on the Morehouse College spectrum are counted among the best and brightest of its religious and moral leaders. Perhaps this section of the book was not as explicit in its intent as I thought it was without causing personal harm, but my precise intention here was to offer concrete examples of how black women and their realities as a majority minoritized group in the Black Church are “never even thought about”—a direct quote from two of the three conversations that I had concerning black women’s religious leadership in the Black Church. The question remains: how does one never even think about the persons who disproportionately constitute one’s community and yet claim, Sunday after Sunday, that the doors of the church are open to whosoever will? This is the paradox of the Black Church in living color that regularly serves as a weapon against persons who defy the respectability of black male cis/het normativity. In this chapter I also noted my utter perplexity with my millennial colleague, the youngest of my three conversation partners, who skipped right over invisibilizing black women to offer an outright affirmation of the significance of Black men as the leaders of the Black Church over and against black women—an explicit declaration of sorts that Black men matter as opposed to the more exhaustive though more trustworthy reality that #blacklivesmatter. All of them. Womanist incarnation ethics is not a project that emerges ex nihilo; rather it is grounded in what Emilie M. Townes might identify as the “true true,” or as what really happened. There is no doubt that my experiences as a black woman clergy person in a historically black denomination have deeply informed my methodology and analysis. I have engaged to write what I know, not what I heard.

    Moultrie’s comments about the black women’s club movement and black sororities as projects methodologically driven by a compulsion to “make women” stopped me in my tracks as a scribbled “WHOA!” in the margins of her essay. While Moultrie is careful to note some classic critiques of the black women’s club movement, namely, classism and colorism, she is right on target with the parallels that can be made between black women’s social gospel witness against sexual-gender discrimination in the black church, and poses an extremely provocative and helpful question about the redemptive possibilities of dominion theoethics that help me as I turn toward my next project. On the one hand, I completely agree with Moultrie’s abbreviated assessment of the black women’s club movement as a parallel to the black moral project of “making men.” This is worth serious further interrogation. On the other hand, although I have not spent significant time considering the fullness of the proposition my immediate and strong response to the idea of the redemptive prospects of “dominion ideology” is a Sophia-esque “Hell no!” That cannot be the answer even for the most marginalized among us or else we never escape the circuity of subordination which demands the missionary positioning of black women and sexual minorities on bottom, even when and if we think we are on top—which is, in fact, the perfection of submission.

    In my next book that I am currently working on, Black Women’s Burden, I hope to press Moultrie’s questions on conscientization and transformation forward as I attend with precision to what practices of sexual-gender discrimination in the Black Church look like and how black women and those who love them might begin the work of “marshalling” resistance and dismantling unjust afro-ecclesial practices and structures. To this end, I have been thinking deeply about black women’s spiritual paralysis as it is induced by patriarchal church norms. In light of Moultrie’s question, I am left wondering if the project of “making women” propelled by women is actually more about making women in service of men rather than God, which then is its own sort of “stuckness” that ought to be taken seriously. I begin this work in Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation for as much as I engage the black women’s club movement methodologically in the development of womanist incarnation ethics, I depart significantly from it substantively insofar as the project centers the defiant body as redemptive. There is definitely more to be mined here, and I am looking forward to digging deeply in the days ahead.

    A final note on Moultrie’s concern about the apparent absence of Kelly Brown Douglas’s more recent works informing my project. Without any qualification, Kelly Brown Douglas is one of the primary reasons why I am a womanist theological ethicist. Her book Sexuality in the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective was the first womanist theological text I ever read as an undergraduate, and served as the beginning of my quest toward my vocation as a womanist theologian. There is no doubt that the entirety of Brown Douglas’s corpus up until 2010 deeply informed Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation. It just so happens that the timelines on my project and Brown Douglas’s recent Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant (2012) and her most recent Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015) were out of sync. As all of my work has been guided by Brown Douglas’s significant theological and ethical analyses up until this point, I expect that I will continue to find resonance with her contributions that are certain to be reflected and perhaps even critiqued in my subsequent projects.

