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Resurrection Power and the Black Church

An interview with Eboni Marshall Turman, director of the Office of Black Church Studies and assistant research professor of Black Church Studies

[Ed. Note: Marshall Turman's book, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2013.]

How did you experience your call to ministry?
I had always known that there was something special calling out to me in my life, but I don’t think I ever articulated in my childhood that I felt a call to ministry. I didn’t have any real models of women in ministry that would make sense of my desire to articulate a call. For the most part, everyone was male. It didn’t necessarily make sense for me to think that I could be in that kind of space. When I got to college, my first theology teacher was an African-American woman, the Rev. Dr. Joy Bostic. Also at that point, I had started attending Abyssinian Baptist Church, and soon thereafter, the first woman ever joined the ministerial staff full-time. And so I had gone from seeing a black woman in the classroom engaging in theological reflection to seeing how that translated to a black woman engaging in ministry on the ground. And I said: “This makes sense to me. This is what God has been saying to me.”

You’ve written extensively about how black women in the church are subject to hierarchies of race and gender. What are some ways this manifests itself?
In black churches, sexism and discrimination against black women emerge in misogynistic preaching, specifically preaching that women should be silent, that man is the head, that women are the helpmeets, that women are second-class citizens within the context of the church. You also have patriarchal practices where women are not allowed to preach, are not affirmed as suitable for the pastorate, are even not allowed to preside as laypersons over certain kinds of ministries, or are excluded from the diaconate. Women are silenced by all-male boards or internal structures, so that although the pews are filled with 90 to 95 percent women, they have no real voice in terms of managing the leadership of the church.

We also find black women experiencing patriarchy in black churches by way of what I’ve called labor exploitation. Women are running the Sunday schools, they’re running the Christian education, they’re singing in the choir, they’re caring for the male pastors, they’re writing the curriculums, they’re in the kitchens, they’re running the children’s programsÑdoing everything for free. So they’re volunteers, and then you have black men who are being compensated most of the time and showing up to preach on Sunday, spurred on by the cathartic responses of black women and black women’s suffering.

You also have the containment of black women’s bodies. The black woman’s body is often interpreted as inherently deviant or broken. And we see that acted out in black church practices that call black women to cover up in ways that will hide or contain this deviance. In the black church, we are subject as women to an ethics of appearance that is rooted in this mythology of black women’s embodied deviance.

What does “renewal of the church” mean to you? Would you apply any distinction or clarification when describing renewal of the black church?
It’s a very interesting question for the black church tradition, this idea of renewal, because the black church emerged at the interstices of abolition and enslavement. And so it was born out of deeply racialized violence and hatred against black personhood. So how is that “renewed”? I’m not so sure if that’s the right word. I think what’s probably more appropriate for the black church tradition as I see it is the idea of resurrecting the church, which for me points not to just a dusting off, cleaning up, or a polishing of the original object, but it suggests to me a newness.

What I would like for the black church of the 21st century to embrace is this sense of resurrection, that the body has to be raised anew. I think that is a deeper call than dusting off what’s already there and making it shiny again, because the fact of the matter is that it is already deeply marred. And in order for the church to be the church God has called us to be, we need resurrection power.