Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Spring 2023

Page 1


The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary

SPRING 2023 African American Spiritualities
Todd Harris Ray
Pierce • Morgan Palmer
Trube • Aymer


The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary

Spring 2023

Volume 138

Number 2

Editor: William Greenway

Editorial Board: Eric Wall, Melissa Wiginton, and Randal Whittington

The Faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Margaret Aymer

Rodney A. Caruthers II

João Chaves

Gregory L. Cuéllar

Ángel J. Gallardo

William Greenway

Carolyn B. Helsel

Phillip Browning Helsel

José R. Irizarry

David H. Jensen

Dongyhyun Jeong

Bobbi Kaye Jones

Timothy D. Lincoln

Jennifer L. Lord

Song-Mi Suzie Park

Cynthia L. Rigby

Asante U. Todd

Eric Wall

David F. White

Melissa Wiginton

Andrew Zirschky

Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary is published two times each year by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797.


Web site:

Entered as non-profit class bulk mail at Austin, Texas, under Permit No. 2473. POSTMASTER: Address service requested. Send to Insights, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797.

Printing runs are limited. Permission to copy articles from Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary for educational purposes may be given by the editor upon receipt of a written request.

© Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

The past six issues of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary are available on our website: Some previous issues are available on microfilm through University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 (16 mm microfilm, 105 mm microfiche, and article copies are available). Insights is indexed in Religion Index One: Periodicals, Index to Book Reviews in Religion, Religion Indexes: RIO/RIT/IBRR 1975- on CD-ROM, Religious & Theological Abstracts, &, and the ATA Religion Database on CD-ROM, published by the American Theological Library Association, 300 S. Wacker Dr., Suite 2100, Chicago, IL 60606-6701; telephone: 312-454-5100; e-mail:; web site:; ISSN 10560548.

COVER: “Cane River Baptism” by Clementine Hunter; 19 x 237/8", oil on paperboard, circa 1950-1056; used with permission from The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina;



African American Spiritualities

3 African American Spirituality as Creative Response

10 Creative Response as Rejuvenation

An Interview with Asante Todd

16 Questions for Discussion

17 Reflections

African American Spiritualities by Peter

Ecowomanist Spirituality by Melanie

Across the 60° Meridian: Toward a Reorientation of Black Spirituality by Stephen

30 Pastors’ Panel

Denise Pierce, Philip Morgan, and Jioni Palmer


Faculty Books

The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis, by Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park, reviewed by Kevin Ireland

Tending the Fire that Burns at the Center of the World: Beauty and the Art of Christian Formation, by David F. White, reviewed by Bob Trube


Christianity and Culture

Recalling the Call to Love




TheUniversity of California’s African American studies and drama professor

Frank Wilkerson III has contended, in his most recent book Afropessimism, that reading the history of Black America as a linear narrative of ancestral motherland bountifulness, present servitudes (from slavery to police state), and redemptive futures, is not only a reductionistic reading of such history, but a myth intended to prevent any form of constructive imagination. Simplifying the complex experiences of racial and ethnic groups in America for the sake of public consumption and social control had been common practice, and this is the trend that articles like those published in this edition of Insights are encouraging us to redress.

Like Wilkerson, the articles you are about to read challenge the notion of a unified narrative of African American religious experience and reflect the intricacies of trying to paint an instructive picture of Black spiritualities. Austin Seminary’s ethics professor Asante Todd shows how those spiritualities have been fostered, not only within the congregational settings of the Black church, but by creative responses of care, cultivation, and contestation in relation to nature and land. Melanie Harris roots African American ecological spirituality in the intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender, while Stephen Ray reminds us, that stories of African American religious experience are never singular nor fixed and that they may require multiple narrations. Peter Paris underscores the multiple forms of Christianity that have emerged from the mixed influences of diverse African linguistic and religious traditions. Even practitioners Denise Pierce, Philip Morgan, and Jioni Palmer interpret Black spirituality within the church from a multifaceted perspective that reflects the importance of personal conceptions of identity and meaning.

However, unlike Wilkerson, the authors of this volume do not succumb to the pessimist claim that a racist society is without redemption. They believe that steps to overcome the threats of that society can’t be disengaged from theological claims for the necessity of God’s grace. While acknowledging the tough road of endurance toward a more inclusive society, the authors remain open to the possibilities of the inherited faith and embodied spiritualities of Black people to drive the vision for a shared humanity. Only fractured and false spiritualities can engender religious discourse where the humanity of some is systematically denied. As Dean Margaret Aymer challenges us in her essay, we miss the mark if, in trying to eradicate the ills of a racially biased society, “we recreate the very dehumanization at the core of so many evils that surround us.” If some greater lesson is to be learned from the spiritual strength of the African American Christian tradition, it is that at those moments of imposed hardships, when our minds cannot make logical sense of the world, we can still close our eyes and hum quietly as we hold on to life, for “deep in our hearts, we do believe, that we shall overcome someday.”


African American Spirituality as Creative Response With American Nationalism as Case Analysis

Creative response understands spirituality in terms of performance of ordinary acts of justice and care. Spirituality as creative response is found in the work of thinkers like Diane D. Glave, Marla Frederick, Melanie Harris, and Albert J. Raboteau. Practices of creative response share the theme of rejuvenation, where rites of rebirth renew everyday objects and ordinary events. Clementine Hunter’s 1950 painting “Cane River Baptism” is a representation and an aesthetic expression of this mode of African American spirituality.1

In realist fashion, Hunter portrays a busy river baptism scene as inspired by Christian practices among nineteenth-century slaves. A pastor baptizes members of a congregation near a whitewashed church in the rural Louisiana countryside, likely on the Cane River. Glave explains how submersion of baptismal candidates and bringing them up again symbolizes the death of the old self and the birth of a renewed self. “Baptism” is expressionist in addition to being realist, for while the real context is horrific, the beauty portrayed hopes for renaissance and an open future. Hunter portrays baptism against the background of an “agrarian civilization of bottle-green grass, mauve skies … fanlike trees, and russet soil,” and the baptized “rise to the surface of the water against a tableau of trees, cotton, and grass.”2 The painting highlights tensions between realism—that U.S. agrarian civilization was

Asante Todd is associate professor of Christian ethics at Austin Seminary. A graduate of The University of Texas, Austin Seminary, and Vanderbilt University, his general area of research is public theology—the ways in which theological and religious commitments impact public debate, policy, politics, and opinion. He contributed to the book Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump (Orbis Books, 2017).


built upon brutal exploitation—and expressionism—that Blacks’ spirits take joy in creation and ritually celebrate spiritual transition to freedom and justice as proclamation and protest against that reality—and centers transformative human action that rejuvenates and heals.

On the Dialectics of Wilderness Experiences

Practices of creative response like baptism acknowledge our interconnectedness with others and nature. Pragmatic rituals accomplish this at both material and existential levels, blending the sublime with the commonplace.3 For instance, communities might “honor the dead with ceremonial burials while returning nutrients to the soil.”4 African American field laborers often saw rhythms like those of planting and harvesting or being born and dying as ordinary and open to the transcendent. Farmers consecrated and benefitted from the soil, and it was nourishment for body and spirit. Although nature may disclose the transcendent, creative response does not romanticize nature, as Black encounters with the world are often marked by (environmental) racism, sexism, classism, or heterosexism. “Wilderness” depicts this “twoness.” Wilderness is a place of both loneliness and rejuvenation, homelessness and healing, brutality and blessing. Womanist Delores

S. Williams describes this mysterious “wilderness experience”:

Immediately after slavery, then, African Americans apparently had two attitudes toward wilderness. One, deriving from antebellum days, emphasized religious experience and projected positive feelings about the wilderness as sacred space. The other sense of wilderness seemed shaped by new experiences of economic insecurity, social displacement, and the new forms of oppression ex-slaves encountered in a “free” world.5

African American’s experiences of beauty and connection to the earth are not the whole story. Romantics often attempt to recover a “pure” or “originally good” nature, and political realists often see nature as an evil “Wild West frontier” to be tamed. Creative response sees both good and evil in nature. This nuanced view of nature affects our understandings of ecology, self, and community. Humans are not disembodied, disassociated minds or wills. Neither are they in wholly bounded communities. Each is a potential creative responder within a particular context, and we are all ultimately interconnected in a web of mutual interdependence. These interconnections imply links between church and world, public and private, and personal and political spaces.

Freedom, Justice, Homemaking: On the Norms of Creative Response

Creative response commends an ethics of principles and pragmatic outcomes infused with an ethos of care. Creative response remains pragmatic in its stress on the interlinked goods of freedom, justice, and homemaking. These are tripartite concepts—consisting of personal, political, and socio-economic dimensions—and are both positive and negative. Homemaking has multiple meanings, from selfpossession, to land possession, to the restoration of Black families, and includes visions of justice as equality and dignity. The image of “the garden” plays a central

African American Spiritualities

role in visions of freedom and homemaking. This implies that freedom, justice, and homemaking require care and stewardship, shown forth not only in various types of cultivation (e.g., gardens, communities), but also in prophetic confrontation and contestation with various unjust social systems and institutions. Creative response is thus rooted in African American prophetic traditions concerned with social justice, like those represented by venerable figures like David Walker, Frederick Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois, but it is also fundamentally rooted in the experiences of everyday Black folks, in their gratitude for life and its provisions, righteous discontent against unjust social conditions, and in an empathy that leads to care for self and the world.

Response as Care, Cultivation, and Contestation

Creative response orients creative human action around the themes of cultivation, caregiving, and contestation. These connote a creative work or labor along with cycles or patterns of a thing to facilitate its health and growth. African Americans cultivated soil and gardens daily, using simple tools to effectively work with nature’s gifts and humanity’s castoffs. Their horticulture emerged from both the community’s traditional agricultural methods as well as from their own individual interpretations of the tradition as they worked the land. It is within this milieu that we should understand languages of cultivation and co-creation.

Creative response views each person as a co-creator, responding to, giving meaning to, and rejuvenating the world though creative actions. The language of co-creator doesn’t reflect an imperialistic stance toward the world, but one that recognizes the power of cultivation as both a gift of the spirit and a response to pragmatic needs of the interconnected world. The central concern is to facilitate responsible, just, and fruitful interaction with nature. Creative cultivation goes hand in hand with caregiving. Emancipated African American field laborers understood that co-creation required a network of mutual support and roles designed to support familial and work relationships. With this network of caregiving as backdrop to cultivation, they harvested the fruit of creative response, like vegetables for meals and planted shrubs, trees, and flowers for aesthetic pleasure and revenue.