Reggie Williams

Response

More than a Veil

Any study of Christological hermeneutics should reveal to its students much more than a history of interaction with creeds. Christology has been the legitimating ideology within the noblest as well as the most ignoble institutions, regimes, and social movements in Western world history.1 In her book Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon, Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman examines the black church as one of the institutions shaped by a Christological hermeneutic, while its membership is simultaneously negotiating their self-understanding within the absurdity of white supremacy. As black Christians in a white racist world, the content that makes for self-awareness can mistakenly be understood as primarily coming from the outside, passing through the filtering process of white supremacy before becoming a black possession. That is to say, black self-knowledge is dependent upon a type of captivity to the treatment of black bodies in a white racist world. Understanding black identity in that way, primarily as reaction to white supremacy, tethers blackness to racism, and typically reproduces the ignobility of supremacy and domination within black Christian communities. In response to claims that see a necessary connection of blackness and white supremacy, Rev. Dr. Marshall Turman creatively interacts with the work of womanist ethicist Marcia Y. Riggs and the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451) to describe a multifaceted womanist mediating ethic of incarnation that asserts a “just is” inherent value to all humanity, in addition to the historically discursive interaction between black people and white supremacy.

Dr. Marshall Turman writes, “The church’s understanding of Jesus is what informs its identity and propels its active articulation of that identity in the world.”2 Hence, for the Christian, an interpretation of Christ is of paramount importance since Christian character and moral reasoning, for the individual and the community, are shaped by a Christological hermeneutic. What is interesting about Dr. Marshall Turman’s creative work is that she not only addresses an interpretation of Christ that was reached at the Council of Chalcedon, Christ as two natures in one person; she highlights how the decision was reached. Chalcedon represents a mediating ethic that moves beyond a polarizing “either/or” binary that ultimately crafts a reactionary identity and appeals to the practices of domination. For Dr. Marshall Turman, the mediating ethic of Chalcedon moves us toward an inclusive “both/and” that becomes a creative and constructive practice of knowing self and community. The “both/and” mediating ethic that Dr. Marshall Turman advocates recognizes the intrinsic significance of being-in-itself, or “is-ness,” as equally valuable to an understanding of self as the discursive negotiation of identity that occurs by encounter with external forces that press upon the self demanding performance and response.

A description of the womanist “both/and” mediating ethic begins with Chalcedon. Early arguments about Christ were political dilemmas that divided the church into competing schools of thought. At the council of Chalcedon, two prominent schools of thought were represented: the Antiochian school, which underscored the humanity of Christ and is what Marshall Turman describes as a “kata sarka” or “according to the flesh” depiction of Jesus that described Jesus’ personhood as “subject to the flesh insofar as it is primarily regulated by what happens to his body.” The kata sarka emphasis is contrasted with the Alexandrian school that highlighted the divinity of Christ and stresses an “en sarka” or “in the flesh” emphasis that “privileges the promise of God that is made manifest in the body of Christ and is not subject to the flesh,” (43) which is to say that there is ontological worth, or an essential “is-ness” about Jesus that is not narrated by what happens to him. By asserting that Jesus is both human and divine the Chalcedonian Creed represents a synthesis of the two competing schools of thought within the body of Christ, doing away with the problem of authoritarianism and domination that attends the either/or binary logic.

The logic of Chalcedon becomes a scale to measure the ways in which an understanding of identity for black people is justly balanced between the en sarka acknowledgment of the enfleshed, intrinsic value of all humanity, and the kata sarka attention to historical interaction with racism. In Marshall Turman’s study, we find a commonly repeated problem of neglecting attention to the en sarka value of all human life, and instead reading black identity through a kata sarka emphasis on knowing black identity by what white supremacy does to black bodies. Dr. Marshall Turman masterfully describes the history of racialization that turned Africans into blacks in order to meet the desires of white supremacy:

The Africans becoming black in America served to reinforce race oppression as the decisive imperative that would ensure the social and economic flourishing of white society. This deliberate exercise of racism resolved to naturalize white belonging through the ex-nihilo creation of a bizarre “black image in a white mind.” (2)

The history of changing Africans into blacks, or more historically into “negroes,” in America turns on two racist myth-of-origin theories that were meant to lend scientific credibility to pre-bellum white supremacy. Polygenesis claimed that the races of mankind had evolved, or were created, from different species, while a monogenesis theory imagined a common descent of all humanity from a single ancestry, albeit with white people as the original ideal. The proponent of monogenesis sees non-white humanity as derivations, or deviations from the original, normative white creation. Whichever theory one advocated, both theories advanced the notion that black inferiority was “irrevocable,” and they provided scientific and theological validity for the developing white supremacist imaginary of humanity.3

