Eboni Marshall Turman on Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation

Publication Year: 2013


Angela SimsWhat was your inspiration for this project?

Eboni Marshall Turman: Jesus, black women, and the dance – the processually insensible trinity of my personhood. People often suggest the inconsistency of these three elements, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

This is justice work. As the 21st century Black Lives Matter movement, the movement for sexual-gender justice in church and society, and the trump politics of racism and xenophobia that specifically impact our “immigrant” siblings suggest, bodies that defy normativity as established by the arbiters of power (white bodies, male bodies, cisgendered bodies, heterosexual bodies in public, and economically unhindered bodies), are still caricatured by so-called Christians, nonetheless, as problems. My work names this body injustice as a moral dilemma rooted in Trinitarian and liberal theological imagination that has been bastardized by white supremacy and its concomitant logics. It begs the question of how the church ought to begin the work of dismantling this peculiar brand of evil. In the words of Ella Baker, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

In light of unfolding scenes of violence, across the globe in general and the U.S. in particular, what steps might “churches,” activists and other persons committed to acts of justice to adapt a womanist embodied choreographic methodology as a viable resource to address systemic sin?

Womanist theoethical choreographic methodology implies that the body is central to Christian practice in rebellion against the high valuation of linguistic exercises as evidence of the “presence of God in Christ,” or even the work of the Spirit – which pushes beyond the incarnational logic that I have proposed in Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, toward a distinctive womanist pneumatology that identifies the work of the Holy Spirit as inseparable from embodied practice. Incarnationally, womanist choreographic methodology insists that the church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ – which is what the church is good at, right? Sunday morning par excellence – is severely compromised when it fails to, as Christian ethicist Marcia Y. Riggs has so brilliantly asserted, “renounce the privilege of difference,” and thus allows for the invisibilization and demonization of intracommunal social distinctions that are seemingly opposed. The message for churches and others who are committed to justice-making is quite simple – “practice what you preach” in order to approximate continuity between the two, practice and proclamation. If we preach Jesus, then an interrogation of that Jesus is warranted to ensure that he corresponds with Jesus as gospeled, and is not compromised by human sin. Steps that emerge from my work as viable resources for addressing systemic sin include, but are not limited to, regular assessment of “what we believe” that prepares communities for the more challenging work of evaluating the (mis)alignment of “what we believe” and what we do as it relates to ecclesial practices of race, gender, class, and sexual oppressions. This reflective work concerned with body injustice in the church serves as the warm-up for the constructive and prophetic tasks that follow.

As you continue to develop and apply your four-part contextualized approach as a framework to evaluate and analyze cultural particularities, what do you hope to learn from “unchurched black women”?

This is such a critical question and points well to my reflections in the final chapter of the book. My methodology and primary arguments concerning the body as problem and Christ’s problematic body as a revaluative lens largely emerge from my engagement with what I have identified as “unchurched black women,” that is, women who will dance before they pray or, better yet, whose dance is their prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. Although many of my colleagues in the arts have vibrant faith commitments and religious obligations few of them would self-identify as “black churchwomen,” even though they may have been raised in the church and may continue to attend regularly or on occasion. It was my intention to initiate a theoethical conversation that emerges from the embodied practice of black women, in and outside of the church, whose bodies bear witness, albeit distinctly, to the redemptive possibilities of the Christ event for black women. To imagine a Christology that is born as much outside of the church, in a dance studio no less, as it is inside of the church, is a radical move that leaves room for the new black ecclesiologies developing in the streets of this Black Lives Matter moment. In a sense, it is the enfleshing of Jesus as that paradoxical exclusive inclusivity.

What is one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?

Question: What does your theoethical employment of the Pauline en sarki/kata sarka distinction mean for black women as the imago dei?

Answer: “We are all made in the image of God” is the default “church” response to why we ought to resist bias. Of course, this is affirmed scripturally. The problem is that although the Bible claims that humanity is made in the “image of God,” the flesh and blood realities of black women, and other minoritized communities in the US, tell a different story about the incongruity of the theological claim and Christian practices. In fact, black women have been imaged and/or imagined as everything but godly – as dishonorable, bestial, rape-able. How can I be made to believe something that my body knows to be untrue, unfaithful? My privileging of the Pauline distinction allows room for moving beyond the image/s that demonize black women as the opposition of God. It radically asserts the ethical substance of God in Christ at work in the bodies of black women (en sarki) that is prior to and independent of the image of black women constructed by the gaze of white patriarchal hegemony that is too often performed in Black churches. It rejects the disingenuous positioning of the imago dei as meaningful for black women and asserts the significance of the en sarki dei, that is, the ethical substance of God in Christ in the flesh of black women. In accordance with the christological import of the new covenant, womanist theological ethics that is resourced by choreographic methodology maintains that the flesh – in the words of Baby Suggs, holy, “flesh that weeps, flesh that dances” – is always of greater significance than the image.

Eboni Marshall Turman

About Eboni Marshall Turman

Eboni Marshall Turman is Assistant Research Professor of Theological Ethics, Black Church Studies, and African & African American Studies, and director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke University Divinity School. A leading voice in our most pressing national discussions of religion, race, and gender, her research interests include womanist liberation theology and ethics, Christian dogmatics, and African American religious traditions. A trailblazer in the church and academy, she is the youngest woman to be licensed and ordained by the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York, and the second and youngest woman to preside over the ordinances in Abyssinian’s two-century history.

Angela Sims

About Angela Sims

Angela D. Sims, Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies and Academic Programs at Saint Paul School of Theology, is the author of Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror, co-editor with Katie Geneva Cannon and Emilie M. Townes of Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, and lead author of Religio-Political Narratives in the United States: From Martin Luther King, Jr. through Jeremiah Wright. Principal investigator for an oral history project, “Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice,” her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Womanist Scholars Program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Louisville Institute, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University.

Angela Sims

Angela Sims

Angela D. Sims, Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies and Academic Programs at Saint Paul School of Theology, is the author of Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror, co-editor with Katie Geneva Cannon and Emilie M. Townes of Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, and lead author of Religio-Political Narratives in the United States: From Martin Luther King, Jr. through Jeremiah Wright. Principal investigator for an oral history project, “Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice,” her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Womanist Scholars Program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Louisville Institute, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University.

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