African American spirituality as creative response can also take shape as public contestation for civil liberties, civil rights, or other calls for justice. For example, Marla Frederick’s study of African American women in North Carolina notes how their spirituality transforms public and private institutions. “[M]uch of spirituality’s work takes place at the public level, with women openly contesting unjust laws and practices and creating communities of love and support.”6 This may mean involvement in political, civic, and/or cultural associations and groups or being active in education, community work, economics, or missionary work. Frederick highlights practices that center women’s economic advancement. Their goal is to fight for social justice including things like a living wage or better working conditions. The creative activism of African Americans occurs as Black folk respond to the day-to-day issues in their lives, many of which can only be addressed through some form of public engagement. These activist interventions stand in a long

5 Todd

tradition of social movements in U.S. Black culture that can be considered forms of contestation as well as caregiving. Today, it has become more common for many African American groups to focus on local “quality of life” issues rather than civil rights issues, but the two sets of issues are mutually reinforcing. In these and other ways, African Americans respond creatively to community concerns and spiritual needs.

Stewards of Land and Garden

The emphasis on cultivation, caregiving, and contestation is often conveyed with language of “stewardship” and/or the metaphor of “the garden.” Such language implies that they are in sympathy with the natural environment in which they find themselves. This requires open-mindedness as one learns about environmental conditions. One learns to love “the wind and the rain, the growing things, the birds, and all the rest, the dawn, the early morning order, and to find each part of the day … and each nightfall filled with wonders,” and to recognize contemporary signs of ecological crisis.7

In nineteenth-century agrarian settings, African Americans often cultivated the land with simple tools. As good stewards, they approached nature as colaborers, so their interactions with nature weren’t marked by a sovereign will but understood as a creative response to the rhythms of the natural world. For example, Glave explains that African American women often cultivated gardens in either “mimic” or “row” patterns, both of which were responses to the natural environment and also to African horticultural traditions. In mimic gardening, one arranges things to mimic the seeming disorderliness of nature. Although it seems chaotic, the mimic arrangement creates a diversity that reduces opportunities for weeds and pests to take hold. Row system gardeners value the notion of doing things “properly” or “the right way.” Instead of imitating “disorder,” row gardeners used a uniform design and aesthetic as they labored to arrange and plant gardens. When considering stewardship, the metaphor of “the garden” suggests that creative response acknowledges the many ways to cultivate and care, rooted in different interpretations and creative applications of traditions. It also suggests that justice includes elements of both orderliness and creativity, a choreography between structure and fluidity, and sustained, symbiotic interactions with the world.

Stewardship also implies a view of environmental justice that includes African American citizenship and property ownership alongside an ethics of preservationconservation. Glave notes how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African Americans understood preservation-conservation as the study of nature with the intent to address the ills of industrialization and to beautify their surroundings. Anglo-American preservationists “embraced an aesthetic ideal of nature and promoted restricted access … to maintain or re-create pristine environments.”8 By contrast, nature study in African American culture responded to social ills like poverty, inferior housing, disease, and corporate vice. Black rural southerners were encouraged to stay on farms and to study and teach practical preservation.

Kimberly K. Smith notes that justice in African American environmental thought

African American Spiritualities

implies possession as land ownership, civic membership, political autonomy, and community integrity. “Black theorists had to address who had the right to buy and sell the land and what social and economic conditions were necessary for a group to effectively exercise that right. Owning the land means more than [just] acquiring it.”9 African American spirituality as creative response created a strong association between freedom, stewardship, and responsible land possession. Beyond abolishing slavery, justice means creating the conditions for independent, Black agency and for meaningful relationships in and with the world. This requires ownership and/or possession of arable land.

On American Nationalism

The spirituality as creative response was forged within a wilderness context on the underside of an American society marked primarily by American nationalism. Nationalism is identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of other nations.10 Nations are bodies of people that are in some way united, for example, by language, history, culture, or geography. Nation is rooted in the Latin nasci, suggesting that it can also use birth or descent as the uniting factor. Nationalism may serve as a source of identity, as a mode of social organization, and as a frame for political action.11 America was politically constituted with Enlightenment thought, including natural right and social contract theory, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] endowed by their creator with certain unalienable [natural] rights …”12 America’s prevention of a religious political establishment by providing space for the freedom of religious exercise was exceptional among Presbyterian Scotland, Anglican England, Catholic France, and Lutheran north German states. Although religion was politically disestablished, America’s retained a white Protestant cultural establishment until the mid-twentieth century, and American Christianities and Christian symbolism have often been used for, or seen as overlapping with, state and national purposes, especially languages like covenant, liberty, chosen, and mission.13 Yet nations operate with their own distinct self-interests.

The meaning of American nationalism has changed from the days of Revolution until today. From roughly 1783, just after the Revolutionary War, until 1800, the language of “national” was used to describe Federalists like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, over against Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. From the early nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, nationalism came to mean Progress, especially in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Early to late nineteenth-century progress was defined as westward expansion, industrialization, and urbanization. Progressives of the late nineteenth century redefined it as social, moral, and/or economic reform, domestically, and as imperialism in the Pacific Basin. For much of the twentieth century, nationalism became “creedal” or “civic,” with America taking on the identity of a “Land of Immigrants.” Here, America identified as a place where “all national origins, classes, regions, creeds, and colors” are welcomed and

7 Todd

committed to the principles of liberty and equality for all peoples.14 Beginning in the late 1960s, the meaning shifted again to “American exceptionalism,” denoting America’s specialness due to its being chosen for a political mission to promote liberal democracy throughout the world.15 The U.S. now understands itself as responsible for instituting a new world order, rooted primarily in military power.16 After 9/11, Congress effected the PATRIOT Act, the most dramatic abridgement of civil liberties in the nation’s history, renouncing equality before the law and a government bound by law and instituting, instead, a security state rooted in national will.

Historically, American nationalism has been formed through compromises that exclude African Americans from U.S. citizenship, effectively denying the authority of the Declaration of Independence and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in application to Black populations. Nationalism thus denied the inalienable rights, equal worth, and dignity of African Americans, instead scapegoating Blacks as slaves, as distinct species, or culturally bred criminals. The Three-Fifths Compromise (1789) excluded African Americans from U.S. citizenship. Blacks submitted petitions for equal rights, initiated court challenges, and served in the military as part of the Northern Antislavery Movement. After 1804, slavery was peculiar to the South but still protected by the national government, and national progress was tied to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In the Civil War, nationalism defeated slavery and declared emancipation. Yet, the nation struggled to incorporate African Americans as citizens due to “scientific” racial ideology. This produced the first major U.S. civil rights movement and constitutional Reconstruction, but ultimately resulted in the Compromise of 1877 and the rise of Jim Crow.17 The nation would not again consider African American equality and voting rights until the 1960s. In our post-Civil Rights era, we witness the rise of a Black entrepreneurial elite, and simultaneously, race-based mass incarceration18 and a “stand your ground” culture that justifies war on Black bodies.19 Civil rights activists must ask questions about U.S. society’s entire system of representation, i.e., the established philosophicalscientific system of organization and classification of peoples.

From Idols of Pride to Beloved Community

The current contest for national sovereignty, predicated on a racial logic and reflective of the perennial sin of pride, now jeopardizes habeas corpus and participatory democracy. Religious figures as antique as St. Augustine called pride cupiditas, and late womanist Delores Williams called it “white racial narcissism.” This “national and racial arrogance” degrades black, brown, and “wild” land and elevates white, resulting in “an exaggerated concern with [white] power and control … [pathologically] using … power and authority to persecute others who are not of that [group].”20 Williams denounced the practice of national idolatry, as well as the nation’s understanding of redemption given its requirement of Black surrogacy. “[B]lack women[’s] salvation does not depend upon any form of surrogacy made sacred by [religion] … [T]heir salvation is assured by Jesus’s life of resistance and … the survival strategies … he used to help people survive the death of identity.”21

African American Spiritualities 8

In Williams’s thinking, Jesus’s ministerial vision of abundant life and healing—also represented by the resurrection and the spirit—functions as a primal call that shows us how to live in peaceful, productive, and abundant relationship, and it beckons for creative response. In an international context of transnational terrorism and rising authoritarianism in Russia and China, may God grant us humility to see how our nationalism fosters these same threats domestically, and, as the Reverend Dr. King noted, dishonors the nation’s sacred obligation to protect the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.22 Ultimately, Black and white freedom are bound together, and freedom itself is bound to the spirit of God, shown forth in the sequence of love, justice, then reconciliation. The spirit calls us to baptismal waters, and in the old spiritual, does so under a sign: “God gave de people de rainbow sign…no more water, but fire next time.”


1. Diane Glave, Rooted in the Earth (Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago, 2010), 46–47.

2. Glave, Rooted, 48.

3. Rooted, 44.

4. Rooted, 48.

5. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams (Orbis Book: New York, 1993), 117. Hereafter noted as Sisters.

6. Marla Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (University of California Press: Oakland, 2003), 8, 53.

7. Rooted, 72-73, quoting Mary L. Oberlin.

8. Glave, Rooted, 73.

9. African American Environmental Thought: Foundations by Kimberly K. Smith (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 2007), 35.

10. Oxford Dictionary of Politics

11. See “Religion and Nationalism: four approaches” by Rogers Brubaker, Journal of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Jan. 2012, 2-20. Also see Grounds for Difference by Rogers Brubaker (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2017).

12. Brackets not only mine, but also women and men, cis and trans, white, black, brown, and yellow, and wealthy and working-class persons who have fought over the course of American history to reforge the brackets.

13. See Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835. Also see “Tocqueville and the Problem of Racial Inequality” by Curtis Stokes, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 75, No. 1/2 (Winter - Spring, 1990), 1-15, The University of Chicago Press.

14. See After Nationalism by Samuel Goldman (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2021).

15. The New American Exceptionalism by Donald E. Pease (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2009), 33.

16. Stanley Hoffmann, “American Exceptionalism: The New Version,” in American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, edited by Michael Ignatieff (Princeton University Press: Cambridge, NJ, 2005).

17. Eric Foner, The Second Founding, xxviii.

Continued on page 15

9 Todd

Insights Editor William Greenway Interviews

Asante Todd

“Creative Response as Rejuvenation”

Your dissertation advisor Victor Anderson wrote a book titled Creative Exchange. What is the relation between “creative exchange” and “creative response”?

Anderson has been especially influential for me. Not just Creative Exchange but also Pragmatic Theology and Beyond Ontological Blackness. I was influenced by his argument for the “opacity” of sources in Black theology. What we see with thinkers like James Evans, Dwight Hopkins, and Cheryl Sanders is attention almost exclusively on slave narratives as a source for moral values. But following Anderson, creative response emerges from attention to diverse sources, not just to slave narratives but to other cultural products like songs, art, practices of cultivation, and other ways human beings make themselves and make ways of life. So, my research is very attentive to those. In all these ways I build upon Anderson’s work and teaching.

