A conversation between four theologians (two of whom have been my professors) who are important to my doctoral research set my mind on fire this week. I am linking the whole thing here, but if you only have a little time, you can go directly to approximately minute 42, where Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell talks about the ways in which “theology is first done through the arts,” citing storytelling, iconography — even how religious discourse can be an art form (and if you hear Dr. Simmons’ question before this, rest assured that someone addresses the unintentionally ableist language). There is so much to unpack from this statement alone, never mind the entire conversation, which, it’s important to note, is intended for Black preachers primarily, particularly young Black preachers. For me, it is important to sit in the awkward position of this is not for me/ this is for me for a number of reasons; the ones I can easily cite: (Christian) theology did not make sense to me, as an intellectual or spiritual framework until I began to read theology from the margins. It still doesn’t “make sense,” but I have a position from which to approach it, which I did not have before. I do not have to believe that Jesus truly existed as a historical figure who truly died and truly rose from the dead to acknowledge that this story has had some kind of impact on my life, on my moral and social formation. Enough of an impact that I want to spend time talking to people about it.
Dr. Terrell talks about religion/ theology organizing the imagination, and I am excited by possibilities to organize imagination toward “enrichment rather than exclusion,” as she says. This does not mean I want to proselytize or apologize for or justify the structures of institutional religion, but maybe I can still be a person in a room (full of people committed to institutional Christianity) who says, “But wait, what about… ?” This is what the women who took the Black Theology of James H. Cone and formed the framework of Womanist Theology did. I make no attempt to teach this material or tell that entire history here, but maybe I/we can begin to unpack a little of what they were doing. This set of quotations is from a chapter in Dr. Terrell’s groundbreaking book, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience, first published in 1998.
At the end of the day, these questions — what is the significance of this figure, the religion that grew around him, the ways that story and its significance was transmitted to me, how that shaped how I see myself and others — have some bearing on how I move in the world. How I move is shaped, for example, by ideas I might have from religious culture around (self-)sacrifice. Or by where I sit (believe/do not believe) within the text from the Gospel of John for this week, which says: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed…” Even if I disavow this binary (I do), it matters that others move otherwise in the world based on where they sit.
Anyway, I would like to sit a bit with the words of these women, reflecting on how those in the margins persist in finding power in their positioning.
The lectionary for this week.
And a poem that has me thinking about margin-positioning, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Here is just the first stanza…
Who Am I, Without Exile?
by Mahmoud Darwish
translated by Fady Joudah
A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water
binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway
to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing
makes me enter the gospels. Not
a thing … nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb
and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing
makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing
carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing
and not promise. What will I do? What
will I do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?
I am not always sure about reposting entire poems in this space, but you can read the rest of the Darwish poem at the Poetry Foundation.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (today it is JoAnneMarieTerrell); the video conference link is always the same: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021