[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.
What are some ways that you see black women working toward a resurrection of the church?
Black women in many ways are flooding institutions of theological education. So, now more than ever, we are seeing black women engaging to be theologically prepared to lead religious communities. More black women are asserting a call to ministry and are actively working toward ordination in their respective denominations. Women are boldly approaching black churches with their skill sets as trained theologians and pastors and seeking ministerial placements more than ever before. And lay women are now becoming more open to being pastored by a woman. Even though the struggle continues, now little girls and little boys have models of women as pastoral leaders. So 30 years from now, 35 years from now, it won’t be so odd for a little girl to say “I want to be a pastor” when she’s 7. That all allows for a change in culture, a more affirming culture for women in black churches, even though it takes some time.
What is the role of Scripture in the renewal or resurrection of the church?
Black church tradition is by and large a Bible-believing tradition. We emerge from an oral tradition where Scripture continues to be memorized. There’s a great love for the ability to recite, to remember, and to hold close to the heart the word of God. And so we will have to produce Bible scholars who are looking very deeply at how we understand what the word of God is saying in the 21st century, how the Spirit continues to speak to us through the Word. Also, preachers must read their work and proclaim it in ways that are life-affirming to our communities. For as much as Scripture has been beloved of the tradition, Scripture has always been deeply contested by the black church because it has been historically interpreted in ways that have denigrated black people and situated them as dishonorable, bestial, and ungodly. And yet historically the black church has interpreted Scripture in ways that have been life-affirming to persons who have been marginalized. And so we have to re-enter into that space of understanding and interpreting Scripture on the side of the oppressed.
What role can the seminary have in the renewing or resurrecting the church?
I think, in order for the seminary to remain a relevant and life-giving bridge for the parish, that the seminary must deeply consider and intentionally engage how we negotiate difference on multiple levels. This means the seminary must engage the classical disciplines in ways that prepare pastors and those who seek to serve and lead in religious spaces to confront and to transform the -isms that haunt us.
In other words, we can’t do Bible the same way. We need to do Bible, but we need to be able to allow the Bible to speak to who we are today. Yes, we need the classical and traditional, but we need to be thinking in ways that prepare pastors to do theology in spaces of multiplicity. Because the 21st century is a time that requires us to live together, and we’re all different; how do we do that in a way that is pleasing to God?
What do you hope to bring to the Office of Black Church Studies?
What I hope to bring to the office is a fresh vision and a fresh word and voice about who the black church is and who we are called to be. I think that I bring a very precise lens to the work, to understanding what the church needs in the leaders of today. I think because of some of my more provocative perspectives on the direction of contemporary black churches, I see the office almost standing as a mouthpiece for black churches in the academy.
I know that Duke Divinity School has one of the youngest student populations among seminaries and divinity schools, and I want to help young people, to affirm in them what God has placed in them and let them know it’s OK to be young and to be called and to desire “to serve God in the days of your youth.” I want to be a sounding board for issues and concerns that are critical for a new generation of believers, of black believers specifically -- like HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and class. I want to delve into issues of race and mixed race and gender. I want to allow the black church and persons who love the black church space to think creatively and progressively about those things.