You begin with Clementine Hunter’s painting of an early nineteenth-century baptism. What about baptismal scenes is so resonant for you? And how does this relate to your discussion of realism and expressionism?

I first found the Hunter’s painting though Diane Glave, who discusses its religious and cultural significance in Rooted in the Earth, and I was really struck and inspired by Glave’s interpretation of the painting. In particular about how it was both expressivist and realist. Let me talk first about the expressivist dimensions of the painting. The painting mimics the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the wilderness. Jesus’s baptism is a sign of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, a sign God is well pleased with Jesus. All these are about renewal and rejuvenation, and this theme of rejuvenation is a key theme that shows up in both these paintings and in African American spirituality as creative response. Hunter emphasizes this theme by effectively recreating the wilderness in her painting. It is crawling with the abundant life of creation, and for Hunter this is an interpretation of the power of spiritual renewal. It is spiritual renewal that not only energizes and rejuvenates one existentially, it also has consequences materially, in the world. This is one of the main points, and this idea of rejuvenation is really compelling and pivotal for me and for spirituality as creative response. This potential for rejuvenation is so

10 Interview

powerful that for Hunter it even leads to the possibilities of the transformation of the wilderness itself. And maybe instantly for African Americans this means the potential to transform oppressive and brutal experiences into something more constructive, positive, life affirming. My hunch is that this is a stratum of African American spirituality that is not separated from the world but is in tension with the world such that although there are brutal realities that we have to confront and deal with, this African American spirituality thinks that can’t be the end of the story. “Expressivist” also means the hope of many African American artists that this rejuvenating energy would have implications not only for African American faith and culture, but for larger U.S. society and even global society. Much of African American spirituality seeks to find ways to contribute rejuvenation and healing not only to black culture, but to other cultures as well, because cultures are interrelated—distinct, yes, but also interrelated. There’s a hope in that. Finally, when I first saw these paintings, I didn’t see all these things. The first thing I see is serenity. Somehow when I look at these paintings a space of serenity, focus, and self-possession arises in the midst of oppressive conditions. That is a fascinating spiritual event: to be critically aware of the brutalities in U.S. society, not to idealize or dream them away, but at the same to also be able to find peace and serenity. Rejuvenation, serenity, hope: that is what these paintings communicate to me.

[T]his idea of rejuvenation is really compelling and pivotal for me and for spirituality as creative response … And maybe instantly for African Americans this means the potential to transform oppressive and brutal experiences into something more constructive, positive, life affirming.

African American Spiritualities

What’s at stake in “African American” or “Black” or “African”?

All these terms are, I think, reflective of African Americans trying to find a sense of identity from a largely marginalized social position. They all reflect what W.E.B. DuBois in the early twentieth century called “double consciousness.” A sense of being American but not fully American, also African. All these reflect this twoness, an attempt to reconcile these without obliterating either. African Americans don’t want to get rid of either part of themselves, and we can’t just simply say there are only two. And I use the term “African American,” but I’m a moving site, so sometimes I may say “Black” based on what I want to emphasize. I would not want to absolutize any single term. In this regard, some people ask if there’s such a thing as a uniform Black identity. Well, the simple answer is, “no.” But it’s complicated. We remain in a large sense caught in a tension every African American has to reconcile. We are definitely in a moment of postmodern blackness, where African Americans are contesting one another about what it means to be black. A paradigmatic example of this is the contrast among civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Hip Hop culture and movements like Black Lives Matter. Black identity is not a monolith. It’s diffuse, broken up. At the same time, all black bodies fall within certain significations produced by Anglo culture. For instance, “stand your ground” culture. It may fall differently on different black bodies, but every black body stands in danger of becoming a victim of “stand your ground" culture. So, no, we are not monolithic, there are real disagreements among African Americans—religious disagreement, class disagreement, gender disagreement, disagreement between civil rights activists and hip-hop culture—but also, transcending all disagreements, we share a discrete, common identity, and sometimes that commonality comes home in profoundly disturbing ways. For instance, the incident with Trayvon Martin showed the vulnerability of black folk.

You emphasize connection to nature, and humans as co-creators and cultivators …

It is may be ironic but doing this research has made me feel I don’t have enough experiences with nature, and I want to be more intentional about that. I have this great memory of being three or four, and my parents had a garden in the front yard. I spent so much time in that garden and loved it so much that my dad gave me a Swahili nickname, “mdudu mtu.” It means “bug man”! Sadly, since then I’ve not been connected to nature. My research has made me wonder to what degree urbanization has removed us from connection with nature. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, African Americans, both during slavery or emancipated, were on the land. But then we have the great African American migration from the South into the North, mainly into urban areas, and we lose that connection with nature. Now, let me say that we have to be careful not to romanticize nature. There are vicious things in nature. And we have to be careful not to construe nature as only good if tamed. Also, whenever we talk about African Americans and nature, we have to avoid “primitivism,” where blacks are portrayed as “more natural” then


other “races,” because this reinscribes the racial division. At the same time, because of a distinctive set of experiences, African American culture and other cultures may be in a position to issue a challenge to mainstream Western culture, a challenge to reconnect with nature. How do we get back to nature, that is a lingering question that’s worth asking.

You speak a good deal about nationalism. Is there hope for nationalism in some form and what is its relation to liberal democracy?

Based on my historical reading, nationalism has failed to include Blacks in a general sense. Well, let me be specific: historically American nationalism always jeopardized African American citizenship and inclusion. Does that mean that all future forms of nationalism will fail? I don’t know, but based upon history I think the answer probably is, “yes, they will fail.” The question of liberal democracy is different, but linked, because modern nationalism came up alongside liberal society. There are principles of liberal democracy which we should keep, like equality and freedom, but we had to add equal protection before the law. So liberal democracies offer benefits, but there are also limits with liberal democracy. For instance, liberal democracy doesn’t have a way to interpret and register diverse ethnic or social groups, so there is denial of marginal and oppressed communities, a tendency to monolithic, nationalistic thinking, which easily lends itself to creation of surveillance states which compromise civil rights in the name of protecting the nation. Is there another way of understanding ourselves as a community? I like the talk of “beloved community” and the “Great World House,” but I would not prescribe what we should become. It is important that all peoples come together as citizens to create new languages. Now, someone may ask about “Black nationalism.” First, in the U.S. context Black nationalism is a defense mechanism, a defensive position many Blacks take in an attempt to stand up under a very oppressive Anglo American culture, which is a global power—African Americans are just underneath the global Leviathan and seeking to put up as many defenses as possible! “Black nationalism” is one of those defenses, even as we are doing this other thing of trying to live constructively in American culture. Having said that, there’s no excuse for not naming also the limits and real problems of Black nationalism, for Black nationalism can reproduce oppressive politics. Finally, when it comes to “nationalism” as a category, even if we as a nation were finally able to fully include African Americans, there would still be questions of gender, sexuality, and environment that the idea of “nation” as a communal imaginary is not well-equipped to address.

Today some Black intellectuals see Martin Luther King Jr. as hopelessly assimilationist. At the same time, popular culture commonly sees Malcolm X as wholly sectarian …

This is the perennial question. How do we reconcile the particularities of African American culture with the need to connect to others. I would place creative response at the intersection of these concerns, but my work leans away from sectarian visions and more toward King, beloved community, and the Great


House. And let me say that King was not some creampuff assimilationist. King called out militarism, classism, and racism. Today, Cornel West makes a similarly broad critique, but in his day only King called out all three, and that took courage and made enemies among diverse groups. So I want to disband the narrative that says King was an assimilationist. Love, yes, but not without justice. I also want to disband the narrative that says X was a rabid Black nationalist. X changed after he traveled to Mecca. He began to sound more like King. In his biography, X says that early in his life a young white woman came to him and asked him what she could do to help, and he said, “Nothing, get out of here.” But after traveling to Mecca, shortly before he was assassinated at the young age of thirty-nine, he says he wishes he could talk to that woman again, because he would have a different response. So by the end of their lives, both King and X were moving to more universalist positions. I think we need to talk about African American empowerment and advancement and liberation, but it can never be that we talk about those vital topics without also talking about the ways we’re related to white culture or Asian cultures and others. I don’t think the solution is to get rid of this thing called “white culture.” Here a spirituality as creative response asks for conversation among communities of difference, talking about particularity and unity.

You ended your essay with a quote from an old spiritual: “God gave de people de rainbow sign … no more water, but fire next time.”

Yes. This is the famous line James Baldwin used for the influential book he wrote near the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s Pentecostal tradition emphasizes the movement of the Spirit, and the “fire” in the hymn is a reference to the Spirit, to “baptism by fire,” “baptism in the Spirit.” For Pentecostals, “living in the Spirit” describes how we can live “in the world but not of it.” But “the fire next time” is also about the theme of divine judgment here, and that is a powerful theme common in African American thought, namely, that final judgment is not human, not the judgment of the Supreme Court. There is another source by which we can call out the evils we see in U.S. society. W.E.B. Du Bois talks of the “ultimate justice of things," and Frederick Douglass talked about the “Supreme Court of Heaven.” The idea that the nation is accountable to both its own standards and to do justice to the poor, that can say something is wrong even if it is done in the name preserving the nation, in the name of “national security.” This idea of a Court of Heaven is not so far from early modern Enlightenment thought. For instance, John Locke, at the very end of his Two Treatises on Government, says the people have a right to revolt if the government does not uphold its duties; that in such cases, people can make an “appeal to heaven,” to a divine standard, that holds no matter what the government declares to be legal. So, the reference to “fire” is a gesture to divine judgment, to judgment about what is wrong that is not dependent upon human customs or nature, but upon a higher standard. Of course, all this resonates when African Americans look at paintings of baptisms!

African American Spiritualities

A final question, is there a thought that you hope would spring immediately to mind when we hear “African American spirituality as creative response”? Yes. The one word I would like people to think when they hear “ spirituality as creative response,” as I stressed right at the beginning of this interview, is “rejuvenation.” I would love for them to think immediately of rejuvenation, because that is what the spirituality as creative response is fundamentally about. This is a new horizon for me, as well, from my research. The practices of baptism, of protest, of gardening, all of these are about rejuvenation—both for the self and for the world. I think rejuvenation is key for a spirituality as creative response, and I think the practices I named are just a start, and can open us up to other forms of rejuvenation. So what I hope for and work for and celebrate as I look at those paintings of baptism is rejuvenation, rejuvenation for African Americans and for all of us as we struggle to move forward theologically and culturally. v

NOTES – Continued from page 9

18. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, NY, 2012) and William J. Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge: MA, 2011).