After the American Civil War, the racial imaginary of black people in America changed. Prior to the Civil War, the narrative of black humanity served white paternalism; black enslavement to white people was the moral, natural condition for blacks who were trustworthy, and capable of leadership under the conditions of white dominance. But after emancipation the narrative of black life was rewritten to describe blacks as dangerous, savage, and violent. (68–70)  The propaganda that served to legitimate white supremacy was adapted in the era of reconstruction; in the absence of lucrative slave labor, and with former slaves demanding a role as contributing members within an American democracy, a white supremacist public was resolute in their efforts to secure the flourishing of a republic for whites only.

E. B Du Bois was equally resolute in his keen analysis and response to white racist propaganda. Du Bois described the peculiarity of life in America for black people in his groundbreaking work The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where he described a veil and double consciousness as hermeneutical keys to understanding black life in racist America. The notion of the veil speaks of an authentic black life and intrinsic value, a soul, partitioned off from a viewing white world. The metaphor invokes the imagery of the “holy of holies” that is partitioned off, separating the most holy place where the arc of the covenant was placed, from the more common holy place. (77) This move to recognize a soul within the veil would indicate the recognition of an en sarka hermeneutic in the work of Du Bois. His description of double consciousness is the result of the veil within the experience of black American life as Marshall Turman explains:

Double-consciousness is an oppressive modality that like nineteenth-century biological, biblical, and moral arguments regarding black humanity, suggests that the black body is what it really is not, that is either American or Negro, or is not what it really is, that is both American and Negro. . . . Du Bois ingeniously asserts black bodies as ground zero for America’s modern crisis of enfleshment.”(80)

For Marshall Turman, Du Bois’s notion of a veil opens to the possibility of demonstrating the mediating ethic that validates the en sarka intrinsic human worth of black life with his articulation of the black soul, but instead, Du Bois represents a problematic privileging of the kata sarka who’s rendering of the soul only emerges as a consequence of the gaze of white supremacy. (83)

Similarly, Benjamin Mays, former president of Morehouse College and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., saw a connection between the way of Jesus and contextual social conditions as the pursuit of perfection in a world of harmful imperfection. Mays was a Social Gospel Christian. But where prominent social gospel voices omitted attention to race, Mays did not; “Mays’s God was concerned about the social consequences of being black in twentieth-century America.” (123) This focus for Mays inspired him to address the imperfection in the world as a kingdom-building effort to build men at Morehouse. Yet with Mays, as with Du Bois, the process of self-understanding is constructed by tipping the Chalcedonian scales towards the kata sarka, and working only with the understanding of black life as life acted upon in the world. That is, making men becomes a response to the imperfection occasioned by racism. Mays’s kata sarka imagination of “making men” “makes black identity dependent on the external, racist ‘first sight’ insofar as the substance of black identity is not only dependent on black maleness, but even more significantly on the kata sarka socialhistorical ramifications of the white gaze.” (130) The irony of the effort to make men is that it empowers some within the black community with the ability to make, which in turn reproduces the problem of the white supremacist dominating imagination. The dominating view disempowers, and reduces those segments of the community not in possession of the “man-making” authority of black masculinity. In the case of “making men,” black women are disempowered and made subject to the reactionary imagination of black male leadership.

Dr. Marshall Turman’s turn toward articulating the womanist mediating ethic speaks to the problem of the kata sarka historically one-sided privileging of what happens to the body. Her interaction with Dr. Marcia Riggs’s work on the African American Women’s Club movement of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century is the most insightful and rewarding of the numerous insights in the book. By holding in tension simultaneously contradictory positions in an inclusive, praxis-driven ethic of liberation, Marshall Turman’s womanist mediating ethic speaks to the problem of an embodiment ethics that problematically retools oppression within the black church. Her mediating ethic holds in tension a teleological perspective and a deontological one; a focus on the end goal of the elevation of black people, and a commitment to doing what is just for those without the advantages that would earn one favor within the community of the oppressed. The oppressed must not only seek to overcome their oppression, but must also “privilege the importance of resisting the fantastic hegemonic compulsion to reinscribe injustice in the lives of others.” (160) his practice of overcoming is multidimensional, and concrete, involving a renunciation of privilege, the practice of inclusion, and an ethic of responsibility that identifies the body of Jesus with the bodies of women within the black church. (170) Only by valuing the bodies of black women do we overcome the errors of white supremacy and gain the ability to see Christ in our midst.