19. See Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Press: Maryknoll, NY, 2015).

20. Williams, Sisters, 88.

21. Williams, Sisters, 164.

22. See Douglas, Stand.

Insights, The Podcast

To listen to the full interview with Asante Todd about his essay, Creative Response, tune into our new Insights podcast at or wherever you get your podcasts.

15 Interview

Questions for Discussion

1. Professor Asante Todd begins with Clementine Hunter’s painting, “Baptism,” which graces the cover of this issue of Insights. How does the painting fall into the category of “realism”? How does it fall into the category of “expressionism”? How does the tension between the painting’s realism and expressionism empower a spirituality as creative response?

2. What is the “twoness” Delores Williams describes in relation to African Americans’ experience of nature?

3. How does Professor Todd’s image of the garden connection us to nature as “cocreators” and “co-cultivators” and lead us to engage in “prophetic confrontation and contestation”?

4. How is Todd’s understanding of “stewardship” linked to cultivation, caregiving, and contestation?

5.How does the writer’s understanding of “ownership” of land differ from “imperialist” understandings?

6. How has the status of African Americans and Blacks changed in the United States over the course of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries? To what degree has “nationalism” in the United States included or excluded Black Americans?

7. Why might Professor Todd suggest that “nationalism” always tends to be built upon exclusionary dynamics?

8. How might the meaning of “baptism” be especially significant and helpful as our society reckons with a racist, exploitative past and moves toward a more just future?

African American Spiritualities

African American Spiritualities

Weoften hear people say, Though I am not religious I am spiritual. Usually, they mean that though they do not ascribe to any particular form of organized religion, they do believe in a supreme power as the primary source and sustainer of all life. Such a claim is very African. Africans often say that there are no atheists on the continent because God is everywhere. Moreover, Africans have always believed all mortal beings come from God, to whom they are destined to return. Those who make significant contributions to the well-being of their communities are thought to live on as ancestors imbued with enhanced powers to continue blessing all who remember them with praise and adoration.

Spirituality pertains to the integrating and animating center of power and meaning for persons and their communities of identity. Most important, spirituality is always embodied, which means that any discussion of it necessarily includes a community’s history, sociology, literature, and philosophy. The spirituality of African Americans is deeply rooted in their ancestral experience of nearly three centuries of chattel slavery, followed by widespread societal injustices that in many ways continue to the present day. Metaphorically, the spirituality of a people is synonymous with their soul or essence which, for African Americans, is their tenacious spirit to survive.

African peoples understand spirituality to be integral to every dimension of their personal and communal lives and to be deeply rooted in particular cultural and geographic contexts. Though they brought their traditional religious beliefs and practices with them through the Middle Passage, Africans were not able to keep them intact because those beliefs and practices were integrally connected to lost

Peter Paris is The Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary.He also taught at Harvard University, Harvard University Divinity School, Union Theological Seminary, and Trinity Theological College (Ghana). A preeminent black social ethicist, he is the author of Virtues and Values: The African and African American Experience (2004) and other books on the spiritual landscape of Africans and African Americans.


African American Spiritualities

linguistic identities and African contexts. During the long process of adapting to an alien environment of hostility and estrangement, however, they were able to retain a common African ethos that expresses itself in a spirit of communal belonging. Their many original tribal specificities gradually morphed into a generalized racial identity that continues to exude a common spiritual ethos that is manifest today in many theistic and humanist forms.

Clearly, with a firm belief in a supreme power ruling over a vast pantheon of sub-divinities, Africans did not arrive on this continent as a tabula rasa. Although countless numbers of them perished en route, those who survived did so by sharing their meager resources through mutual acts of consolation and comfort. The prohibitive rules against their assembling made it almost impossible to organize collective resistance. Nonetheless, sharing an unambiguous moral and spiritual rejection of their bondage, they expressed their humanity whenever possible in two natural forms of resistance: escape and rebellion. Space does not allow more than mere mention of the various alliances with the British following the American War of Independence that enabled thousands to escape as emigres to eastern Canada or the Caribbean. Nor does space allow for discussion of the Underground Railroad that enabled large numbers to find limited freedom in the northern states and central Canada. Suffice it to say, however, that nobody of African descent ever felt completely safe anywhere on this continent.

The spirituality of enslaved Africans and their descendants was shaped by and helped them to resist and to endure the traumatic experience of slavery and its aftermath. For instance, the capacity of Africans to sing and make music along with their genius for double entendre inspired them to compose songs they called “spirituals” that kept their hopes for freedom alive and saved them from despair. By the middle of the eighteenth century, enslaved Africans had become familiar with the religion of their masters and overseers, which they had at first disdained. They were first introduced to Christianity by such names as Jesus, Mary, and Sarah emblazoned on slave ships. Later, on the plantations, they saw their masters’ families at prayer and sometimes their pastors were allowed to tell them biblical stories and explicate their moral lessons. Gradually they perceived ways to safely express their own concerns through selected Christian forms of thought and practice.

For example, hearing the story of the baby Moses, who was protected by the cunning action of his sister and mother and grew up to become the deliverer of his people from bondage, they quickly discerned its implications for their own condition. With their master’s religion as an instrumental resource, they gradually morphed a biblical ethos into their own worldview by assuming that what God had done for the oppressed Israelites, God would also do for them. Eventually, their genius for music and song enabled them to compose and sing many beloved spirituals of which the following became their most beloved:

“Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt’s Land, Tell Ol’ Pharaoh,


Let my people go.”

Hidden from their slave masters’ eyes, enslaved Africans practiced multiple forms of Christianity with mixed influences from their African past and numerous charismatic leaders. Much of this spiritual resource became visible throughout the Black community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, usually without notice of white people, who assumed Blacks were incapable of creating anything of real value. In due course, marks of their spiritual genius were embodied in the thought and practice of such creative people as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Charles Drew, George Washington Carver, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Ella Baker, Constance Baker Motley, Marion Anderson, James Cone, Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, countless Black clergy, writers, performers, artists, musicians, and many more.

Unlike European immigrants, who by the third and fourth generation invariably lose their respective languages and customs by assimilating into a common North-American culture that some called a “melting pot,” the marks of one’s African descent do not disappear so quickly due to racist laws and customs. For many generations white Americans assumed the diminution of the humanity of African Americans as a basis for their unequal treatment. Thus in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared in the Dred Scott Decision, which denied freedom to a Black man and his family, that “the Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” The classification of Africans as pariahs helped to maintain the system of racial exclusion and oppression long after the Emancipation Act of 1863 and the Reconstruction Amendments of 1865-70.

Had the enslaved Africans been granted full citizenship rights along with a reasonable measure of reparations by 1870, their long bitter memory of oppression might have gradually faded away. Instead, the brief Reconstruction era (186577) was superseded by the “separate but equal” doctrine of Court’s 1896 Plesy v Ferguson decision, which legitimated racial segregation in public accommodation throughout the nation, a practice sanctioned for more than half a century, before it was finally overturned in Brown v Board of Education (1954). In the United States, only citizens protected by the law can enjoy a good life. Alas, such was decidedly not the case for African Americans prior to 1954, and as Michelle Alexander makes clear in The New Jim Crow, it is in profound ways still not the case today. African Americans were finally granted full constitutional rights with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voters Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968. Alas, in large part, public schools and residential housing remain segregated throughout the nation—conditions that guarantee unequal outcomes in all areas of our common life.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, both federal and state laws were used to enhance quality of life for whites while disadvantaging Blacks. For example, after the Second World War, the GI bill provided tens of millions of dollars in education and training for white veterans while denying the vast majority of Black


veterans access to the same benefits. As a result of this legacy of enslavement and legal discrimination, people of African descent continue to score lower than their white counterparts on virtually every socio-economic index.

Though there is much more intermingling of the two races today than a half generation ago, the racial divide remains largely in place due to economic inequality, the vast increase in private schools with minimum racial diversity, the gerrymandering of voting districts, and social policies that inflict environmental damage on predominantly Black residential urban areas. Finally, the so-called “war on drugs” that emerged in the 1980s led to the mass incarceration of millions of young Black men and increasing numbers of Black women in the nation’s inner cities with long-term devastating effects on Black families. Space only permits mention of the events leading up the recent Black Lives Matter movement following the public murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by the white police officer Derek Chauvin.

Throughout their history in North America, African peoples have had to struggle in a hostile world to survive with little hope for a better life. Such conditions often lead humans to despair. While that has often occurred, generally African Americans have overcome the odds due to their tenacious spirit of refusing to cease their struggle for justice or to deny their faith in God, which together constitute the predominant marks of their spirituality. This spirituality is deeply rooted in their common experience of racial oppression, on the one hand, and their struggle to survive by engaging in various forms of resistance on the other. Each form of resistance manifests its own corresponding form of spirituality both for individuals and their respective groups. The following examples are illustrative but not exhaustive: (a) those who strive to integrate fully into the societal mainstream embody the spirituality exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent movement he led; (b) those who strive to love their racial identity and work toward racial solidarity and progress in all aspects of their lives reflect the spirituality of such leaders as Malcolm X, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, James H. Cone’s Black Liberation theology, and womanist theologians such as Jackie Grant, Delores Williams, and Katie Cannon; (c) those who strive to gain widespread acclaim as successful business entrepreneurs reflect the spirituality and leadership styles of such notables as Oprah Winfrey, professional athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, and numerous musical pop stars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z; (d) those who strive to be non-theistic humanists and are wholly dedicated to racial justice reflect the spiritual ethos of people like W.E.B. DuBois as well as such contemporaries as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the religious scholar Anthony B. Pinn; (e) those who strive for separate racial self-development reflect the spirituality of the iconic Booker T. Washington and countless charismatic leaders like T.D. Jakes and Cynthia L. Hale. Suffice it to say that the spiritualities of Black folk can be discerned by observing their habitual practices as they strive to endure, resist, and flourish in this still-too-hostile land. v

African American Spiritualities 20


Ecowomanist Spirituality

Ecowomanist spirituality is a form of African American religion that focuses on the theological, political, and socio-cultural perspectives of women of African descent and their engagement with climate justice. Specifically, it highlights the scientific research, spiritual activism, and religious practices of African and African American women who serve as environmentalists, religious leaders, and policy makers in the climate-justice movement.

Ecowomanist reflections in religion suggest that the way we connect with the earth can open alternative visons of how we might live into more environmentally just ways of being with earth. When we consider an African cosmological vision that honors the interconnection between the divine, natural, and human realms, we are presented with a moral prescription and theological base from which to explore questions about humanity’s responsibility to care for and be connected with the earth in just and ethical ways that honor all creation.

“When and Where I Enter …”

As the granddaughter of Black farmers who worked to build one of the first all-Black farming communities and settlements in the West, my work as an ecowomanist theologian and ethicist is a spiritual practice that roots me in the earth and allows me to honor my ancestors’ hopes, hard work, and dreams. It opens a door for me to explore the religiosity they carried as they migrated west to escape Jim and Jane Crow laws in the South. As I discuss in my book, Ecowomanism, 1 the promise of a life free from the constant terror of racial violence was not the only reason my grandparents joined the great migration and left Mississippi around 1918. They

Melanie Harris is professor of Black Feminist Thought and Womanist Theology at Wake Forest University and School of Divinity. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, Iliff School of Theology, Spelman College, and the Harvard Leadership Program, she received the AddRan Administration Fellowship and GreenFaith Fellowship. Her research and scholarship examines intersections between race, religion, gender, and environmental ethics.


African American Spiritualities

were also drawn by the promise of being able to cultivate land and build healthy and sustaining communities while enjoying the beauty of the earth. The legacy of the blood, sweat, and tears that they poured into the earth in Dearfield, Colorado, is shared by an entire movement of justice keepers who from then to this very day continue to weave together racial justice and environmental justice as they strive to create earth justice.

What religion and what kinds of spiritual practices helped my grandparents’ generation deal with the agony of being separated from the soil of their birth? What spiritual practices empowered their courage to withstand and resist racial attack and white supremacy even as they tried to build a new life of freedom? What theological truths and underpinnings shaped their relationship to the earth and honored the agricultural epistemology they brought from the deep South to the Rocky Mountains? Such questions inform my theological explorations into my own earth story as an ecowomanist.

What about you? Where does your earth story begin? Consider accepting an invitation into the first three steps of the seven-step method of ecowomanism. First, inquire into how you first came into a conscious relationship with the earth. What theological references, stories, or biblical narratives helped guide you in creating a just and sustainable relationship with the earth? To do this work may take courage depending on who you are and the social location you inhabit. Think about it. Who are you in relation to your vision of a just earth?

Second, reflect upon your own social location, including factors such as your race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geographical home, age, and theo-political leaning, and ask, How is my earth story reflective of who I am, who my family and my peoples have been on the planet? Reflecting on your earth story or experience with explicit awareness of your socio-cultural location carries you more fully into ecowomanist analysis.

Finally, build upon these reflections on your social location and your earth story and engage in intersectional analysis by considering how those categories come into play when you experience or witness environmental racism. Ecowomanism is often referred to as race-class-gender analysis, or womanist intersectional analysis, because it is careful to track connections among environmental injustice and the dynamics of racism, classism, and sexism, or heterosexism when engaging issues such as climate change and environmental racism.

Womanism is also always constructive, focusing upon solutions. Rather than simply offering a deconstructive analysis of unsound environmental practices— how deforestation in the Amazon impacts the lives of countless women, children and families, or how lead poisoning affects children and families of color in Flint, Michigan, and Mississippi due to “sanctioned” water pollution—ecowomanism highlights the work of African and African American women. Though they are devalued by many in the environmental movement, they work at the forefront of the environmental sciences in reforestation movements and as activists fighting for access to clean air and water for all.


Why Ecowomanism is Interdisciplinary, Interfaith, and Interreligious

Embodying a spirit of radical inclusion and mirroring the wondrous diversity of life on earth, ecowomanism is not monolithic. Ecowomanism is inherently interdisciplinary, intercultural, and interreligious. The interreligious nature of the approach signals the importance of engaging in inter-religious discourse when considering responses to environmental injustice. As a form of third-wave womanism, ecowomanism honors the Christian orientation of classical womanist theology but expands beyond Christian parameters to include all varieties of religion that are life giving for African and African American women. For the sake of the planet and for the wholeness of all beings on earth, especially as we confront the global realities of climate change, ecowomanism stresses the importance of all religious and spiritual insights that honor the earth as sacred and express ethical responsibility for earth care.

In contrast to intellectual or religious movements which prioritize one religious perspective over all others, ecowomanism honors diverse earth-honoring religions across cultures. Ecowomanism honors diverse religions, landscapes, and symbols; however, it is not sectarian or relativistic, for it fosters interreligious dialogue that invites non-hierarchal and non-hegemonic approaches to climate justice.

Ecowomanist Spirituality as African American Religion

At this vital juncture in the age of the Anthropocene, ecowomanism offers a unique contribution to African American religion. Expanding upon challenges to the larger environmental movement raised by Black liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone in “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?”2 including the challenge Cone offers specifically to African American communities, ecowomanism embraces environmental justice as a central component of the traditional fight for human justice. And ecowomanism also establishes a theoretical framework and practical method for African and African American social-justice advocates to engage the environmental movement. So ecowomanism speaks simultaneously to both the historically white-led environmental movement, which struggled to take race seriously in its analysis, and to Black social-justice activists and religious and civil leaders, who often struggled to take environmental justice seriously.

Significantly, as we have seen, ecowomanism invites thinkers to first acknowledge the importance of their own earth story and eco-memory. “Ecomemory” refers to collective and individual memory of the earth and relationship to and with the earth. While no generalization can be made across the African diaspora, Dr. Kimberly Ruffin insightfully notes that many African American communities have a unique and paradoxical relationship with the earth.3 Due to the foundational nature of the practice of white supremacy, acceptance of white racism as a norm, and the history of the transatlantic slave trade in America and throughout the globe, many African Americans living in the contexts of the Americas today are descendants of enslaved peoples. These enslaved Africans, and in some cases Afro-Indians, were bound to the earth by chattel slavery. According to the white supremacist logic that maintained the shackles of slavery, African peoples were


African American Spiritualities

considered to be sub-human, animal, or property. They were devalued according to a logic of domination which allotted them less value than the plantation soil they were forced to work. This oppressive sense of being bound to the earth, however, is not the only view of how African peoples were or are connected to the earth.

As the story of my grandparents illustrates, African peoples also felt a deep spiritual connection with the earth. This spiritual tie that “binds” does not displace, nor dominate, but rather roots and liberates. Alive to Ruffin’s insight about African Americans paradoxical relationship to the earth, ecowomanism strives to recover a rooted and liberative connection with the earth in the ongoing struggle against those who would displace and dominate. Thereby ecowomanism binds together the struggles for social, racial, and earth justice.

Confession and Repentance: Ecological Reparations and Ecowomanism

Since earth justice is social justice for ecowomanism, it is important to consider both the parallels of beauty that connect peoples of African descent to the earth as well as the parallel way that the earth and African peoples have been oppressed. Womanist theologian Delores S. Williams helps significantly with this work. In her essay, “Sin, Nature and Black Women’s Bodies,” she points out the parallel nature of the oppressions waged against enslaved Africans, especially enslaved African women, who must endure both racist and sexist assault and the oppression of the earth.”4 Here she exposes the logic of domination at work against the freedom of black women and the freedom of the earth by revealing parallels between the logic of white supremacy and the logic of anthropocentricism. Both logics follow a hierarchal model of thinking, placing value on one side of a dualism and reducing the value on the other. In the case of anthropocentricism, humanity is centered and valued over and above the earth and all aspects of nature. In the case of white supremacy, whiteness is considered superior to blackness. Williams also raises a very important point in this essay, describing how Christianity and especially traditional normative (read: white) theology establishes divine sanction of these hierarchies. This understanding is often followed by a theological claim that God ordains and even commissions humans to “dominate” the earth and force the earth into a submissive relationship with all humanity.

The logic of domination that accompanies this Christian theological claim not only cements the hierarchy, it also produces an acceptance of human-centered approaches as normative in all Christian thought. Williams uses womanist intersectional analysis to disrupt such theological claims and pushes us to ask questions about how this kind of hierarchal thinking erases the value of the earth and erases the value of all who are not White males, especially those who are neither White nor male, Black women. Reclaiming Paul Tillich’s concept of “sin,”5 Williams argues that a womanist frame helps correct Christian theology’s acceptance of hierarchal thinking as normative. Instead, it challenges the white supremacist logic lodged within this form of Christian theology and argues that the “sin of defilement” of any black woman or any sin of defilement waged against


the earth should be exposed and resisted.

What must we do to confess and repair our relationship with God, each other, and the earth when such sinful acts are uncovered? Ecowomanism suggests both confession of eco-sin and of social sin are required before making a reparative turn towards creating earth justice. Rather than escaping the ills of society or blaming the violence of white supremacy on previous generations, ecowomanism invites all communities and individuals to ask how we can name past harms and ongoing harms and take reparative steps. To begin, it is vital that we listen to parts of earth most damaged and that we are intentional about listening to stories of ecocide, genocide, and terror as told by communities of color, and that we learn from these narratives of trauma what truly must be repaired. “Only justice can stop a curse,” writes Alice Walker, and when it comes to our shared connection with earth, only earth justice, embodying true justice with one another, with other creatures, with the earth, and with God can heal the beating heart of the planet.6 This work is holy work. This work is sacred work. Are you ready? Yes. Then let us begin. v


1. Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2017).

2. James Cone, "Whose Earth Is It Anyway?" in Earth Habitat edited by Dieter Hessel and Larry Rasmussen (Minneapolis: MN, Fortress Press, 2001), 23-32

3. Kimberly Ruffin, Black On Earth African American EcoLiterary Traditions (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2010)

4. Delores S. Williams, “Sin, Nature and Black Women’s Bodies” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred edited by Carol Adams (New York: Continuum), 24-29.

5. Williams, 24-29.

6. Alice Walker, "Only Justice Can Stop A Curse" in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers 1983), 338-342.

Please support the publication of Insights by making a gift online: or by returning your gift in the enclosed envelope.

Across the 60° Meridian Toward a Reorientation of Black Spirituality

Nearthe middle of the Atlantic Ocean a marker can be set. This demarcation line at 60°W is what I think of as the birth site of African American spirituality. It marks the place where African people of many tribes and places passed into a New World in which geographies and imaginative landscapes reigned, where Black flesh was made profane, and the humanity housed in that flesh, denied. In the hearts and spirits of those trapped below the decks of cursed vessels, deities and ancestors who had once been the protectors of the social order and a source of meaning for their lives, now served only as companions on this journey through Hell. For these people the gods of this new universe (New World?) were neither friend nor source of life. Still, they were the holders of the power of life and death. In the face of such power, the voices heard in their hearts were muted but still witnesses that the God of Life was not defeated.