  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 47.

  2. Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 48.

  3. For the student of race, it is interesting to note that the emergence of race as a biological reality happens after chattel slavery became a legal practice in the American colonies, so that the creative practice of white imagining is motivated by forces not connected to empirical realities.

  • Eboni Marshall Turman

    Reply

    Response to Reggie Williams: Beyond the Veil

    With remarkable acuity, my dear friend Reggie Williams taps right into the nuance of my central argument. Though creatively constructive in scope, at its core my project is a scathing critique of the methodological impulses of the progenitors of the black social gospel; a tradition that asks critical questions concerning the racially and, by organic extension, economically dispossessed body and whose impulses have deeply informed the practices and social logics of the contemporary “prophetic” Black Church, which proximally and for the most part is socially concerned with racial and economic justice for persons of African descent. In other words, racial and economic justice discourse is part and parcel of the fabric of the prophetic black church. But what happens when conversations and movements for gender and sexual justice uncompromisingly emerge inclusive of but beyond the veil of race is compelling. The “woman” question and the “gay [sic]” question are the social issues that threaten to fracture the contemporary church in much the same way that the modern problem of race and embodied identity, more generally, have fractured the church since its ancient beginnings—which my book discusses at length. Black church men and white church folks are often eager to talk about race, which is good. The church ought to be talking about race especially given its insidious relationship with the transatlantic slave trade, its historical commitment to the dispossession of black bodies toward the end of ecclesial capitalist acquisition, and its buttressing of anti-black sentiment through the propagation, not so much of the gospel, but of fantastic hegemonic theological lies from the academy and the pulpit. What the womanist understands without question, however, is that oppressions are intersectional. So while the church ought to be talking about race these conversations must always be connected to sexual-gender discourse in order that the church might be positioned to approximate any sort of authentic justice-making ecclesial transformation that, as I argue in my book, attends to every body and not just some of them.

    As noted above, the question that guides my inquiry is compelled by the contradictions or, one might say, the ethical distinctions between black Christian confession and practice. I want to know how a church born in rebellion to body injustice can participate within itself in the reproduction of the sort of body injustice it sought to escape in its emergence? How can an anti-racist church be anti-women and/or homophobic? In other words, how is it that the church can be not-church via its own self-negation—that is, running toward the body injustice that it ran away from or, even more deeply paradoxical, running away from the broken body it confesses?

    In the first half of the book, I work to show how the theology that constitutes the church is bodily determined. In other words, black womanist inquiry asserts that theology is inseparable from the body—“this is my body broken for you”—and thus, what the church believes about God in Christ has serious implications for bodies in church and society, most especially those that have been historically marginalized and systemically distressed. This argument about the theological problem of body / the Body propels the second half of the book that intends to demonstrate how this theological problem is constituted in the Black Church in relationship to black women, particularly.

    My engagement of the sociology and social gospel methodology and pedagogy of W. E. B Du Bois and Benjamin E. Mays, respectively, intends to show how the progenitors of African American philosophical and Black Church traditions, respectively, that exhaustively inform prophetic black Christian belief and practice, boldly dared to name and attend to the problem of the black body but missed something critical in the project of “making men” in response to the “first sight” of white supremacy—that is, that human value is not man-made (kata sarka), it is God-given (en sarki). Or in the words of my grandmother, “The world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.” The mistake of social gospel methodology—or in more pedestrian terms, those who articulate concern for the marginalized body but reproduce body injustice—is the prioritization of the kata sarka which requires human “making” toward the approximation of godliness (as in “let us make men in our image” as if God did not already handle humankind, male and female in the beginning). As Williams rightly identifies, I argue that the movement of black women in the black church counters this normative theological presumption and hierarchy of “madeness,” and instead offers evidence of the logic of the Jesus event insofar as black women’s bodies in the church visibly mediate the en sarki and the kata sarka for the glory forevermore. Thus, as to their ethical identity, I argue that black women and Jesus are the same substance (homoousious), and the Black Church ought to follow her.

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