I begin just here because I want to reorient the narration of African American spiritualities in several ways. Often when the stories—there is never just one—of religious practices of those who landed on these shores from the holds of slave ships are told, the idea of syncretism is hovering in the background. Specifically, the question raised by preeminent historian of African American Christianity, the late Albert Raboteau and others: namely, how did African religious heritage blend with the Christianity of the Americas to make something recognizable as Black religion?1 While this is an apt question to ask given the circumstance in which Africans found themselves here in America, namely, as forced migrants from an alien cultural milieu, it invites a static response which I find problematic. By underestimating the dynamism inherent in the constituents of the term “African American,” we

Stephen Ray is The Crump Visiting Professor and Black Religious Scholars Group Scholar-In-Residence at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Previously he was the president of Chicago Theological Seminary and taught at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The co-writer of Black Church Studies: An Introduction (2007), he was educated at Yale University and Yale Divinity School, where he was named a distinguished alumnus in 2018.


make the error of fixing in place definitions which are inherently malleable. This tendency toward fixation is born of the unending need for racial discourses and the oppressive systems built around them to be simple and definitive. While this remains the reigning paradigm for study of African American Christianity, I want to suggest a better way to understand African American religion and spirituality.

The substance of this essay will be framing the study and explication of African American spiritualities in a way that relies on the idea of narration as opposed to story and that complexifies the ideas of “African” and “American.” I will conclude with a particular account of the dynamism at the heart of African American religion that illumines the unique character of spiritualities which flow from the traditions constituent of it.

In the first instance, I use the word “narration” to infuse the conversation about African American spiritualities with a sense of dynamism. Relying on the definition of narration that describes it as the “action or process of narrating a story,”2 I want to suggest that if narration is reshaped to be understood as the work of many and not just one, there are possibilities for telling a story that is richly textured and resists reductionist tendencies. Given the many and varied ways that complexity has been denied in the discourses shaped around the humanity and practices of African Americans, such recognition is vital.

Before turning to the task of describing African American spiritualities using the paradigm of narration, allow me to problematize two specific reductionisms: “African” and “American.”

As Paul Gilroy notes in his groundbreaking work The Black Atlantic, 3 the entire idea of Africa as a single principle for understanding the many and different peoples and civilizations who have inhabited the continent is sheer folly. Particularly in a post-colonial world in which national demarcations are anything but disclosive of heritage or intentions of the peoples themselves, the impulse to suspect that one can meaningfully reduce this diverse complexity is a function of the racialized imagination, an imagination which relies on reductionist absolutes in its construction of racialized bodies and geographies. Recognition of the preceding is what leads to my observation that no one story, no matter how it may be clothed in Africanicity, is adequate to capture the “African” in African American, thus the need for multiple narrations.

In his book African American Religions, 1500 to 20004, Sylvester Johnson adds further complexity by noticing that the Africans who ended up on these shores were quite literally losers on their own shores. Whether at the hands of rival African empires or the burgeoning European colonial empires, those who found themselves aboard the slave ships had lost the war for their freedom as they boarded those ships and lost recognition of their humanity when they crossed the 60°W meridian. A consequence of this reality is that previous understandings of and connections to their ancestors and to the Divine no longer held the power of shaping a society and their place in it. On these shores, ancestors and the Divine became powerful in new ways, as guarantors of the intersubjective humanity of the wretched of this bitter earth, America. Precisely because the spiritual experience of

27 Ray

intersubjective humanity is made visible through individual witness, accounts of the power and working of the ancestors and the Divine are best pitched in the key of individual lives. Such an interpretive turn further challenges the notion that any one definition or story is adequate.

The turn to the narrations of the many is thus not simply a methodological move to find consensus in the midst of plurality. It is a recognition of religious agency within communities whose need was to construct some meaningful sacred canopy5 affirming their humanity in a society whose sacred cosmos made no place for such a recognition. Put another way, beginning the exploration of African American spiritualities with the actual accounts of how the Spirit is moving in their midst is essential to escape the reductionistic descriptions and stories that are necessary to the maintenance of systems of racial oppression.

Turning now to the “American” part of African American, I bring to memory that discrete forms of the American practice of Christianity were born, in part, as a moralizing discourse to occlude the wickedness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the presence of the system of chattel slavery ubiquitous throughout the nation for the first 200 years of its existence.6 The material condition of Africans as a moral dilemma for the Christian faith was permanently embedded in the practice of Christianity, no matter the confession. Thus, no practice of the faith on these shores was predisposed to recognize the full humanity of African Americans or any claims such recognition might have on society as a whole.

Here it is good to be reminded that the religious practices of all people are shaped by the cultural context within which they take shape and the resources available to them in it. This is particularly the case when a “people” is coalescing into a recognizable community. Much of the early books of the Hebrew Bible are a witness to just this situation.

Finding themselves in the context of American Christianity, the Africans and later African Americans crafted a religious practice using the cultural sensibilities and artifacts available to them. The most immediate being a complex of practice and belief that disparaged and abused the materiality of their humanity. In this instance, resort to the intersubjective space in which their forebears had found refuge on the voyage through Gehenna would create the center of gravity of their faith. Spirituality was not then simply a feature. Various commentators have noted the “spirit-filled” character of African American churches, usually as a means of contrast with “white” performances of the faith. Racial reductionism aside, it is possible to note this thread as having a meaning that is disclosive of something genuine of African American faith and spiritualities.

This “Spiritual” thread emerged from coherent worldviews and sacred canopies which formed the systems through which peoples of Africa structured their lives and found meaning. It weaved through barbaric dislocations and existentially shattering transitions from human beings to chattel. In African contexts, this thread wove the material and social relations between the living, the ancestors, and the Divine, but west of the 60° meridian, stories about it wrought only bitter nostalgia. Even then what remained was the love and wisdom of the ancestors and

African American Spiritualities 28

the living presence of the Divine. The tapestries of life in which they weaved their power created and sustained an intersubjective, spiritual refuge far away from homeland and tribe. This is the font of African American spiritualities, spiritualities made visible through African Americans creatively and diversely narrating their and others’ full humanity. Narrations too big for one story to contain. v


1. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press 2004.


3. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Re-issue edition, 1993

4. Silvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 2015.

5. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

6. The 1619 Project and the part not told.


Pastors’ Panel

We asked pastors and practitioners to reflect on the Black church. Here is what they told us.

Rev. Denise Nance Pierce, Esq. (MATS’11) is associate minister at the Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. She is also a school law attorney and has supported the development of public charter school law and regulation at the state and national levels. She is an Austin Seminary graduate and serves as vice chair of the Seminary's Board of Trustees.

Philip Morgan is director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He has served as a board member and conference director for the Presbyterian Association of Musicians (PAM) and as a worship and music leader for the PC(USA) General Assembly.

Rev. J. Jioni Palmer is the founder and publisher of Thinking Good, a digital media community that helps men be their better selves, and is the men’s minister at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC. A graduate of UCLA and Howard University School of Divinity, Palmer is a former journalist, Congressional staffer, and Obama administration appointee.

What is the meaning for you of “Black spirituality” (or “Black religion”) in America?

Denise Pierce: For me, Black spirituality in America provides consciousness. For folks outside of the Black church, the Black church has been and continues to be a voice for the voiceless. This is critically necessary because Black lives are both formed in the image of God and entitled to equal protection under the law. For folks inside, the Black church for centuries has been the primary institution through which Black lives are affirmed and cherished and celebrated. In this sense, it is often a sweet retreat for the certain finding of acceptance, belonging, empowerment, and unconditional love as declared in the Word of God.

Philip Morgan: As a young Black gay man, Black religion has meant both liberation and harm. Remembering the powerful and life-changing worship practices passed down to me have often renewed my purpose as a church musician at times when I seemed most lost. The deeply held belief that lives of faith are the lives most worth living has sustained me personally. This resolve, too, has come with shedding some of the harmful theology that accompanied that deep-seated faith, particularly around human sexuality. The ideas of Black religion, like Black people in America, are not monolithic. They vary as we continue to struggle to dwell in this land. I


sometimes wish that more people understood this last point: that Black religion is wide, encompassing a rich diversity of understandings, and means so many different things to so many people that any singular definition says more about the one offering the explanation than perhaps what Black religion is on the whole. Spirituality is a personal thing. My own has, of course, been shaped by my race and how I am able to move through my surroundings with others, but ultimately, the walk we take with God is ours alone.

Jioni Palmer: One of the most formative classes I took during seminary at the Howard University School of Divinity was History of the Black Church, taught by Professor Renee Harrison. It reminded me of why I left the church in my late teens and early 20s and returned in my late 30s. It helped me understand why Islam appealed to me so strongly and why in moments of despair, I look to the sky and call on Chineke. It gave me clarity about my call to ministry. Above all, it has taught me fundamental lessons to about who I am as a husband, father, and person of faith, and it will guide the rest of my life.

One lesson it taught is that Black people loving Black people is a radical act of resistance. Our ancestors were supposed to be beasts of burden stripped of any semblance of humanity. Yet they resisted the designs of their captors in many ways, but chiefly by seeing the humanity in themselves and each other. This self-love and love of each other is the basis of strong couples who begeat strong children, make for strong families and strong communities and are the source for their fight for survival, justice, and freedom. That’s the radical power of love.

What does the church particularly contribute to spiritual dimensions or creativity for equality and/or social justice?

Jioni Palmer: I have said, “If religion ain’t revolution then you are just getting high.” What does that mean? It means that the faith of our ancestors was rooted in the transformation of earthly conditions, not just in the afterlife. They did not just pray for their inheritance when the soul went on to glory, but they worked to see that the promise of God was fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven. That’s what I get from Black theology, which grew out of a desire to make sense from a theological perspective of the struggle for survival, justice, and freedom during the modern Civil Rights Movement. Black theology syncretizes the passion of Martin Luther King Jr., the feeling of Malcolm X, and the expressiveness of James Baldwin, and places the experiences of Black people with the gospel of Jesus. Black theology and the Black church have taught me the power of prayer and worship and the power to act.

While there are many mighty and amazing miracles in the Book of Exodus, the two that stand out to me the most are when Moses became woke and killed the Egyptian and when the Hebrew people decided to pray with their feet.

I believe that people of African descent in America are in another Nadir, and I pray I will live through these weary years. I do know that my children and grandchildren will, so I am committed to doing the work to build their tomorrow today

31 Pastors’ Panel

African American Spiritualities

Denise Pierce: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was birthed from the womb of the Black Church. Black clergy led parishioners to apply Christian principles of non-violence, which led ultimately to the adoption of federal, state, and local laws that prohibit overt racial segregation and discrimination. Sixty years later, the Black church continues in this vein. On Wednesday, February 1, 2023, the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (“The BLVD”) in Memphis, Tennessee, hosted the funeral of a 29-year old Black male, Tyre Nichols. Tyre had died from fatal wounds inflicted by Memphis police officers following a bogus traffic stop three weeks earlier. The BLVD, a historically Black church founded in 1921, hosted not only a Christian funeral celebrating Tyre’s transition from earth to eternal glory, but also a political call to action to end police brutality against Black bodies. Tyre’s funeral program featured U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, and clergy from a host of predominately Black denominations. The families of other men and women who have died from police brutality also were present and acknowledged. The overt calls for police reform at Tyre’s funeral again showcased the Black church as a constant societal force contending for the dignity of Black lives in America. This centering of equality and social justice sets the Black church apart, for the glory of God, for betterment of the whole church, and for the betterment of the American society in which it situates its service.

Philip Morgan: One of the greatest contributions Black religion has given movements for equality and social justice has been the musical soundtrack that has accompanied public struggles for equality in our country. The collective songs of these movements have been reframed and repurposed spirituals and gospel songs that have been instrumental in the worshipping lives of African Americans.

How is Black spirituality at work in the art, music, and literature of the church —or in art, music, and literature outside the church? Do you find commonalities or differences?

Denise Pierce: This question recalls a Kendrick Lamar lyric I heard recently while exercising at a local gym. The vibrant rap tune propelling my gym mates and me between reps was “ELEMENT.” by Kendrick Lamar. Lamar is a socially conscious hip hop artist from Compton, California, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his fourth album, DAMN. In “ELEMENT.,”the vibrant rap tune propelling my gym mates and me, Kendrick laments that both of his grandmothers are dead, resulting in no one left to pray for him. Kendrick infers that his life without grandmothers’ prayers is unrestrained and therefore he is willing to physically battle any person or entity that threatens to take him from his new element of hard-earned financial success, all while making it look sexy. The lyrics in “ELEMENT.” led me to carefully consider more songs on the prize-winning album, almost all of which contain explicit spiritual references. For example, Christian references to “immaculate conception,” “Yeshua,” and “Nazareth” stand out in Kendrick’s hit song “DNA.” Also, in “BLOOD.,” Kendrick centers the entire piece on the curse of disobedience


in Deuteronomy 28. Kendrick’s album is not considered Christian music per se, but DAMN. reveals a gifted lyricist striving to articulate how his Christian faith tugs at his sense of identity as a Black male formed in urban America. In that sense, DAMN. centers Black spirituality into mainstream American culture through a hip-hop lens. It’s subtle, but careful listeners to Kendrick’s album, which is now considered an American classic, will be schooled by Kendrick’s own sense of Black spirituality, to wit, his keen sense of God’s presence and God’s intersection with capitalism, structural racism, individual worth, and personal piety.

Jioni Palmer: I cried the first time I learned that at least one-third of the enslaved Africans transported to North America were children. I was shook. Tears welled in my eyes as I thought of my two sons, ages eight and five at the time, as human cargo consigned to a life of brutal servitude. My mind raced to America’s southern border, and the children separated from their families and consigned to cages in warehouses. I thought of the foster care system. I was shook. As a father. Parent. Man. I thought of the look I often see in the eyes of other little boys when I am out with my sons doing what I never did with my father. It reminded me of when I took my sons to The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. My youngest son strenuously resisted descending into the hull of a replica of a slave ship but eventually consented with my gentle encouragement. His steps were hesitant and unsteady. When we arrived in the bowels of the vessel, he froze. My eyes were on him. But when I saw what he saw, we were both horrified and distressed, looking at prepubescent wax figures not much older than he was.

Philip Morgan: For me Black spirituality is the work of art and music. Black spirituality’s influences can be felt on the art and literature of Black Americans. One of the great works of the Harlem Renaissance is The Black Christ, a collection of poems by Countee Cullen with illustrations by Charles Cullen that highlight the divide between faith and injustice in America. Other great writers carry their Black spirituality with them into their work as well. The poetry and prose of Langston Hughes are deeply influenced by his experience in the Black church and James Baldwin was a child preacher before turning his attention to writing.

In particular, the sacred music of Black religion continues to live in what is passed on from generation to generation, allowing the Holy Spirit to carry particular nuances that cannot be captured by traditional Western notions of music theory and notation. The songs of our ancestors also recall the spirits of our Black forebears and the religion they forged in this strange and foreign land many years ago. The singing beckons these spirits to remain with us and offer guidance, wisdom, comfort, and assurance. v

33 Pastors’ Panel

Faculty Books

The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis, by Carolyn

Helsel, Associate Professor in the Blair R. Monie Distinguished Chair in Homiletics, and Song-Mi Suzie Park, Professor of Old Testament, Austin Seminary

Westminster John Knox Press, 2021, 150 pages, $20 (paper). Reviewed by Rev. Kevin Ireland (MDiv’22), pastoral resident, Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

Weall have families—biological, adopted, or mixed, together or estranged, present and passed on. Whether we like it (or even acknowledge it) these ties bind us, forming us into the persons and people we are continually becoming. Perhaps this is why the scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all begin with stories about families. The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis celebrates our first families in all their messiness and discomfort, revealing new relevance for the complexities of families today.

Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park set out three goals for the book: to encourage the reader to “see the relevance and connections between these biblical texts and the struggles of families today”; to “give voice to the characters that do not actually have a voice in Scripture,” reminding us to listen to voices silenced in our families today; and to “help readers deepen their relationships and make more meaningful connections with their families and communities of faith.” In this pursuit the authors encourage the reader to approach these sacred texts

“relationally”—to “believe God speaks to us through these stories, though not necessarily in ways that we assume.”

Reading relationally distinguishes our relationship with the Bible from our relationship to God. The authors remind us that “the Bible is not the same as God. God is not the Bible.” This may be a new and

challenging perspective for some. For many it may be liberating. “Reading the Bible relationally means that we can talk back to some of the texts” as we engage and wrestle with the paradox and ambiguity at the heart of the ancient family stories that connect the Abrahamic traditions. In doing so we wade beyond the shallow shores of childhood Sunday school classes into the wisdom of deeper waters. We find spaces for wonder in the Hebrew poetry of the creation story. We cry out with Hagar in the wilderness, perplexed by God’s justice. And we lament the sibling rivalries of Cain and Abel, of Leah and Rachel. The beauty of the book is the balance of the academic and the everyday, the way it interweaves linguistic and historical insights to Hebrew Scripture with stories of 21st-century families. The approachable prose invites all of us to consider how Hebrew grammar opens the creation narratives and questions our relationship to creation and each other. Subsequent chapters challenge us to change our perspectives on the stories we think we know well. For instance, they invite us to consider Noah’s family as survivors, prompting us to consider how that might inform our own care and recovery from trauma. They invite us to consider how our readings may change if the “bow in the sky” is viewed as a weapon. They reflect upon the ways the story of the three spouses, Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, speak to the concerns of trailing spouses or blended families. They invite us to consider how the sparseness of the Akeda (i.e., the binding of Isaac) makes motivations murky and adds “terror to this text by cutting all the music and noise from the scene,” and they ask us to consider where parents may be asked to “sacrifice” the identities of children for the sake of the church or their belief in God.

The Flawed Family of God turns stories that we think we know inside out


and upside down, creating new spaces, providing new perspectives, and revealing new relevance and insight for our families and congregations. Helsel and Park resist pat answers, instead opening us to new possibilities for interpretation and insight. Each chapter focuses on a family from Genesis, framing the discussion with issues confronting families today and concluding with questions to provoke further theological thought and personal conversation. The accessible style invites the reader into a rich conversation that spills out of Scripture and into one’s own life and relationships. This format is well suited for an adult or intergenerational discussion class or book group, and the hermeneutical and exegetical insights provide fresh ideas for preachers. Whether approaching these ancient stories for the first time or after a lifetime, readers will find new wonder and relevance in the words and lives of The Flawed Family of God.

Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World: Beauty and the Art of Christian Formation, by David F. White, The C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Professor of Christian Education

Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2022, 192 pages, $42 (hardback). Reviewed by Dr. Bob Trube, associate director Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/ USA

Since the Enlightenment, the formation of Christians in their faith has emphasized truth and goodness, reason and praxis, discarding aesthetics. David F. White argues for the recovery of a theologically shaped aesthetic in the church’s effort to form her people. He argues that the consequence of the neglect of beauty has been an excarnate spirituality, divorced from the materiality of being human in God’s good creation. White begins by considering beauty as a phenomenon pervading all existence

from microscopic life to the cosmos. He explores how beauty awakens us to the transcendent, displaces us from the center of existence, draws us into community, and bids us into living worthy lives. From this, he turns to the theological aesthetic of Hans Urs von Balthasar, explaining his aesthetic epistemology and how this leads to our attunement to beauty in creation and the re-enchantment of the world. Ultimately, an aesthetic of beauty finds its focus in Jesus the person of Christ who reveals the beauty of God in human form. White encourages us to focus upon the material form of Christ and to engage in a kind of attuned play with the narratives of Jesus’s life, imagining them and embodying them ourselves. This leads him into the poiesis or “ideas of making” of John Milbank. Milbank begins with the transcendent God who comes as verbum, speech that creates. Since humans are created in the image of God, we are called into participation in this making as a gift. This means, White stresses, that formation cannot remain in our heads. We must get our hands dirty, engaging in a kind of reciprocal gift-giving with others. White next focuses on liturgy as art. Here he draws on the insights of James K.A. Smith and the power of liturgies to form us, whether they be from the church or from the culture, and he considers how aesthetics can enhance the formative power of liturgy, particularly as beauty is understood as the telos of worship. White urges leaders to recover a vision of the beauty inherent in the rhythms and movements of liturgy, to weave artistic expression throughout our liturgies, and to use the eucharistic meal to focus on the beauty manifest in the form of Christ. We live in a world that alternates between beauty and terror. In response to this hard reality, White advocates for the role art can play facilitating movement from lament to hope. A theological aesthetic, he says, looks for the

Faculty Books

Faculty Books

beauty of people amidst brokenness and glimpses healing amid suffering. White concludes with the image of a church of people formed by beauty as a flash mob interrupting the stale banality of modern life with sounds and sights of exquisite beauty, reminding people of the other, better world for which they deeply long.

I believe White persuasively makes the case for an important claim in this book: that the church vitally needs to recover a theologically grounded aesthetic. He helps us to understand that this is more than just embracing the arts. It is understanding the role of beauty—

especially in relation to our focus on both the materiality of creation and of Jesus Christ—in forming us as knowing makers, participating in God’s poiesis in the world. White takes a deep dive in attempting to summarize the dense writings of von Balthasar, Milbank, and Smith, but he communicates their ideas clearly and ably weaves them together into his own vision of a theological aesthetic. Like White, I’ve been captivated by flash mob videos, and, like him, I long for that the church to incarnate a theological aesthetic so that it might captivate the world in this way. v


in the fall issue: Honoring retired
Professor David F. White
“Substantiality of the Spirit”

Christianity & Culture

Recalling the Call to Love1

As the parent of a nine-year-old child, I have spent many nights before bed reading children’s literature aloud to my son. In our imaginations we have, with J.R.R. Tolkien as our guide, traveled with Bilbo to see Smaug the dragon and with Frodo to fight Sauron. Alongside Tristan Strong, we have punched King Cotton and the gods of racism, guided by the words of Kwame Mbalia. And most recently, we have conquered Lord Voldemort, the villain of J.K. Rowling’s septology about a boy named Harry. In many of our literary adventures, I have been continually struck by how flat, how one-sided, how separated from any hope of salvation or redemption most of the villains in children’s books are. Video games are, if anything, worse. The world of the screen is separated into them and us, bad and good, shooter or target.

If we are not careful, our Holy Scriptures can lead us down a similar, inflexible, and unforgiving path. As we read the Exodus narrative, it is tempting to flatten the Egyptians and their leader as wholly evil, wholly unredeemable, expendable so long as we—imagining ourselves as Israelites—attain our liberation. We ignore the impending danger to the “Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites,

Margaret Aymer is academic dean and The First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, D. Thomason Professor of New Testament Studies at Austin Seminary. Aymer has published four books including James: Diaspora Rhetorics of a Friend of God, and she was editor of Horizons in Biblical Theology for several years. Most recently she was editor for the book of James in the latest revision of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV-ue) of the Bible.


the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod. 3:8), the people already living in the land to which Jacob’s children will go. After all, they are enemies, and we know the rules. It’s them or us, bad or good, shooter or target.

Likewise when we read psalms that celebrated God’s liberating actions for Jacob’s children, God’s acts of deliverance from oppression and deliverance through the sea. Here, too, we can fall prey to our childhood tendencies to reading this act of divine grace as the only needed liberation in this story, ignoring the liberation needed for those who didn’t follow Moses through the sea: for the families mourning the losses of their children back in Egypt, for the families about to lose their lands and children in Canaan. Our scriptures—often composed for and to a people in exile who needed to hear of God’s liberation—can tempt us, if we are not careful, to see God’s grace and liberation as apportioned only for a few, only for those whom God loves and chooses, as God’s arbitrary consideration for one family above all other families on earth.

Certainly, the narrative underscores that the descendants of Zilpah and Bilhah, of Rachel and Leah were truly oppressed. The Egyptian nobility, at least, acted in horrific ways toward them and presumably others whom they enslaved. For the Israelites in bondage, “enemy” was a true and honest depiction of the Egyptians’s position with regards to Miriam, Moses, and their kin. Moreover, the Canaanites also acted as enemies. They did not welcome the refugees to their lands in peace. Open war, open hostilities rained down not only from the Israelites but also from the Canaanites. But in the end, in the end we are expected to take sides, to see the enemy clearly, to identify with unerring specificity who is them and who is us.

In Luke 6: 27–36, Jesus challenges us to reconsider. The gospel does not deny that some people truly are our enemies, truly want to oppress us, to imprison us, to hurt us, perhaps even to kill us—as indeed Jesus himself experienced. We are not called to deny the true and demonstrable presence of enemies in this world awaiting redemption. Nor are we called to change our enemies. God alone can do that. But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus does call forth a change in ourselves, a change in orientation that empowers us while refusing to dehumanize those who set themselves against us as enemies.

Jesus’s commands can be separated into two sections. The first are the corporate commands. At this point in Luke, Jesus has just called the twelve apostles. Then he comes to a level place and is surrounded by a great crowd curious to hear him. Jesus teaches them about God’s favor for the poor, and the woes coming to us who are wealthy (Luke 6: 20–25). And you can almost hear the crowd dividing itself into good and evil, blessed poor and accursed rich, friend and enemy, when Jesus turns to them and says:

Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you … Do to others as you would have them do to you … love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:27–28, 31, 35, NRSVue).

In his 1958 essay, “An Experiment in Love,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Christianity and Culture

wrestles with this teaching in Luke’s gospel. King muses that this kind of love is “a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” This kind of love, which Dr. King called agape, does not divide people into “worthy and unworthy.” Rather, this is a love that springs from the other person’s need, need perhaps not only for the means of daily survival, but perhaps even more need to be seen as human, acknowledged as human, treated as human. “Agape,” insists Dr. King, “is love seeking to preserve and create community.” It is “a willingness to go to any length to restore community.” Agape recognizes “that all life is interrelated,” that all of us are kin and interdependent. As such, it does not, indeed, it cannot make a “distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.”2

But what does such love look like concretely? Jesus proposes three examples: turning the other cheek if struck; relinquishing one’s inner tunic if one is sued for the outer cloak; giving to those who beg and not demanding recompense from those who take from you.3 These examples reflect Jesus’s cultural context. In the first century, an enslaved person or a poor person could expect a master, an employer, or simply a random person of superior rank to dismiss them with a slap across the face—and that without consequence. An impoverished person deeply in debt could be brought to court and sued literally for the cloak he wore over his undergarment. Beggars were ubiquitous, and theft was not uncommon.

In turn, Jesus’s examples inspired King and his colleagues to launch a movement of nonviolent resistance against segregation in the south, and later a poor people’s campaign. These mid-20th-century movements of civil disobedience refused to obey the laws of segregated society; simultaneously, they refused to dehumanize segregationists. King led a movement that claimed these rights and full humanity of all people, African Americans and those who resisted them. He insisted that at the heart of his movement lay the principle of loving one’s enemy.

Jesus’s command to love our enemies continues for us today, we who continue to follow his teachings well into this socially, economically, racially, and now digitally polarized 21st century. We are still called to claim the fundamental human worth, the imago Dei, of all human beings, including our enemies. Love still requires us to acknowledge our interdependence with all of creation for our mutual survival and flourishing, including our enemies. Whether or not we like or even choose to acknowledge it, all of us are kin, including our enemies. God’s love, by which we are formed, still directs itself at everyone without distinction, including our enemies.

Thus, the challenge persists: what does it mean for us to love our enemy today? How can we act in loving ways toward those who treat us as an enemy? How can we honor their fundamental human worth, acknowledge our interdependence with them, name them as kin? What might it mean in our call-out culture to resist the trend and instead call our enemies in, back to themselves, back to the fullness of the human family? How can we struggle for liberation for all people so that all may be truly free?

Here is one example, drawn from the nightly literary adventures of my son and me this year, an example from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 4 For in reading this last of her septology, I found astonishing how J.K. Rowling, unlike other

39 Aymer

Christianity and Culture

children’s authors, refuses to dehumanize even her most evil characters. Her narration of the final battle between Harry Potter and the villain who calls himself Lord Voldemort takes place in the great hall of the wizarding boarding school Hogwarts. For both, Hogwarts was their first true home. Orphaned as infants, raised in hostile environments by people suspicious of magic, both characters had found in Hogwarts a new beginning, a family. But while the one came fully into his humanity, the other intentionally stripped it away until even his own name was occluded. The latter, Lord Voldemort, had created himself into an ultimate enemy, a nightmare of his own devising.

Now they faced each other in the final battle between “good and evil,” a standard trope in middle-grade literature. However, before that last great spell was cast, Harry Potter addresses the man who would be his enemy. And here I was caught short. For he addresses him not as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” a dehumanizing moniker, and not as Lord Voldemort, a construction of evil, violence, and oppression. Harry Potter turns to face the man who has tried to kill him repeatedly over fifteen years and calls him by his name: Tom. Just Tom.

This one simple act was an invitation and even, I would suggest, an act of creative love of one’s enemy. The one who would be enemy was neither allowed his unjustly held power nor stripped of his humanity. He was offered the opportunity to reclaim humanity, to re-enter into right relationship with the world, to become, once more, the child of God we all are from our birth. This same invitation was offered by Dr. King and many others to segregationists at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, at the March on Washington, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and in Memphis, Tennessee. Even as he fought to dismantle a world constructed upon his own dehumanization, King led in a way that refused to dehumanize others.

Dr. King’s example should continue to inform us. For even as we work for economic reparations, for global peace and justice, for dismantling unjust structures— all of which were concerns of this great theologian—we miss the mark if in so doing we recreate the very dehumanization at the core of so many of the evils that surround us. And so, once more, we are left haunted and challenged and convicted by Jesus’s teaching: Love your enemies. For, as Jesus reminds us, this is the work of the children of God. v


1. The following essay originated as a sermon, preached at St. James Episcopal Church, Austin, on Sunday, January 15, 2023. The lections for that morning (Exod. 3:7–12; Psalm 77:11–20; Luke 6: 27–36) were the appointed readings for the Feast Day of Martin Luther King Jr., a date normally commemorated on April 4 in the Episcopal church.

2. James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 19.

3. These are marked as examples by a change from plural commands (to you all) in 6:27–28 to singular commands (you) in 6:29–30. Jesus returns to corporate speech in 6:31 ff.

4. I acknowledge and reject J.K. Rowling’s anti-transgender statements.


José R. Irizarry, President

Board of Trustees

Keatan A. King, Chair

James C. Allison

Lee Ardell

Janice L. Bryant (MDiv’01, DMin’11)

Kelley Cooper Cameron

Gregory Lee Cuéllar

Thomas Christian Currie

James A. DeMent (MDiv’17)

Jill Duffield (DMin’13)

Britta Martin Dukes (MDiv’05)

Peg Fall-Corbitt (CIM’20)

Jackson Farrow Jr.

Beth Blanton Flowers, M.D.

G. Archer Frierson II

Jesús Juan González (MDiv’92)

Cyril Hollingsworth (CIM’16)

Ora Houston

Shawn Kang

John A. Kenney (CIM’20)

Steve LeBlanc

Sue B. McCoy

Matthew Miller (MDiv’03)

W. David Pardue

Lisa Juica Perkins (MDiv’11)

Denice Nance Pierce (MATS’11)

Mark B. Ramsey

Stephen J. Rhoades

Sharon Risher (MDiv’07)

Conrad M. Rocha

John L. Van Osdall

Michael Waschevski (DMin’03)

Sallie Sampsell Watson (MDiv’87)

Elizabeth C. Williams

Michael G. Wright

Trustees Emeriti

Cassandra C. Carr, Bruce G. Herlin, Lyndon L. Olson, B.W. Payne, Max Sherman, Anne Vickery Stevenson

AUSTIN SEMINARY PR E SB Y TE R I A N TH E O L O G I CAL A U S T I N P R E S B Y T E R I A N T H E O L O G I C A L S E M I N A R Y Non-Profit Org. U.S. Postage PAID Austin, Texas Permit No. 2473 100 East 27th Street Austin, TX 78705-5797 Spring 2023